Youth Services Law

Child Protection Policies: First Steps

Children playing on a playground

The recent USA Gymnastic and Catholic Church scandals illustrate the need for child protection policies in all organizations that serve young people. It is tempting to look for a policy that you can simply copy from another organization, and some companies will promise to sell you a policy that they have developed. Either route can be a good starting point, but you need to tailor any recommendations to your program. This series of posts outlines some starting principles that I recommend to my clients.

What Is a Child Protection Policy?

The main purpose of a child protection policy is to protect children from harm while in your program, whether from staff or other children. At a minimum, it needs to include risks of physical harm and accident prevention, but you also should consider policies preventing emotional harm, such as bullying. As I explain below, broad and elaborate is not necessarily a good thing, so be realistic about your program, what risks you need to guard against, and what resources you have.

Mandated reporter laws add a second purpose, which is to recognize harm that occurs elsewhere and report it to authorities. You need to train your staff and volunteers on their responsibilities under the law, including how to recognize the signs of abuse or neglect outside your program. Statistically, children are most likely to suffer harm at home, so your staff needs to be trained to respond to such problems.

Don’t Try to Do Everything

There are many good sources for youth protection policies, including this publication from the CDC, the Safe Sanctuaries website of the United Methodist Church, or the Safe Church program from Guide One Insurance. Not all recommendations will be good policy for every organization. Rules for residential camps, for example, may not work for child care centers or mentoring groups. Take the suggestions seriously, but adapt them for your particular program.

Trying to follow every recommendation also can skew your focus. As I tell my child care clients, if you have every teacher watching the slides, the next injury will occur in the sandbox. You will never have enough staff to constantly monitor every child, and mental health studies are showing that constant oversight causes psychological problems for children anyway. You have to know the highest risks and worst potential injuries in your program, and focus your efforts there.

Written Policies and Unwritten Procedures

Another reason to focus your written policies is that you are more likely to implement simple and clear guidelines. Having an elaborate and complicated protocol always looks nice, but it is useless if you do not follow it. Actually, it is worse than useless, as it becomes evidence against you if a child is injured. So develop a procedure that you will be able to enforce, and then enforce it consistently.

My next posts will discuss what issues to address in your policies and some best practices for implementing them. There is no one-size-fits-all policy that will work for every group. If you analyze your program and these principles, however, you should be able to develop a policy that can protect children from the greatest risks they face while in your care.

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