Barriers to Preventing Abuse

By John Patterson with Charles Tremper and Pam Rypkema
From , Nonprofit Risk Management Center., 1995

Several factors commonly stand in the way of a child abuse protection initiatives. Among the most powerful are denial of the problem, rejection of responsibility for the problem, overemphasis on protecting the organization, an unreceptive organizational culture, lack of policy guidelines, and lack of assigned responsibility.


None of us likes to think anybody would sexually assault or physically batter children. We want to believe that the longtime volunteer coach was only measuring his catcher for a new pair of pants, but still wonder why the boy was naked. We want to believe that our summer camps are safe, so we disregard the moving shadows in the moonlight. We cannot imagine that a stepfather could be a pimp for his six-year old daughter. We know intellectually that abuse may happen, but cannot accept in our hearts that it will happen in our programs. All of these are examples of denial.

The best antidote to denial is exposure to stark reality. You can invite a representative from child protective services or from your local law enforcement agency to speak to your board of directors or other policy makers. You can talk with representatives of other organizations who have gone through the emotional trauma of a child abuse case in their organization. And, hopefully, the wake up call will not come from a child abuse incident in your organization.

"Not Our Problem"

This attitude is an extension of the denial reaction. Some organizations consider child abuse to be solely a societal phenomenon beyond their control. They reject the notion that they have a responsibility to go beyond basic programmatic concerns. Some may even question the presence of child abuse as a societal problem, let alone a problem the organization must confront--they feel that the problem is overblown by media hype. Some organizations get very defensive if they are asked about their child abuse problem. Some organizations believe that they do not need to be concerned because children and youth are not their primary service recipients.

To overcome resistance to acknowledging that child abuse is your organization's problem, you may need to stress the moral obligation to protect children. If you get nowhere, you can point to insurers' requirements and lawsuits.

Protecting the Organization

The top priority for some organizations is protecting itself when child abuse occurs A flurry of press releases extols the organization's services to children and its record of accomplishment. "So-and-so is a long time dedicated staff member with an impeccable record, and the charges are the result of an overactive imagination."

The board of an organization that provides medical care for children in other countries exemplifies this attitude (Claiborne). The executive director of this organization was a doctor, the author of a very popular self-help medical manual, and a past recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. According to the report, he also had been sexually abusing children for years. During part of that time, several board members knew of his sexual misconduct but maintained their silence for the sake of the organization. The combination of concern about damaging the organization, uncertainty about the wrongfulness of the doctor's conduct, and squeamishness about addressing the matter at a board meeting allowed the abuse to continue.

Organizational Culture

Organizational culture consists of the values, beliefs and traditions deep-rooted in the organization. The culture of some organizations blocks them from addressing sensitive issues such as child abuse. For example, an organization that accepts the principle of human redemption may wish to reject the rule that a person who molests a child should never have unsupervised access to children again. Organizations that endorse the adage that "sparing the rod spoils the child" may not accept the idea that physical punishment can be abusive.

Some organizations have traditions relating to specific activities such as camping or sports. Veteran staff-paid and volunteer-may resist changes to their program that would break with tradition. They may argue that nothing bad happened before or that changing now would mean admitting they were wrong in the past.

Strong sensitivity to individual rights can also be a roadblock. Concern about individual rights functions usefully by preventing totalitarianism in the name of protecting children, but rights need to be balanced against children's needs. Inquiring into an individual's sexual history would be a terrible invasion of privacy in most programs. If the individual is applying to be a volunteer mentor, however, the invasion may be justified.

Child abuse prevention can fit into most organizations without requiring major changes in program activities or in values dear to the organization. Most adults working with children are parents and appreciate the efforts of organizations to protect the children they serve. Emphasizing that benefit can ease the process regardless of organizational culture.

Lack of Policy Guidelines

If an organization has never addressed the issue of child abuse, there may be a policy vacuum. Discomfort with the topic or concern about offending anyone may have prevented adoption of a clear, cohesive, and adequate plan for protecting children. Many smaller organizations have few formal policies. Developing and implementing child strategies may need to start with creation of a policy-making process to conduct the necessary work.

An organization that has not developed its child abuse prevention strategies might begin by creating a task force consisting of employees, volunteers and parents to review the material in this Primer and the resources it lists, examine existing policies, and develop strategies appropriate for the organization.

Responsibility Not Assigned

Sometimes organizations have policies to prevent child abuse, but no one has the responsibility of overseeing their implementation. A policy without oversight may be more damaging to the organization than no policy at all. By having a policy, the organization is giving lip service to its responsibility for prevention. Pronouncements without action may be seen as hypocritical and self-serving.

Primary responsibility for child abuse prevention ordinarily needs to be assigned to a specific individual or department. Depending on the size and structure of the organization, that person might be the director of personnel, the risk manager, a vice president for programs, or the executive director. One person cannot, however, bear the entire burden. Child abuse prevention should be a part of every position description.

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