Once an employee or volunteer has been hired, it is important to communicate what type of behavior is and is not appropriate. Staff must also understand what a position of authority means and how not to abuse it, claims sexual abuse expert Cordelia Anders. There should be clear policy statements against sexualized relationships and sexual, emotional and physical abuse.
Generally, it is advisable to not let one adult be alone with a child. No overnight trips should be allowed that have only one adult supervising.
Children should also receive training on sexual abuse, bullying, hazing and sexual behavior problems, which all can be related. Encourage children to talk about things that are bothering them, including peer-to-peer and adult-to-child incidents or activities.
Create an environment where abuse is unlikely - where there are no secrets and no one is above questioning. Both child and adult bystanders should be encouraged to know about abuse and to do something about it if they suspect abuse is occurring. What that “something” is depends on the transgression. Cordelia Anderson, who operates her own prevention consultation business and is the immediate past president of the National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation, says it could be directly intervening with the abuser by saying ‘That makes me uncomfortable when you say or do this.’ It could be supporting the victim or going directly to the police.
Although more people are reporting abuse directly to law enforcement, Anderson offers a word of caution, especially with child-on-child abuse.
“Sexual behavior problems [in youth] are very often reactive,” she says. “They are reacting to something they’ve seen or has been done to them. They are reacting to sexual trauma. We need to get in there, help them and give them the opportunity to correct it.”
She also recommends this approach with an adult where there is a minor boundary violation that isn’t a criminal act. “If I had no ill intent and I were asked to stop, I would stop immediately,” Anderson says. “If the person stops, great. People can mistake things, and they can learn more about the impact of their behavior on others and change.”
The key is to find the balance between underreacting and overreacting.
The Boy Scouts of America has developed good training programs on this topic. For more information, go to www.scouting.org/training/youthprotection.aspx.