If insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result, why, with rising sexual abuse, are most youth-serving organizations still only using safe environments to protect children from sexual abuse?
“Safe environment” refers to the twenty-year-old regulatory and legal requirements most youth-serving organizations must use to prevent sexual abuse. The core of most such safe environment approaches include criminal background checks, sexual abuse training, policies around adult/child interactions, and mandatory reporting.
Whether Einstein said what he was supposed to have said about insanity or not, whoever said it made a good point about sexual abuse. You don’t keep doing the same thing if it isn’t working.
The short answer to the question, “Why, with rising sexual abuse, are so many organizations still using safe environments?” is that most people don’t know there is best practice for preventing adverse events like sexual abuse and that a safe environment isn’t it; it’s ERM for enterprise-wide risk management.
A “safe environment” was a reasonable response to the abuse crisis as it was understood twenty years ago, even if its overall approach wasn’t quite the best practice even then. Since being introduced by the Catholic Church, a safe environment has become the expected or required approach for most youth-serving organizations and sectors. Of course, safe environment controls are critical controls that are also part of the best practice, but that’s the point; they are only part of it.
ERM is built on everything we have learned about managing risk; sexual abuse is a risk. For example, we know much more about how people make decisions under uncertainty, the essence of risk management. We also know much more about systems, data, and culture and their impact on risk management. But unfortunately, we ignore almost everything learned about risk management by persisting with safe environments. We even ignore what we have learned about sexual abuse and, for example, how safe environments weren’t designed for the currently fastest-rising sexual abuse form – child-on-child sexual abuse. According to the largest school insurer in the country, though adult-on-child sexual abuse has doubled in the last ten years, child-on-child sexual abuse has increased five times.
So, not knowing about risk management best practices is an understandable reason why a youth-serving organization with no risk management expertise would persist with a safe environment to protect children. But why are the legal and regulatory requirements still built around using safe environments? Though it’s almost certain that sexual abuse would rise even faster if safe environments weren’t used, shouldn’t we have incorporated more of what we have learned to try to reverse rising sexual abuse?
Why haven't we improved on safe environments?
In addition to the main reason – that most people aren’t aware of how far behind best practices safe environments are – another reason is that it is never easy to admit the need to change, even when best practices are surpassed. But that doesn’t explain why improvement is so far behind best practice development; safe environments are at least two iterations and ten years past being the best practice.
Yet another reason is that ERM is more complex than a safe environment approach, but since a safe environment is so basic, that isn’t surprising. But maybe there is some concern about whether most organizations can use anything more complex.
Though ERM would be more complex than some organizations could easily adopt, most people working with children and vulnerable adults want to do everything they can to keep them safe. Further, most organizations are quite capable of doing more than maintaining a safe environment. So, as long as everyone keeps using the basic safe environment controls, what would be lost if organizations that could do more did more?
What are the costs of not doing more?
There are real costs to persisting with safe environments. The main cost of not using the best prevention practices is rising sexual abuse; more children are sexually abused, and their abuse lasts longer.
There are also costs to organizations that fail to prevent sexual abuse, which is more likely because they use safe environments. These are the main cost categories:
The financial costs of failing to prevent sexual abuse are rising faster than sexual abuse’s frequency. Ten years ago, a large sexual abuse settlement would have been $250,000; today, $25,000,000 is a large settlement, though that isn’t the largest.
In addition, insurance is available to fewer organizations, is harder to buy, costs much more, and covers much less than it used to. As a result, very few organizations can find insurance to cover the full potential of a large settlement.
Because of the almost complete absence of NDAs compared to the past and how long criminal and civil investigations and litigation can last, the disruption caused by sexual abuse today is far more significant than it used to be. Instead of a few people being disrupted for a year or two, many people involved with an organization can be disrupted for five or more years.
Safe environments only require four controls, so they now destroy individual and organizational reputations. Plaintiffs’ attorneys have had twenty years to perfect arguments that make people only using safe environments seem incompetent, uncaring, and lazy because they are only using safe environments; “Are those four controls really all you did to protect these children from sexual abuse?”
The most significant cost is to the more children who will be abused in the future if we don’t find better ways to prevent sexual abuse. If we keep using the same limited practices, we won’t generate the data that could power the extraordinary analytical capabilities we have today that weren’t available twenty years ago. Sexual abuse is still, despite its increasing frequency, relatively rare. This makes more and better data collection fundamental to better child protection, but safe environments limit the data available for analysis, and so safe environments impair the very thing – child safety – they are designed to achieve.
If we want to stop rising sexual abuse, it isn’t enough to keep trying to improve an outdated safe environment approach. Safe environments cannot incorporate everything we have learned about, for example, how important decision-making in uncertainty, systems, culture, and data are to effective risk management. Instead, we must adopt a new approach that, while it includes basic safe environment controls, is built on the far more impactful best practices we know are more effective at preventing adverse events like sexual abuse.