Handling Suspected Child Abuse

How do nonprofits respond when the unthinkable happens: a child comes to her school (or her church, after-school program, or daycare) with a bruise on her arm and other questionable indicators behavior of concern?  Or when a program participant shares that a staff worker has touched him inappropriately?  The potential harm may be personally devastating, and the adverse organizational implications may be enormous, as exemplified in recent years by Catholic churches, Penn State University, and many other organizations.               

Regardless of the scope and gravity of suspected abuse, nonprofit organizations that provide care and other services to children, the elderly, and mentally disabled adults (collectively “vulnerable persons”) need to be well equipped to handle potential abuse situations.  To protect and support all those involved with vulnerable persons, responsible nonprofits should develop written abuse prevention policies.  Nonprofit leaders need to include specific protocols for addressing suspected child abuse - within their prescribed policies and in actual practice - including the following key measures.    

Prepare for Potential Problems.

  1. Develop an abuse prevention policy that provides for sufficient supervision and training regarding care for vulnerable persons, and follow it!
  2. Understand legal reporting obligations for the nonprofit worker who has observed any suspected abuse, and include a summary in the abuse prevention policy.  Each state varies: in some states, only certain people are “mandated reporters” for child abuse (e.g., teachers, social workers, public safety officials); some states make everyone a “mandated reporter”; certain privileges may apply for clergy members; and other special reporting obligations may apply for adult abuse.  Specific reporting information should be contained in the nonprofit organization’s written abuse prevention policy, with telephone or website hotline information readily available.
  3. Understand internal reporting obligations, again as reflected in the organization’s written abuse prevention policy.  A volunteer definitely should report the problem to a supervisor, in addition to any independent reporting obligations as a “mandated reporter.” 
  4. Make sure that your organization has appropriate insurance to cover potential harm caused by a staff worker or volunteer, including legal defense costs in the event the organization is named as a defendant.

Address the Immediate Situation Safely and Discretely.

  1. If abuse is suspected, remove any alleged perpetrator from further involvement with any suspected abuse situation within a nonprofit’s facility or other control, as soon as possible yet with dignity and respect for all involved.
  2. Complete a written incident report to gather basic information such as names, contact information, relationships involved, date, place, witnesses, observations, and what the victim shared.  Beyond this initial information-gathering stage, do not attempt an investigation. This should be left to professionals who are familiar with these cases.
  3. Notify parents or guardians of the suspected victim, unless such persons are the suspected abusers (in which case the government authorities’ directions should be sought and followed).  The nonprofit’s supervisors also need to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure the safety of the suspected victim until responsible parents, guardians, or authorities arrive.
  4. Treat an alleged perpetrator with dignity and support.  If the accused is a nonprofit worker, as a precautionary measure, relieve him or her temporarily of all care-related duties until the investigation is completed. 

Take Follow-Up Protective Measures.

  1. Consult experienced legal counsel, who can provide advice on mandated reporter obligations, the scope and applicability of any clergy privilege, the privacy requirements of a victim and/or the accused, communications with other nonprofit personnel, media relations, and other publicity considerations.
  2. Report the incident internally and to outside authorities, as per above.
  3. Report the incident to the nonprofit’s insurance carrier, if it involves allegations of wrongdoing by a nonprofit staff member or volunteer.
  4. Maintain confidentiality as appropriate under the circumstances, to guard the legally protectable privacy interests of all involved and in light of the matter’s sensitive nature.  Such confidentiality measures should apply to the alleged victim, the alleged perpetrator, and the worker reporting the suspected abuse, and as appropriate for the specific situation.  Keep all documentation in a secure place.
  5. Any disclosures should be made discretely and only on a “need to know” basis, particularly in light of critical confidentiality considerations.  A nonprofit representative may be appointed as a “point person,” to handle inquires from concerned individuals, such as church members, families, or other interested persons.
  6. In high-profile situations, a designated organizational representative, in consultation with legal counsel, may need to speak to the media and others regarding the matter in a discreet, informed, and diplomatic way.
  7. Subsequent care should be offered to the alleged victim, perpetrator, and others affected by the alleged abuse, within the nonprofit leadership’s compassionate wisdom and discretion.