Frequently Asked Questions
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For some years I’ve distinguished between the “business of safety” and the “culture of safety.” The term “business of safety” is my way of describing those things some organizations tend to do first, such as conducting criminal background checks or adding fences, cameras locks and bulletproof glass. These are usually the first things an organization does because they can be readily executed and the organization can require compliance from its employees and volunteers. Sadly, this is not only where many organizations start, it is also where they stop.
But we also have the “culture of safety” which is my way of describing those things that cause people to take pride in their safety program, to take full ownership of safety, to hold others accountable, to strive for continuous improvement and even aspire for a certain level of excellence through safety. These are not things that we can demand of the people within an organization, rather they are the things that people must choose to do.
The culture is the key to change, which is why business guru, Peter Drucker, famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Years ago, I watched a presentation by Dan McGinn in which he explained that the public is willing to forgive an organization when it experiences a tragedy. But at the same time, the organization should expect three questions:
- Did you consider that this might happen?
- Did you have a strategy in place to help prevent it?
- Did you invest the resources to make sure the strategy worked and continued to work?
I’ve never found a better description of what is needed and what is missing. For example, rather than being satisfied with existing solutions, organizations must continue to understand that threats are driven by humans and continue to evolve. We need problem seeking as much as we need problem solving.
Likewise, organizations need to be interested in progressing to the next standard of care or benchmark, rather than accepting what is comfortable. Robert Browning’s statement that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp” is equally true for organizations.
Finally, organizations rarely measure when it comes to safety and security. The most forward-thinking organizations do this, using a safety scorecard to track those things from the business of safety, that we believe shape, or will shape, the culture of safety. Measure what matters!
While funds may not be immediately available, here are ten steps that will cost little and will begin to change the culture of safety toward continuous safety improvement:
- Write out your organization’s youth protection vision, goals, objectives and measures of success. Start with an aspirational statement and work down to the details. Do not let the cynics near this until you are finished.
- Put together a temporary task force of local security experts to conduct a Threat-Vulnerability Analysis (sometimes called a “TVA”) to identify possible threats and their probability. Most severe threats are highly infrequent, but they must be considered and ranked.
- With your board and general counsel, review and update your organization’s policies and procedures in light of steps 1 and 2.
- Re-evaluate your employee and volunteer recruitment, screening and selection process and take into account the degree of access to youth a person may need to be given. Screening is your front line of defense against bringing in reckless, immature, impulsive or malicious people who could do irreparable harm to youth.
- Develop a written supervision strategy for every program and activity. In some cases, it may suffice to have a minimum staff-to-youth ratio. In other cases, you may need to work out greater detail. Make it easy for youth workers to know when they are doing a good job protecting children.
- Build your staff’s confidence and loyalty to the organization by giving them skills in key areas, such as basic first aid, recognizing a hidden weapon, putting out a small fire, preventing parental abductions, preventing concussions and heat exhaustion, preventing drownings, recognizing child abuse and recognizing the patterns of child sexual grooming, just to name the most obvious topics. There are excellent companies that provide this kind of training online, but most communities have people who have mastered these skills and would enjoy teaching your staff for free. They are waiting to be asked.
- Create “robust” feedback loops. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard an executive director, superintendent or head minister say “people will tell me if there is a problem.” Yet, studies show that only half of the people with complaints, concerns or knowledge of something that could endanger a child will actually report it. Your organization needs an anonymous reporting system, ensuring it learns about problems at the earliest possible stage. For example, some organizations place a free, anonymous reporting tool on their webpage.
- Recognize and reward innovative safety ideas. Just as threats are continuously evolving, so are practical solutions. Have regular competitions for better safety ideas and allow staff, parents and youth to submit them. Not every idea has to be rewarded with money. Provide some small but meaningful recognition, such as a lunch or break in their honor.
- Look for the natural safety advocates within the organization. The advocates should be those people who have a passion for safety (not simply compliance), are natural teachers and love to bring out the best in others.
- Create an active safety oversight committee. This group’s job is to help the organization to find the “levers” that make the most difference in protecting people and speak truth to power when progress is not being made. Often this group is a standing committee of the organization’s board, supplemented by several outside safety or security experts who volunteer their time. If possible, they should meet quarterly and issue a written, annual report to the full board.
Do these 10 things and you will be in the leading 1% of youth serving organizations!
The scale of activity involving the sexual abuse and exploitation of children is hard for organizations or individuals to truly understand. It is generally agreed that approximately 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before they reach adulthood, meaning there are hundreds of thousands of acts of abuse in the U.S. each year. Experts do not agree on the total number of children who are molested each year because the phenomenon is greatly under-reported. I believe it would be safe to say that several hundred thousand U.S. children are adversely affected by sexual abuse or exploitation each year and the effects upon children can be significant. A study, funded through the National Institute of Drug Abuse found that the victims of abuse (female victims were surveyed) were 2.83 times more likely to develop drug dependence, alcohol dependence and psychological disorders.
Equally shocking, is the number of adults in the U.S. who might sexually abuse a child. In a 2012 study, researchers estimated that approximately 7% of the U.S. adult population had some level of sexual interest in children. By comparison, there are approximately 850,000 registered sex offenders. This means that there are many millions more adults who should not be working with children, than can be successfully screened out by criminal background checks. I hasten to add that conducting a thorough, multi-level, background check is one of the most important steps an organization can take.
For these and other reasons, organizations need a thorough program in place to evaluate any adult employee or volunteer who will be in direct and repetitive contact with the children in the organization’s programs and activities. Such a program would not only address screening, but include updating the organization’s safety-related policies, defined appropriate, inappropriate and prohibited behaviors by adults and youth, a training program for staff, multiple means of reporting concerns, misconduct or suspected abuse, facility assessments and reporting requirements. Youth-serving organizations must keep in mind that by the very nature, they are obligated to ensure that every adult who is given access to children has been screened, trained and is monitored so that the children under the organization’s care are safe.
Successful youth-serving organizations must balance out many priorities in order succeed, year after year. Child protection is, logically, a top priority but once certain standards are met, the organization may come to believe the problem is solved and child safety and security is fully under control because (a) it has not experienced a high-severity safety or security incident in recent memory and (b) no one is examining the frequent but low-severity incidents that may indicate behavioral patterns that are reckless or potentially malicious. In short, no one is assigned to connect the dots and the organization continues to think it is good, until its luck runs out.
For this reason, every youth-serving organization needs an independent oversight body who is tasked with examining patterns that could lead to a disaster, bridging across various “silos” (departments) and fully respected by the organization’s leadership and board. The group may be a standing committee of the board or an independent group, what matters is that they help overcome the natural complacency that settles in after an organization experiences some safety improvement.
Since the birth of the internet, everything digital has evolved at lightning speed, including electronic security and this certainly applies to electronic security, such as cameras, sensors, access control devices, alarms and notification systems. All of these have gotten better, smaller, easier to install, more integrated with each other and less expensive.
However, while cameras, electronic locks and other devices help with security by monitoring remote areas or limiting unauthorized access, they are only as good as the personnel who install, maintain and monitor them. A culture of cameras, locks and alarms cannot replace with a culture of safety based on awareness, positive modeling of behaviors and personal responsibility throughout the organization.