In the 15 years I have worked with youth-serving organizations, I have seen many examples of sexual abuse. In almost every case, the organization followed a safe environment approach to preventing sexual abuse. Because a safe environment isn’t a systematic sexual abuse prevention approach, one or more safe environment requirements were not observed.
Background checks weren’t complete or were late. Training missed people. Worse, red flags around inappropriate one-to-one interactions were ignored, delaying mandatory reporting. The worst cases were when every requirement was missed, leading to prolonged abuse. Even when just one element was missed, the organization’s credibility in defense terms was compromised.
A common link between organizations and abuse is that the people responsible for performing the different parts of the compliance program – even when the same person performed them all – approached each element as a separate requirement.
Addressing each element separately is a foundational problem in preventing sexual abuse because it leads to a check-box approach. Unfortunately, a safe environment is presented as a series of boxes to check; “do this, this, this, and this, and you will have a safe environment.” Unfortunately, this approach misses everything that makes systematic sexual abuse prevention much more efficient and effective than checking boxes to get stuff done right.
Intriguingly, it is also why the four elements of most safe environment-based approaches were put together as they were. As you can see from the description of past abuse examples above, the four controls are natural elements of a system designed to monitor the flow of people through an organization; people are employed, then trained, then expected to behave in specific ways until they leave and are replaced. That’s about as basic a system as you can get. Still, systems cannot achieve their objective (preventing sexual abuse) if each element is managed distinctly rather than as part of a system.
To go deeper, systems are composed of purpose, elements, and coordination.
Unlike checking boxes, which is a self-referential, systems have a purpose outside themselves. Ideally, the system user will decide what they are trying to achieve and how they will achieve it. This requires engagement with the underlying topic in a way checking boxes does not. For example, each organization’s sexual abuse risk is particular to the organization and cannot be managed effectively without engagement to understand the potential causes and consequences of events to the organization.
Systems are comprised of separate elements that are brought together to achieve the purpose. Each element has a different role to play, but they are also related to each other, even if it is only to support the achievement of the objective.
For example, in compliance-based sexual abuse prevention, as noted above, the elements are intended to follow the flow of people through an organization. But, for example, if you want to ensure you bring in good people, you must do much more than perform criminal background checks. Further, managing one-to-one interactions and mandatory reporting are only two behaviors you want people to observe.
You can’t determine all the elements you need until you have engaged with the purpose.
Whether it is the flow of people through an organization, training a sports team, or managing a school, elements must be coordinated to achieve the system’s objective. Without going into all the ways coordination can happen, feedback loops are the chief tool used to verify the coordination is heading toward the intended goal and, in more sophisticated systems, that the overall aim is still appropriate.
There is no feedback in checking boxes if that is all you do, which is all most youth-serving organizations know to do because they are rarely abuse prevention, child protection, or risk management experts. So if you are not an expert and compliance says, “you’re good,” if you comply, you comply.
Risk management best practice – an approach known as ERM – is systematic. It begins with an organization determining its reasons for managing its risks, walks it through the process of deciding how to achieve those objectives, and provides all the tools to develop feedback and adjust the system to keep it on target over the long term.
Organizations that use ERM successfully have fewer and less costly adverse events like sexual abuse, achieve their objectives more often, and are more highly valued and trusted than organizations using traditional risk management. However, compliance is a step (or two) below even traditional risk management and is not systematic.
Preventing sexual abuse is too important to tackle with an inherently ineffective and inefficient approach. Systematic sexual abuse prevention is essential for effective protection and is a BOKRIM core principle.