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July 18, 2019

Avoiding Sexual Abuse Liability

Day care centers and other similar groups are at risk for false allegations of sexual abuse because of the frequent, unsupervised interaction between children and a trusted adult. Whether legitimate or not, sexual abuse allegations involving a minor can have catastrophic consequences for your center.

There are several steps to ensure your organization does not have to undergo expensive and embarrassing lawsuits, including: careful screening of all staff, strictly enforced supervision guidelines, sufficient education and training, and a specific plan of action to follow when someone suspects or reports inappropriate behavior.

Carefully Screen Potential Staff

One of the most important things your organization can do to reduce the risk of a sexual misconduct or harassment allegation is to carefully evaluate staff and volunteers. Require that all staff - whether paid or volunteer, and regardless of their job description - consent in writing to a federal criminal background check. You should also search for all potential employees and volunteers in the National Sex Offenders Public Registry to check for any type of sex offender record.

In addition to the background check, you should require all applicants — whether paid or volunteer — provide a list of non-family references, complete with contact information. For those assuming leadership positions, ask to contact their previous employer. It isn’t enough to simply ask for this information. With every applicant, you must follow through and contact the references. Ask specific questions about the applicant’s reputation and character to evaluate whether he or she will present a risk to your organization.

Oftentimes, an application is seen by many people. To make the process easier and more effective, require documentation for all background and reference checks conducted.

Establish Supervision Guidelines

Setting guidelines for staff and volunteer conduct is important for two reasons: First, it protects minors from ill-intentioned adults and makes the environment safer; second, it protects employees and volunteers from potentially false allegations.

The most serious risks come when an adult has unsupervised contact with a minor. These situations should be avoided whenever possible. Guidelines include having two adults in the room with children, requiring two or more children to be present with one adult and having a supervisor or other staff member randomly check in during situations when an adult is with minors.

Provide Staff Education and Training

An important step that can be overlooked is providing adequate education and training to allow employees and volunteers to understand the risk of sexual misconduct allegations. If you educate employees and volunteers, they are more likely to work with you to help reduce the liabilities and risks associated with dealing with youth and children.

When hiring, take the time to educate staff on the appropriate policies and procedures. Be sure to emphasize that sexual misconduct training is not accusatory; rather, it is for their protection. Also, it is a good idea to re-train all staff annually as a reminder about the seriousness of the risk.

Take Allegations Seriously

Many organizations get into trouble not because they failed to conduct the necessary background and reference checks, but because when there was evidence of accusations or problems, they did not react quickly and appropriately.

In training sessions, stress that all staff members and volunteers are required to report suspicions or evidence of abuse to senior staff members. Senior staff should forward these reports immediately to the proper law enforcement officials.

To avoid further risk, take immediate action. Remove the employee or volunteer allegedly responsible from duty and do not allow him or her to supervise or come into contact with minors until the investigation is complete. This may be a difficult step, especially if it causes hardship or if there is widespread belief the staff member is innocent. This is a crucial step in preventing expensive lawsuits claiming negligence.

Documentation is the key to reduced risk in allegation-response situations. Keep detailed written records of the allegations and of any interviews with the victims or the alleged abusers. Revisit your records and make sure they contain sufficient background checks and reference checks you conducted to further document your efforts.

The bottom line is your group should work to avoid all circumstances that could lead to accusations of sexual misconduct or abuse, whether those claims are legitimate or false. You have the duty to protect your staff, volunteers and children from the risks of harassment and harassment accusations. The nature of your organization makes this significantly more difficult, but with proper guidance and careful planning, you can mitigate risks and liabilities.   

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