Some sexual abuse risk management advice is counterproductive. It’s based on claiming sexual abuse is something it isn’t. In the example explored below, sexual abuse prevention is described as a goal instead of recognizing sexual abuse is a risk. This difference matters because goals and risks are managed very differently. Defining sexual abuse as something it isn’t causes youth and vulnerable adult-serving organizations to waste time, effort, and enthusiasm for child protection trying to implement, at best, counterproductive and, at worst, unimplementable advice.
In the spirit of trying to improve sexual abuse risk management by exploring topics others prefer to avoid, I acknowledge one such piece of advice is something of a third rail. It’s the idea that a minor or vulnerable adult-serving organization should make sexual abuse prevention its paramount goal.
It’s well-meaning advice and sounds tremendous until you start thinking about it and how to implement it. If you have risk management experience, you quickly ignore it because a minute of thinking about it makes you realize how unhelpful and unimplementable it is.
If you have limited risk management experience, however, which is true for many people working for youth and vulnerable adult-serving organizations, you recognize the advice seems at odds with management best practices, but you assume the source knows what they’re talking about. You try to implement the advice until you eventually give up, recognizing it’s impossibly difficult to implement, compromises organization performance, and is counterproductive to effective child protection.
I’m not picking on this source, but it’s a clear example of what the “paramount goal” advice looks like:
Practice #1: Focus on Child Wellbeing and Safety Above All Else: Instill throughout the organization a dedication to child wellbeing and safety as a paramount goal and a prevailing culture. Every YSO has a specific mission that guides its policies and practices as well as the selection, recruitment, and retention of child participants. Child safe organizations orient their policies and practices to first support child wellbeing and safety overall, and then to achieve mission-specific goals.
If you haven’t read this framework, please do. Though you’ll want to ignore most of Practice #1, its other practices include valuable and practical content.
At best, claiming sexual abuse prevention is an organization's paramount goal harms child protection
Implementing the practices that would make sexual abuse prevention an organization’s paramount goal is challenging for various reasons, including:
- In every youth or vulnerable adult serving organization, child safety is always incredibly important, but, for example, in schools, churches, and sports clubs, the paramount goal will always be related to why the organization exists: educating, converting, or coaching. Child safety may be a requirement for achieving the goal, but it won’t be the goal itself. The problem with claiming something that’s untrue is that it does more than damage credibility. When management pays lip service to an idea by making an obviously false claim about it, why would anyone else in the organization behave any differently? Claiming sexual abuse prevention is the organization’s paramount goal is more likely to harm than help child protection.
- A goal describes where an organization wants to get to at some point, potentially a long time, in the future. A goal is, therefore, an eventual destination. Child safety isn’t a destination because we can never assume children are entirely safe. On the contrary, child safety must be constantly addressed and improved. Making child protection the paramount goal (something to be achieved in the future) is, therefore, counterproductive for effective child protection.
- When an organization sets a goal, it’s trying to ensure everyone working for the organization is aligned in the same general direction. But a goal is almost always something that cannot be reached quickly or without taking a series of steps. That’s why organizations set objectives – the steps necessary to achieve a goal. An organization’s management aligns the organization by getting everyone in it to focus on objectives because that’s how they optimize organizational performance. Making child protection a goal, even the “paramount goal,” is unhelpful because everyone’s busy focusing on objectives, not goals, and sexual abuse needs consistent attention.
Child protection is neither a goal nor an objective. It’s a risk and needs managing as such, with regular and consistent attention. With regular and consistent attention, child safety becomes an integral part of an organization’s culture, making it a key consideration in how the day-to-day activities involved in educating, converting, or coaching get done.
At worst, managing sexual abuse risk as the organization's paramount goal is impossible
Managing sexual abuse risk as an organization’s paramount goal is impossible for most minor and vulnerable adult-serving organizations because, however you define risk, risk management is only concerned with paramount goals at its most sophisticated, which few but the largest and best-resourced organizations even attempt.
- The least sophisticated approach to risk management, now known as traditional risk management, defines risk as the threat of an adverse event. This form of risk management is concerned with preventing adverse events and mitigating their consequences if you can’t prevent them. A key issue as far as paramount goals are concerned, which, as noted above, have long time horizons, is that managing risk as an adverse event means dealing with short and even immediate time horizons. Sexual abuse is undoubtedly an adverse event an organization would want to prevent, but an adverse event is far from the same thing as a paramount goal, and, not least because they are each other’s opposites, goals are managed differently than adverse events.
- A more sophisticated approach and current risk management best practice (a form of risk management known as enterprise risk management or ERM) defines risk as the effect of uncertainty on an organization’s objectives. Objectives usually have between 2 and (maybe as long as) 5-year time horizons. As a result, ERM is concerned with longer time horizons than traditional risk management but still not as long as those required to address goals, which rarely have less than five years and can have 10-year or longer horizons. Preventing sexual abuse risk is only an objective in the sense that you’d want to succeed at preventing it, but it isn’t an objective in the sense organization management thinks of objectives – as being specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. Again, objectives management practices are different than risk management practices.
- The only form of risk management that looks out as far as goals is strategic risk management (SRM). Strategic risk is the risk that an organization has chosen the wrong strategy, isn’t implementing its strategy effectively, or that the organization or its environment changes and it fails to adapt its strategy accordingly. SRM looks forward between 5 and 10 years, so it has similar time horizons to paramount goals – not least because strategies are usually designed to achieve paramount goals. SRM is a highly complex form of risk management only currently practiced by, relatively speaking, a handful of the largest and most sophisticated organizations, mainly in the financial sector. SRM is well beyond the reach of most youth and vulnerable adult serving organizations, most of which use the safe environment approach to prevent sexual abuse, which is a step below even traditional risk management because safe environments focus on prevention and don’t even include mitigation.
Sexual abuse is a significant risk for any youth or vulnerable adult-serving organization. It can only be effectively managed using tools designed for risks, not by tools designed to manage goals or objectives. Sexual abuse risk is also too significant to be managed with traditional risk management. Ideally, it is managed using ERM because ERM ensures:
- Sexual abuse is recognized for what it is – a risk, not a goal or objective – and managed using risk management best practices, and
- Child protection is embedded in an organization’s culture, so it gets the regular and consistent attention required to protect children effectively.
Risk management systems cannot succeed unless organizations are candid about their risks so they use the right tools and each risk gets the risk management attention it warrants. The most frustrating consequence of claiming sexual abuse is something it isn’t is that the lack of candor undermines the efforts of the people trying to keep children safe and wastes resources that could go to serving or protecting more children.