Youth Services Law

Child Protection Policies: Supervision and Out of Program Contact

Teacher supervising and stopping children from fighting

The next important policy for keeping children safe is supervising children and staff. Supervision policies include not only supervision during your program, but recognizing when you cannot supervise interactions.

Supervision

One highly important area for your child protection policy is being sure that you are always supervising the children in your care. Thus, rules about staff-student ratios are part of your child protection policy. Decide what ratio is standard in your area for your type of program. That standard may come from licensing rules, accreditation rules, or simple tradition in your area. Whatever it is, be certain that you follow it.

Supervision also is an important way to prevent bullying. Coercive behavior rarely happens in front of an adult (if it is, then you have staff problems). Children bully each other when there is no adult around to stop them. Thus, you need to review your facility for secluded areas and note in your schedule the times that children may be effectively unsupervised (such as night time when a camp counselor is asleep). You cannot have an adult in the presence of every child during every minute. But you can arrange for adults to drop by secluded areas at frequent, random times, and back each other up during breaks.

Off-program Contact

One vexing question is how to manage occasions when your organization cannot supervise staff/child interactions, specifically contact between children and staff members off-site, including social media. Prohibiting all such contact does limit your organization’s exposure to liability, but it also can harm your mission.

Furthermore, in some programs such as the child care industry, staff often expect the opportunity to earn extra money by baby-sitting. Parents also often prefer to have a knowledgeable adult care for their children instead of the teenager next door. Finally, rules against off-site contact can be difficult to enforce, and it is better to have no rule than to have an unenforceable one.

My advice to clients is to, first, decide what limits work with your programs’ mission, and second, decide what rules you realistically can enforce. For example, most organizations can require that whenever staff or volunteers use email to communicate with minors in the program, they always copy a program supervisor. Other organizations allow some social media contact, such as email, but prohibit others, such as following a child on Instagram.

Make sure you communicate those rules not only to staff and volunteers, but to the parents in the agreement or parent handbook as well. Ask parents to notify you about unauthorized contact, even if it appears benign. Remind staff, volunteers and parents frequently about the policies. Most importantly, make clear that if the parents allow any contact outside the program, they are accepting responsibility for supervising the staff and for any injuries that may happen during that time. Your lawyer can draft language for your parent handbook that will allow you to invoke this principle (known as assumption of the risk) if the parents make a claim.

Supervision is a key component of child protection policies. It is equally important for you to know when supervision is not possible, and what policies you can put in place as effective substitutes.

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