Safe environments don’t keep children safe from sexual abuse

The approach most organizations (95%) use to protect children and vulnerable adults from sexual abuse is known as the safe environment approach.  “Safe environment” is, unfortunately, one of those sayings that sounds better than it works.  

For example, the safe environment approach hasn’t been effective enough to prevent sexual abuse from rising.  Most organizations have been required to follow the safe environment approach for most of the last 20 years, but in the last ten years, adult-on-child sexual abuse has doubled, and child-on-child sexual abuse has increased five times.

There are many reasons for this, but we discuss here how a safe environment is framed as a destination, whereas effective sexual abuse protection is a journey.

A Safe Environment is an Unattainable Destination

Sexual abuse is very difficult and may even be impossible to prevent.  The reasons include how:

  1. most of us find it very difficult to even think about sexual abuse,
  2. the people who find children sexually attractive are incredibly devious, and
  3. children don’t understand what sexual abuse is.

In this context, a safe environment is supposed to result from performing criminal background checks, training adults about sexual abuse, having policies around how adults interact with children, and requiring mandatory reporters to report suspicions of sexual abuse.

Even on its face, such an approach couldn’t deliver safety; for example, getting a job at a fast-food restaurant takes more than a safe environment program requires before allowing someone to work with children.

Cognitive Biases Push a Safe Environment even Further Beyond Reach

There is a problem with even thinking a safe environment is achievable; it plays into some of our most harmful cognitive biases about sexual abuse. 

For example, we conflate the absence of sexual abuse with our activities aimed at preventing it and ignore its inherent rarity.  We assume we make the difference between abuse happening and not happening.

As a result, we develop a false sense of security, believing we are doing enough to protect children and ignoring how the safe environment approach hasn’t been the best practice for preventing adverse events like sexual abuse for at least ten years.  Compared to risk management best practices, a safe environment approach is unsystematic, un-customized, and unadaptable, to name just three of its deficiencies.

Sexual Abuse Protection is a Journey, not a Destination

Sexual abuse protection is a journey because, even if a final destination is impossible to reach, ever-better protection is a direction worth heading in.  There are two parts to a good sexual abuse protection direction:

  1. Children and vulnerable adults should always be as safe as possible from sexual abuse; and
  2. The organization and the people working for it are also as safe as possible from the consequences of sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse protection is, therefore, also a journey because to do anything as well as possible requires constant improvement; the best practices that enable “as well as possible” evolve constantly.

The other aspect of this direction is that it includes protecting children, vulnerable adults, and your organization.  It is far easier to embark on and maintain momentum over a long journey if there are selfish and selfless benefits from doing so.  Further, an organization can only be as well protected as the children it protects.

A Sexual Abuse Protection Journey Mindset

Understanding that sexual abuse protection is a journey and having a direction to move in are two critical elements of effective sexual abuse protection.  However, a third element is also required; the mindset needed to keep you on track.

We think there are three ways to describe the ideal mindset.  The common link is that each addresses a different deficiency in the safe environment approach. As a result, some organizations focus on one mindset over the others, whereas others look to balance all three.  

Thoughtful Sexual Abuse Protection

A thoughtful approach to sexual abuse protection is characterized by careful thought applied to planning, implementing, and maintaining sexual abuse protection.  A thoughtful person is also careful, heedful, or mindful of others, including their safety.

The chief deficiency thoughtful sexual abuse protection addresses is the engagement with sexual abuse it enables.  For example, organizations that think about how minors and vulnerable adults are vulnerable to sexual abuse in their organization and address those vulnerabilities are more effective at protecting children and themselves. 

Decisive Sexual Abuse Protection

Decisive sexual abuse protection is characterized by organizations and everyone in them understanding when decisions must be made, making those decisions quickly and effectively, and ensuring they learn from them. 

The chief deficiency decisiveness addresses is overcoming what the risk management community mockingly calls list instead of risk management.  In list management, organizations focus more on checking boxes and maintaining well-ordered spreadsheets than on the decisions essential for effective sexual abuse protection.   

Conscientious Sexual Abuse Protection

To implement sexual abuse protection conscientiously means to implement protection controls and actions according to our conscience, our inner sense of what’s right.  Conscientious people ensure that if others were watching them, they would approve of what they saw.  Conscientious people are also careful, thorough, and meticulous.   

The chief deficiency of a safe environment approach that conscientious sexual abuse protection addresses is how it establishes defensibility if an organization cannot prevent sexual abuse.  Practically, no defensibility is established by a pure safe environment approach.

The Right Mindset Delivers Effective Protection

Thoughtful, decisive, and conscientious sexual abuse protection doesn’t just happen.  Organizations must have the right culture, leadership, and systems to enable any or all of them.  But when organizations maintain their chosen course over time, they can demonstrate how, for example, they: 

  • maintain a complete intake process, fully customized for sexual abuse, and apply it to every role they fill,
  • appraise everyone associated with their organization, including sexual abuse-related behaviors,
  • monitor physical security from a sexual abuse perspective and adjust behaviors accordingly,
  • ensure everyone associated with their organization knows and has been held accountable to the organization’s behavior requirements and expectations,
  • respond consistently to, and learn from, every sexual abuse-related incident, and
  • regularly review all the above to ensure effectiveness, that change is considered and addressed when needed, and that the system is continuously improved.

These organizations protect minors and vulnerable adults from sexual abuse and protect themselves from its consequences as well as possible.

Creating and Maintaining a Sexual Abuse Risk-Aware Culture: A Free Ten-Step Guide

Developing a sexual abuse risk-aware culture is the single most valuable thing you can do to protect the children and vulnerable adults in your care from sexual abuse.

Our free Ten-Step Guide is a practical introduction to the system that enables any organization to establish and maintain a sexual abuse risk-aware culture. 

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Post Author

Tim Jaggs

I am a Brit who now lives just outside San Francisco.  Though I have given up arguing for “football,” not “soccer,” I am still trying to decide whether football is better to watch than rugby – it’s a very close call – and if it’s OK to admit I enjoy baseball almost as much as cricket.

I have worked with organizations managing sexual abuse risk for over 15 years. 

I created BOKRIM to help people working with children, who often have little risk management experience, to use risk management best practices to protect children from sexual abuse and protect themselves from the consequences of failing to prevent sexual abuse.