Implementing Child Abuse Protection Practices for Youth-Serving Organizations

There are many misconceptions regarding the field of child abuse; around the actions of child victims, their responses to the abuse, and the characteristics of these offenders, just to name a few. Kenneth Lanning, MS and Park Dietz MD, MPH, PhD1 discuss these issues in their article, Acquaintance Molestation and Youth-Serving Organizations. Lanning and Dietz provide ways that youth-serving organizations can work to protect their organization and the youth they serve from child abuse. These protection practices include: the screening of paid and volunteer workers; continual management and supervision of those workers; how to respond to complaints, suspicions, and allegations; and prevention and awareness programs.

The Complexities of Child Abuse

In the past, child abuse was understood to be strangers on the street trying to abduct children. Lanning and Dietz explain that this is not primarily what we now understand child abuse to be. Child abuse is most often perpetrated by someone close to the child; in the child’s inner circle. Child abusers may be family members or “acquaintance molesters” who have gained access to the child’s life through school, sports teams, or other extracurricular activities.

Our society has a hard time recognizing these acquaintance molesters, because they are not seen as evil predators, but as “nice guys” who are admired and easily able to fit in with social norms. They are not only able to groom the child, but they are able to groom the environment to believe they would never harm a child. These offenders will try to rationalize their behavior or sexual interests in children, and will hide these interests from others.

Another misconception regarding child abuse is that all children will say (or can be trained to say) no, yell, and tell. The concept of a “compliant victim” goes against the idea of an innocent child victim who is violently taken advantage of. A compliant victim cooperates in the sexual abuse and may feel he or she is “consenting” to the sexual activity, although by law this is impossible. These compliant victims have been groomed to trust their offender and may have strong feelings for their offender that keep them from disclosing abuse. We must recognize that even if youth are “willing” participants in their abuse, they are no less victims than those who are unwilling.

The grooming process looks different for offenders who prefer younger children than those who prefer older children. In order to groom younger children, the offender must also groom the caregivers into trusting them. The caregivers may even encourage their child to spend time with this offender. Offenders who prefer older children groom them by finding time that they are away from their caregivers and using tactics such as engaging them in rebellious activities and encouraging them with sexual curiosity and arousal.

What Can Organizations Do To Prevent Abuse?

Lanning and Dietz go on to provide a a number of good ideas for preventing abuse.

  1. Proper Screening Process

    • Lanning and Dietz recommend a basic screening process, including a written application, pre-employment interviews, reference checks, and an appropriate criminal-history background check.
    • Organizations need to be wary of the type of criminal background check they are running: some are poorly done or incomplete, which may give these organizations a false sense of security. It is important to not run checks that are limited to one state or county, but to run those that are nationwide.
    • They recommend that these background checks are run again periodically to ensure they are up to date.
    • In the interview process, it is difficult to see any red flags because there is no “profile” predicting if someone will abuse a child. There are behavioral indicators to look for, however, such as: excessive interest in children, limited peer relationships, hobbies and interests appealing to children, and more.
    • They emphasize the difference between early warning signs and late warning signs, or when the grooming or victimization is already in progress. Early warning signs look like: a strong preference for a particular gender or age group, extracurricular activities involving others’ children, or being more comfortable with children than adults. Late warning signs look like: giving extra attention, favors, or gifts to one or a few children, involvement with the child’s personal life, and private time with the child.
  2. Management and Supervision
    • A crucial step is developing clear and specific job descriptions, policies, and procedures for those who have access to youth.
    • It is important that all employees and volunteers take responsibility and monitor behavior and interactions within the organization.
    • Organizations should restrict out-of-program contact with the youth they serve. They should also have policies in place such as only having group activities, or always maintaining the presence of two adults with youth.
  3. Responding to Suspicions, Complaints, and Allegations
    • Reporting should be encouraged and personnel should be trained to recognize and report early and late warning signs as well as obvious sexual acts.
    • Organizations should comply with mandatory reporting laws and encourage maximal reporting, so when personnel see something, they should say something. People should also know who to report to as some agencies, such as Child Protective Services, may only investigate intrafamilial abuse.
    • It is important to keep in mind that although a report or suspicion may not be criminal, it does not mean that the organization should continue to allow that person access to children. These decisions may be complicated and need an outside expert to assist in evaluating them.
  4. Prevention and Awareness Programs
    • Education of staff, volunteers, parents/guardians and in some cases, youth will be helpful in preventing child abuse, including the notion that many offenders are the “nice guys.”
    • These prevention and awareness programs are difficult with “compliant” victims, because at the start, the offender’s actions may not seem problematic; actions such as investing in the life of children, listening to their problems, and filling needs otherwise unmet in their lives. (The program needs to be set up so children can be served in these ways, but with appropriate boundaries.)

Lanning and Dietz’s article is a good summary of current issues in child protection. For other material, see Telios Teaches’ videos on Child Safety Training.


1 Dietz, K. V. (2014). Acquantaince Molestation and Youth-Serving Organizations. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1-24.

Featured Image by Rebecca Sidebotham.

Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations