For as long as I can remember, summer camps and scouting programs have been invested in giving children the skills to navigate their worlds in a bigger and bolder way, by providing a place to explore outside formal educational systems in safe spaces, gently moderated by adults who foster growth in healthy ways.
When stories of abuse within some of these programs began to surface about two decades ago, many administrators implemented policies and procedures to protect the children in their care.
In order for these policies to protect children from sexual abuse, we need to understand the anatomy of assault.
Addressing access and isolation:
Perpetrators look for systems that have flaws in security, just like any other criminal. They need access to potential targets, the possibility of isolating them, and to instil just enough fear, misplaced trust, or shame, to keep them silent.
To mitigate the risk of sexual assault in your organization, all of these issues must be addressed. Practical requirements should include a policy that no staff member may be alone with a child, along with an open-door policy, creating visually open spaces where all can be seen. Adding security cameras in areas with less visibility and making sure restrooms are located in high traffic areas will help enforce these policies.
But isolation can be created without physical walls. It can be emotional and social too. The process for reporting inappropriate behavior must be accessible, safe and sensitive. When all staff and charges are treated with respect and are expected to treat others with respect, you will have created a safe and inclusive community.
For sexual abuse prevention policies to work, there must also be a zero-tolerance policy for any breaches. Inappropriate comments, conversations, and behaviors must lead to immediate termination.
The staff member with a child, “just for a second," in a bunk getting a towel, alone - that must necessarily be their last day on the job.
Zero-tolerance means zero-tolerance. As a program director, I know that any employee’s inappropriate behavior could cost my organization a loss of trust with stakeholders, a legal suit for damages, or the loss of revenue. It is my responsibility to mitigate that risk.
A paradigm shift:
The policies and procedures implemented over the last 20 years to protect children from sexual abuse by many organizations are commendable. However, the majority of these changes came from a “not in my backyard” policy, and while they are a vital first step, they are not enough. If your goal is to build stronger kids and educate for a better future, you must strive for more.
A good comparison is swimming.
A program could simply forbid children to go in the water because it is too dangerous. In this case, as long as the policy is implemented, no child would ever drown. That may protect them during their summer at camp, but would be much less fun, and wouldn’t protect them from any other body of water encountered in the future.
When kids learn to swim, they have the skills forever. Investing in swimming skills keep them safer, even long after leaving camp.
Of course, there are still necessary policies and procedures, like a requirement for a lifeguard and swimming with a buddy, but teaching practical skills to engage with water in a safe way invests in a child’s future ability to navigate water safely.
To take this argument one step further, even with all of the best practices, policies, and protections, one day, someone might still drown.
And you will look at why it happened and how you can do better, but you will know that your program did everything possible to prevent that unfortunate drowning.
How would that be different if all you had done is set policies and procedures for never going near the lake?
Somehow, when it comes to safety around people, the biggest “ocean” we swim in, we invest in policies and procedures, but not practical skills.
Violence prevention education, specifically Empowerment Self Defense, is to sexual assault what swimming lessons are to water safety.
If you want to invest in children, find programs that focus on primary prevention, like Empowerment Self Defense, which teach emotional, verbal, and physical skills for dealing with violence and abuse as it begins to develop.
Skills that can be used to create a stronger future because we know that most of the danger that awaits children is still ahead of them, once they leave our programs.
Let’s give them a fighting chance.