By Mary Jane Smetanka
The news stories seem to pop up with sickening regularity: a trusted adult who was working with children is charged with sexual abuse of a minor.
While the stories usually focus on the accused adult, the organizations they represent may end up not only with a tarnished reputation, but can be subject to lawsuits. That includes Minnesota cities, many of which have contact with kids through parks and recreation programs, temporary jobs programs, and mentoring and youth programs like those run by police and fire departments.
Cities need to be aware of the risk and be proactive in trying to ward off abuse, says Tracy Stille, a retired police captain who is now a loss control field consultant for the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust (LMCIT).
“These things happen in smaller communities as well as big cities,” Stille says. “No city is immune from sexual abuse issues.” Stille will present city-specific information about child abuse prevention during the LMCIT’s 2017 Safety & Loss Control Workshops, taking place in March and April at locations around the state. His presentation will also address bullying, but the emphasis will be on preventing child abuse.
Start with careful screening
The national numbers are shocking: about one in 10 kids will be sexually abused before they turn 18. At least 40 percent of those who abuse children under age 12 are teenagers. And 90 percent of child sexual abuse victims know their abuser.
In just the last year in Minnesota, soccer, swimming, and basketball coaches, a former assistant scoutmaster, a camp counselor, and a former youth pastor have been accused of stalking or abusing minors they worked with.
Stille suspects that many Minnesota cities probably could improve screening and monitoring of adults and juveniles who work with kids in youth programs.
“Some cities think they might not have this problem, but they may and it’s going unreported,” Stille says. “We’re trying to stress the priority of having policies and procedures in place. Without that, you’re opening yourself up to litigation and liability for employees. We need to put prevention measures in to prevent claims against cities.”
Those prevention measures start with carefully screening everyone who wants to work with youth, from coaches, umpires, and assistant coaches down to other volunteers. Minnesota law authorizes cities to request background checks for anyone who works with minors, and offers some liability protection if they do those checks, Stille says. Several websites, including the National Sex Offender Registry and the Minnesota Public Criminal History websites, offer free criminal background checks. They report convictions only.
For people who will have supervisory roles in groups that serve youth, Stille recommends doing a fingerprint background check with the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Those checks, which cost about $35, report charges as well as convictions. In all cases, the people whose backgrounds are being checked must consent.
Written applications and in-depth interviewing of coaching and volunteer candidates are essential, Stille says. Possible red flags include someone wanting to be involved who doesn’t have children in a program, or a candidate who requests to work only with one gender or with a certain age group.
“I’m not saying these would eliminate people, but they are things to look at,” Stille says.
If teenagers are being hired for youth programs, background checks rarely yield anything. In those cases, he says, “you have to rely on referrals, and one-on-one interviews so you can draw people out and spot any suspicious signs on why they want to be involved with a program.”
Clear policies on appropriate interaction
Once a program is up and running, policies on how to interact with kids need to be clear. Stille suggests limiting isolated one-on-one contact between adults and youth, instead having two adults work individually with a child in a public location. If a child needs help going to the bathroom, two people should go. Coaches and volunteers should stay out of locker rooms while kids are showering and changing clothes. If kids need to be transported, it should be in groups and not individually. In park and rec locations, there are often cameras in gyms and halls, and those can act as a deterrent and a record of events, Stille says. All activity should be in places where there’s visibility and no closed doors, unless youth are being taught or coached in a group.
One of the best program monitors is involved parents, he adds. “We encourage people to talk to parents so they can be fully informed. Parents need to be aware and need to be involved; it’s not just a matter of dropping their child off and hoping for the best.”
Attentive parents may notice if someone is making degrading or sexual comments or inappropriate jokes, or is uncomfortably physical with kids. Patting kids on the back and giving a respectful hug may be OK, but patting them too often on the backside or giving hugs that look like cuddles should raise questions, Stille says: “Is it physical contact or just encouragement?”
Adults should also be told to limit contact with kids outside of program activities, including getting too friendly with youth on social media.
A thorough process
In Maple Grove (population 64,448), city staff conduct background checks on about 130 parks and recreation volunteers each year through the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and National Sex Offender Registry websites, checking the history of anyone who has the potential to be alone with a child.
The city also does background checks on employees in 34 positions, including coaches, music and dance instructors, warming house attendants, preschool workers, food service coordinators, arena maintenance staff, the cheer instructor, babysitting instructor, sound technician, teen dance chaperone, head lifeguard, and park supervisors.
“Safety is a component of any decision that gets made,” says Mark Saari, the city’s recreation superintendent.
He says adults who work with youth are judged on leadership and competency and given training specific to the role they’ll play in city programs.
While most employees are 18 and older, a few younger teens get hired, Saari says. Since background checks are mostly moot for young people, the city emphasizes personal references in the hiring process, and then interviews with supervisors.
“In most programs, we have lead instructors and assistant instructors, and parents are involved, too,” he says. “With something like swimming lessons, we have multiple people there to staff sessions. And we don’t restrict parent access to programs.”
While Maple Grove doesn’t specifically discuss child abuse with parents, for city employees the standard job orientation covers best practices such as not giving a child a ride home, encouraging carpooling, and recommending that adult leaders not be alone with children.
Saari says most programs are held in public parks, where many people are watching.
“People are much more aware than they used to be,” he says. “As a parent, I think people know it’s always best to have another adult present.”
Should the worst happen, cities need policies on reporting inappropriate or harmful behavior. Stille says they should have a clear reporting structure to notify people and report a suspected incident to law enforcement and social services. Cities should maintain confidentiality and never investigate alleged incidents themselves.
While the expense of doing more detailed background checks and taking other measures may be a concern for smaller cities, Stille encourages them to use free resources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s publication, Preventing Child Sexual Abuse Within Youth-Serving Organizations, which has many proactive tips for groups. Similar information is available on the website of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Stille says he doesn’t want to make city officials paranoid about the risks of running youth programs. But it’s best to be realistic about what can happen and develop policies and practices that could help prevent a potentially devastating incident for both the child and the city.
“There has to be a balance between a good background investigation and a nurturing environment,” he says. “One of the challenges is our attitude about sexuality. We have a tendency to not want to see this as a problem in our communities. But it may be a problem. You can turn away from it and think it only happens in a big city or someplace else.
“We need to have a process in place, just in case something does happen.”
Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.
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