The San Jose Mercury recently published an article about potential child sexual abuse (CSA) at the Lescher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, California. The concept of CSA is disturbing in and of itself, but what is most upsetting about this story is the complete confusion of key personnel on how to respond to a history of alleged incidents and report them to the appropriate authorities. From the article:
- The community services director “told (a Walnut Creek police sergeant) he was completely unaware of any mandated reporting laws and how they would apply to employees in the (arts) department.”
- The city human resources director “said she forgot about a November memo Safine sent her on the alleged…abuse and did not know who in the city qualified as a mandated reporter.”
As a result of the issue, several staff members were placed on administrative leave pending investigation and the city manager is considering making all city employees mandated reporters. Unfortunately, that’s not good enough.
To effectively prevent issues such as this from happening again:
Administrators must be proactive. This organization had a history of letting students sit in instructor’s laps; of allowing boys and girls to use the same dressing rooms. Without proper safeguards, incidents such as the ones alleged become a “when” rather than an “if.” Background checks, reference checks, and personal interviews must be required to screen employees thoroughly prior to hire. Further, policies must be implemented to eliminate the potential for CSA, such as limiting one-adult/one-child situations and observing proper boundaries.
Employees must be trained. Organizations have disaster awareness plans – employees are taught what to do in case of fire or natural disaster. Yet, they don’t know what actions to take if a child in their care is being sexually abused. It doesn’t matter whether all staff members are mandated reporters if they don’t know how to respond to issues. Staff must know how to enforce prevention policies, recognize suspicious behaviors or signs of abuse, and respond to disclosures if they occur.
Employees must put children first. This is a pattern that repeats itself time and again. Abuse is alleged, and rather than refer the issue to the proper authorities, abusers are fired or simply relocated. People have a mental image of the “bad guy” and unfortunately, perpetrators don’t always fit this image. Abusers can be best friends, relatives, and even the coworkers that everyone loves. They can be outgoing, talented, and altruistic, presenting a confusing situation for employees who receive reports of CSA. To counteract conflicting emotions and preconceived beliefs, staff members must be taught that the welfare of the children they serve is the first priority. Period.
This article focuses on reporting requirements. However, had the Lescher Center followed the steps outlined above, they would not be facing this situation. Reporting is a very important step, but only one part of a cohesive CSA prevention plan.