Presidents, Pastors, Principals and Superintendents - Wake Up!

Nonprofit: How Can We Prevent The Next Penn State Scandal?
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Amidst all of the political shenanigans, world coming-to-an-end drama and heart-wrenching tragedy of the last few months, some may have missed that charges of perjury, conspiracy and endangering the welfare of children were filed against former Penn State President Graham Spanier. This should make leaders of all child-serving organizations do more than just pause. This is a wake-up call to those in leadership positions that protecting children, as my dear colleague, Retired Lt. Bill Walsh likes to say "is not a spectator sport."

Much will be written and much needs to be done to protect children from those who are mentally ill and strangers to our children. But here is another harsh reality. In our Children's Advocacy Center (CAC), a nationally-recognized best practice model for effectively serving our community's most severely abused children, last year we provided services for about 2,300 children harmed by those who were supposed to love or protect them. Most of these children were sexually abused, severely physically abused, or witnessed a violent crime.

More than 90% of the time, children are abused by someone they know and trust. I never imagined so many devastating reports of sexual violence against our young, but now these are "everyday" occurrences. I never imagined our most common client would be a 9-year-old little girl sexually abused by a known and trusted "father figure." That is the reality we see week after week, month after month, year after year.

According to the Children's Defense Fund's report on the State of American Children, every 42 seconds a child is confirmed as abused or neglected. Every five hours a child is killed by abuse or neglect. These aren't statistics from some third world country. These are from the land of the free and the home of the brave.

So, here is a New Year's question to ponder. Who among us is fostering the right environment for the next "father figure" like Jerry Sandusky in our school, day care, place of worship, university, camp, or after-school program? Perhaps we've done all the right things on paper: we have written policies in place that are intended to protect children on our campuses, and we do background checks on our employees and volunteers. Isn't that enough? No. That would be the absolute minimum. Most children never speak of sexual abuse; most abusers are never caught. Even those who are caught may not be prosecuted for myriad reasons. So we cannot believe our organizations are safe if we simply do a cursory background check and include a page in our policy manuals. We, all of us, as leaders, as concerned adults, must be engaged champions for protecting all children.

Despite what we see and hear every single day in our hallways, we are not pessimists. Those in our nonprofit agency are full of hope. We believe that each child has the capacity to heal from trauma. We know we can do better for our children, and we know that all leaders in child-serving agencies can play a huge role in sending a message that "enough is enough." What can we all do to send that message?

Read and implement the recommendations from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Preventing Child Sexual Abuse Within Youth-serving Organizations: Getting Started on Policies and Procedures.

Require annual training on child protection that includes information on the grooming process that child predators use to lure our children. Part of our mission is to provide free training to thousands of professionals who work with children. We teach them how to Recognize and Report Child Abuse in face-to-face training sessions or online.

Reach out to your local Children's Advocacy Center. If you don't already have a relationship with your local advocacy center, reach out to someone this week. A listing of CACs can be found on the National Children's Alliance website.

Ensure that "practices" match up with policies and state law. Ask questions - lots of them. Uncover your unwritten practices. At a school recently, after our trainer spelled out the requirements of Texas state law in explicit terms, namely that those who suspect abuse have 48 hours to make the report to authorities, a leader of the school stood and said, "That may be state law, but you better come to me first before you take any action." We've had the same experience in places of worship.

So, let's be very clear about this. It is fine to have a policy that we want our employees or volunteers to let us know when they are making a report of suspected abuse, but it is not fine for us to have practices or policies that screen, deter or try to convince the person who has the suspicion not to make a report. It is not fine to do our own internal investigations before contacting the authorities. It is not fine to look the other way, hope the problem will disappear or never be spoken of again.

Mr. Spanier has yet to have his day in court, but we are patiently waiting for the outcome. Will the buck stop with him? What could he have done? What can we learn from his mistakes? While we can never provide 100% protection and eliminate all possibilities of harm to our children, there is much we can control. Let's all pay attention, take a hard look at our policies and our unwritten practices, and train our teams. Let's all make the world a little bit safer for our children in 2013.

Ellen Magnis is chief of external affairs at the Dallas Children's Advocacy Center in Dallas, Texas, and an OpEd Project Public Voices fellow at Texas Woman's University.

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