A Florida preschool recently learned a hard lesson about the importance of good child protection. The case, Jane Doe et al v. Bright Horizons Children's Centers, was a heartbreaking story of child sexual abuse.1 Several parents had complained to the preschool about a music teacher who would tickle children. Nothing came of the complaint. The music teacher was later arrested for molesting three of the children at the preschool.
The parents of one of the children filed suit. After a 9-day jury trial, the case settled after a jury returned a verdict for $3 million to the family.
What makes this case important for further consideration is how much the preschool’s policies played into the case. The family argued that the preschool’s policies allowed the music teacher to tickle kids, put them on his lap, and bounce them up and down. Allowing this behavior gave the music teacher a chance to gain the trust of the children and other adults around them. This “grooming theory” argued that because the teacher abused children while doing something he was authorized to do, the preschool should be liable.
Carol Shakeshaft, a prominent expert on sexual abuse, testified that the preschool’s policies fell below the standard of care and that the preschool failed to properly investigate the issue when parents complained about the tickling.
Ultimately, the jury agreed and handed out a hefty award. Though the final settlement amount is confidential, the jury’s verdict is an indication of how serious these issues can be for an organization that works with children.
Several important lessons can be learned from this case:
1. Policies Make a Difference.
What makes this case important for the future is that the family initially had an uphill battle to get the preschool on the hook. Other cases in Florida did not support the preschool being liable under a vicarious liability theory. But the inadequate policies here were enough to support such a theory of liability. Because the policies allowed abuse to occur, the preschool became responsible.
2. Be Sure Your Child Protection Policy Meets Best Practices.
Organizations need a child protection policy, and the policy must be solid. It should meet established standards and ensure that children are not put in a situation where these grooming behaviors can easily take place. At Telios Law, we often assist organizations in drafting child protection policies that will ensure kids are kept safe and the organization is set up for success.
3. Follow Your Policy.
Even the best child protection policy is not worth much if it is not actually implemented. Sometimes failure to follow a policy is worse than not having one at all. This is because a policy creates a standard of care. If that standard is consistently ignored or not followed, it can land the organization in trouble. Ensure staff and volunteers understand the policy and are adequately trained.
4. Promptly Investigate Any Behavior and Take Action if Necessary.
In this case, parents had told the preschool that the music teacher’s tickling of children made them uncomfortable. But these issues were never addressed. If the preschool had promptly investigated the complaints about inappropriate tickling, it may have discovered that the music teacher’s interactions with children were not appropriate. Possibly, it could have prevented abuse from occurring. It is important to have a system in place to promptly investigate complaints of improper behavior. Particularly, any complaint about touching children should be treated seriously.
Take issues like these seriously. What may seem like a simple boundary violation could really be the tip of the iceberg. By enacting policies that will protect children, organizations can work toward ensuring that incidents like these will rarely happen.
1Information about the facts of this case are attributed to Celia Ampel, Settlement Follows $3 Million Award to Girl Molested at Preschool, Daily Business Review, Apr. 21, 2016, available here. Visit the article for more detailed information about the case.
Featured Image: "Boyontracks" by MorgueFile.
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