The “safe environment” approach to protecting children from sexual abuse is broken.

Child sexual abuse is rising.  According to the largest independent school insurer in the US, adult-on-child sexual abuse has doubled in the last ten years.  Child-on-child sexual abuse has increased five times.  

At the same time, while the costs to victims have always been too high, the costs to the people and organizations unable to prevent sexual abuse (the disruption, reputation, trauma, legal, and financial harms) have risen exponentially.  For example, in July 2023, a jury awarded $485,000,000 to a girl sexually abused in foster care in 2017.

It’s no coincidence that sexual abuse and all its costs are rising, and almost every youth and vulnerable adult-serving organization (well over 95%) uses the “safe environment” to prevent sexual abuse.  The safe environment was flawed when it was first developed, and the flaws have never been addressed.

  1. The safe environment’s original design (in 2002) intentionally ignored the risk management best practices of the time so that any organization could implement it easily and quickly.
  2. Its design also ignored the critical importance of continuous improvement.  As a result, it hasn’t broadly changed in twenty years, though sexual abuse risk is unrecognizable from what it was in 2002. 
  3. Risk management best practice acknowledges that establishing a risk-aware culture is essential for successful risk management.  Not only does the safe environment contain none of the elements required to establish a sexual abuse risk-aware culture, but its check box approach directly conflicts with the behaviors required to develop such a culture.  

In addition to failing to protect children and vulnerable adults from sexual abuse or prevent sexual abuse from rising, the safe environment doesn’t protect organizations or those working for them from any of the consequences noted above if they cannot prevent sexual abuse.  A lack of defensibility drives the absence of protection and partly explains why sexual abuse insurance, the traditional partner of the safe environment, has become much more challenging to obtain, covers much less, and costs much more.  Today, even combining a safe environment with the most comprehensive insurance only addresses maybe 10% of a child or vulnerable adult-serving organization’s sexual abuse risks.  

Children and vulnerable adults need sexual abuse risk management that is better at preventing sexual abuse, and child and vulnerable adult-serving organizations need sexual abuse risk management that addresses 100% of their risks.

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.