Merely having child sexual abuse prevention controls is not sufficient to prevent sexual abuse. It’s the strength of the systems behind the controls that determines their effectiveness.
The fight against child sexual abuse is almost always presented in the context of child and vulnerable adult-serving organizations implementing controls that are meant to prevent sexual abuse. Given that prevention has been the dominant framework for over twenty years and that sexual abuse is still rising, it’s time to rethink this framework.
There’s no question that prevention controls are essential, but given how often they fail to prevent sexual abuse, they are not sufficient. What’s too often missing is the robust systems organizations must implement to ensure the controls are consistently and effectively applied.
This post outlines where controls must be effective. However, for those working for child and vulnerable adult-serving organizations, we focus on the systems your organization should consider to ensure control efficiency.
Part 1: Effective Sexual Abuse Prevention Controls
- Safe Physical Environments: Creating secure, transparent, and monitored physical environments minimizes opportunities for abuse. This includes limiting physical access to the children in your care but then having open spaces for activities and ensuring multiple adults are always present.
- Comprehensive Intake Process: Conducting a detailed criminal background check – the most common sexual abuse prevention control – is an essential control but an unreliable way to prevent sexual abuse. Your organization should customize every element of its intake process towards sexual abuse prevention, not just criminal background checks.
- Clear Behavior Requirements and Expectations: Well-defined behavior requirements and expectations, plus clear procedures for reporting breaches of expected behaviors – as well as suspected abuse – must be in place.
Part 2: Systems to Ensure the Effectiveness of Prevention Controls
- Start with the Why: It may seem obvious that an organization would want to protect the children in its care, but very few organizations’ purpose is to keep children safe from sexual abuse; for example, it is to educate, coach, or mentor. The critical engagement with sexual abuse risk that comes from understanding your organization’s objectives and the importance of child protection in meeting its objectives is foundational to effective sexual abuse prevention.
- Comprehensive Risk Assessment: No two organizations are quite the same in terms of the ways children or vulnerable adults might be at risk of sexual abuse. So, each organization must assess this for themselves and revisit their assessment regularly because the risks change.
- System Customization: Since no two organizations will have the same sexual abuse risks, every organization must choose the controls that prevent the types of sexual abuse the children and vulnerable adults in their care are potentially at risk of. Given that risks and control effectiveness change, the customization must also be revisited regularly.
- Training Programs: These programs should not only focus on identifying at-risk activities, the signs of abuse, and how your organization will try to prevent sexual abuse but also on the organization’s specific reporting procedures, how to create a supportive environment for children, and how the organization learns from experience.
- Robust Reporting Mechanisms: A confidential and accessible reporting system is a necessity. This system should protect those who report abuse from retaliation and provide clear guidance on reporting procedures.
- Crisis Management Plans: Having a plan for responding to any sexual abuse-related report or incident ensures that the organization can take swift and appropriate action when needed.
- Support and Counseling: Providing access to counseling and support for children and staff if sexual abuse is suspected or alleged is an essential part of a comprehensive protection strategy.
- Engagement with Parents and Community: Keeping parents and the wider community actively involved and informed creates a larger support network.
- Environment Audits: Regularly auditing the organization’s physical, technological, and social environment helps identify new or changing risks, and the need to adapt controls and the systems they rely on.
- Continuous Improvement: A culture of continuous improvement, informed by regular feedback from children, staff, and parents, is essential for the evolution and effectiveness of prevention strategies. We won’t stop sexual abuse from rising, never mind reduce it unless or until we get much better at preventing it.
The effectiveness of child sexual abuse prevention strategies lies not only in the controls themselves but significantly in the robustness of the systems that support them. By integrating effective prevention controls with strong, supportive systems, organizations make sexual abuse less likely. Robust systems also ensure the people working for child and vulnerable adult-serving organizations also protect themselves and their organizations in case sexual abuse occurs because a conscientiously applied systematic approach demonstrates how important child sexual abuse protection is to the organization.
This holistic approach ensures that protective measures for everyone are more than just policies on paper; they are active, living practices that genuinely safeguard children and the people and organizations caring for them.