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Friday, July 27, 2012

Lessons Learned from the Penn State Scandal

By: Tommy Eden Attorney, Capell & Howard, P.C.

The Penn State child molestation scandal should be a wake-up call for every organization that provides organized activities for children. If there is one thing that our society will not forgive, it is the institutional failure to protect children. Children 18 and under are considered minors in the State of Alabama.

Those in leadership positions should ask themselves, “have we done all we can to protect the children under our care from sexual abuse?” The following seven questions are a good risk reduction audit:

 1. Are we acting like our organization is immune to child sexual abuse? No organization is immune, not the church, not a prestigious university and not a youth sports program. Complacency is the greatest ally of the pedophile.

2. Have we considered what would happen if a child is abused in our care? You need look no further than the latest headlines and trial testimony, to see the lasting emotional scars sexual abuse leaves not only with the children, but on the organization. For years to come people will drive by pointing out, “there is the place that the children were abused.” That stigma can last for decades.

3. Do we understand the benefits of having a program to prevent child sexual abuse? A preventative program begins with a legally defensible written policy and education on Alabama’s mandatory and permissive child abuse reporting requirements when child abuse is suspected. The most successful way to protect both children and to protect workers from false allegations is the two adult rule (an that is two unrelated adults). In my church law practice, I cannot recall a single verified incident of child sexual abuse when the two adult rule was followed. The second most important rule is the use of view windows and open doors.

 4. How should we screen our workers? The first step to worker screening is the use of a written application where they also consent to background checks. Then the level of background checks depends on whether the worker is paid or volunteer. Many organizations will require workers to obtain a criminal background check from the local sheriff and utilize the free DHR background check service. The highest level of background check should be conducted on paid staff as that is typically where 99% of these claims arise.

 5. How should we supervise our youth workers? Hallway monitors, camera surveillance, unexpected drop-in and a variety of other ways can be utilized to supervise youth workers. That also includes spend the night parties and other off-campus activities. The same vigilance should be followed.

 6. How should we identify and report incidents of child sexual abuse? The level of reporting will many times depend on whether they are mandatory or permissive reports to DHR under Alabama law. The organization's policies should identify to whom reports are made, who will speak for the organization and have available forms and checklists. Building a paper trail of compliance for the organization is extremely important to prove that it acted timely and appropriately.

7. How should we respond to incidents of sexual abuse? Timely and completely. Never cover-up child sexual abuse! It can be a crime as much as the abuse itself and a multitude of additional lives can be ruined if a timely report is not made.

Tommy Eden is an attorney with Capell & Howard, P.C. and has presented on Child Protection Programs to numerous organizations throughout the south. He can be contacted at tme@chlaw.com, 334-501-1540 or www.AlabamaAtWork.com. Alabama Immigration updates at www.ImmigrationAlabamaLaw.com.