Risk Management: Child Maltreatment Risks and Strategies

by Ed Schirick

Risk Assessment

Child maltreatment is a plague in our society. This is a fact. Historically, there was a lack of awareness about the scope of the problem. This has changed over time. In the mid-1980s Americans were shocked to hear the allegations of child sexual abuse and molestation involving a California childcare center. This event brought the issue of child sexual abuse and molestation to center stage.

The impact of this event has been wide and continuous. At the time, it created some panic and overreaction among the public, insurance underwriters, and state regulators. The allegations of child sexual abuse and molestation ruined the lives of some teachers, who were wrongfully accused. Our society was changed by this event. It would never be the same again. Ultimately, the McMartin case served a vital purpose. It increased awareness about the risk of child sexual abuse and molestation, which has lead to a commitment to protect the children. This commitment manifested itself in individuals and businesses serving children and included significant efforts from federal (National Child Protection Act of 1993; The Volunteers for Children Act in 1998; Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act - CAPTA) and state government to reduce the risks and protect our children.

Over fifteen years have passed since the reports of sexual abuse at that childcare center made national news. In my opinion, our society has made real progress toward fighting this plague. Unfortunately, events of the past year may cause some to dispute this statement. Others disagree more fundamentally and believe we have not done enough to deal with the problem of child maltreatment. They believe perceptions of progress are illusory. Regardless of opinion, the fact remains, children continue to be neglected by their parents, sexually abused by family members and others, exploited, beaten, bullied, and emotionally abused in shocking numbers.

Scope

There is a lag in the data on child maltreatment and some dispute over the sources. The federal government keeps the statistics. The U. S. Department of Health and Human Service, Children's Bureau, published a report on child maltreatment in 1998, which cited 2.8 million reports of child maltreatment per year. That means that child abuse is reported, on average, every ten seconds! Some experts think the incidence of child maltreatment is actually understated. The data in the report is available for you to review. You can find the report on the Internet at www.childhelpusa.org.

Risk Identification

Increased awareness often leads to identification of new risks and new thoughts about old risks. You probably noticed the use of the words child maltreatment. In the past, much of our focus on risk management at camp has been directed toward sexual abuse and molestation and more recently toward sexual harassment. This focused effort runs the risk of developing compartmentalized thinking and of losing sight of the bigger picture. Successful management of the risks of child maltreatment, including sexual abuse and molestation, requires a balanced approach. The focus on sexual abuse and molestation is understandable - it is one manifestation of our society's frustration over this issue. On the other hand, insurance underwriters have raised the issue and forced attention to it as a precondition to transferring the risk. While this has been valuable and probably necessary, we can't lose sight of the bigger picture of child maltreatment.

Experts have defined child maltreatment to include sexual abuse, exploitation, or molestation (sexual activity between a child and an adult, or a child with an older child), physical abuse (non-accidental injury to a child including hazing and bullying behaviors), emotional abuse (attacking a child's self-worth including belittling, insulting, or manipulating behavior), sexual harassment, and neglect (failure to protect a child from harm, or provide for basic needs). As we consider the implications of this expanded risk definition and broader perspective, a renewed commitment is needed to address these issues in an increasingly complex environment.

Build New Strategies

Prevention of child maltreatment is not a separate strategy. It should be integrated with your camp's overall plans for risk management. It is just as important as your plans for prevention and reduction of the risks of accidental injury.

The risk of child maltreatment threatens camps from outside, as well as inside, the camp organization. Perpetrators can be parents who abuse and mistreat their children at home before they come to camp. Other perpetrators can be volunteers, counselors, pedophiles, strangers/intruders, as well as other campers.

How does your camp's risk management plan address the risks in the expanded definition of child maltreatment? Have you identified all possible sources of attack? Are you satisfied, or can you do more? If you think you can do more, take some time now to consider the bigger picture.

Successful risk management plans require support and commitment from management. This includes moral support, as well as, financial and administrative backing. As the director, you must "live" the risk management philosophy you espouse and require it from others if it is to succeed.

Screening staff
The first line of defense in risk management is screening staff in order to hire the most qualified, capable people for the job. This process starts with a comprehensive application. The hiring process involves more than a simple skill check. It requires taking some time to determine what kind of person each applicant is and how he or she will fit into the culture and environment of your camp. While there are some scientific methods for determining the match, this is more art than science and requires sensitivity and experience, as well as excellent "people skills."

A 1995 report by the American Bar Association's Center on Children and the Law studied effective screening techniques for employing youth service workers. They discovered the most effective technique was a personal interview. Take some time to think about the qualities and characteristics of the counselor with the "right stuff" for your camp, so you'll know them when you see them. Take some time to review your interview questions in light of some of the additional child maltreatment issues mentioned above.

Besides a comprehensive application, personal interviews, and reference checks, many camps are using background checks. Most insurance companies providing camp liability insurance require a background check of some type. This is a valuable additional screening tool, but is not a panacea to concerns about child maltreatment. Background checks may or may not be available on international staff, which presents another risk factor. Check out the latest information on the type of background checks available in your state.

Staff Training
Staff training is another key element of your camp's risk management plan. Training on sexual misconduct issues should be expanded to include other child maltreatment issues, such as bullying behavior and emotional abuse, among other potential risk issues. Some insurance companies have had abuse and molestation claims develop out of post camp season contact between campers and staff. Consider developing a policy that controls or prohibits this type of contact. Be sure to include information for staff about how they can protect themselves from spurious or false allegations from campers or other staff. It is important for staff to know that you support and care about them, too. Clear, consistent communication about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior and what to do when they witness or experience unacceptable behavior can go a long way toward maintaining control and reducing the risks.

Supervision
Supervision is the other key ingredient. Educate your supervisory staff separately from other staff. Help your supervisors understand that they are truly your "eyes and ears." Enlist them in the development of your camp's risk management philosophy. Encourage them to make unannounced visits to cabins, program areas, pools, and bathrooms. Wander around, but with a purpose. Make them responsible and hold them accountable for implementing the plan. Reward them well for the behaviors you see and want them to repeat. Correct them quickly, privately, and sensitively if you observe they are not implementing the supervisory and risk management plan appropriately.

Teamwork

Effective risk management is teamwork. Take some time to review your current plan in light of the child maltreatment issues raised here and the other risk management issues, that confront you at camp each summer. Evaluate your plan. Enlist your key staff. Get their advice. Then make the necessary changes, so you can be ready for next year.

Originally published in the 2002 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.