Note: My Child Safety Handbook for Youth Workers is at this point a work in progress. Several folks have asked to see it as it takes shape, so I’ve made the unusual decision to share it in draft form as it develops. The completed project will show up as a free eBook, but here it is, warts and all!
For those of us working with children and teens, the topic of “child safety” can be vast, complex and confusing. Confusing because some sources of potentially useful resources are also trying to sell you something and use fear as a motivating factor to get you to take action, frequently, with your wallet, first. Other sources, both in print and online, are espousing a particular clinical approach or are reflecting the philosophy of an organization, program, faith community or public agency, which is fine for them but perhaps not for you. In addition, some resources out there also seem to be written by people who clearly don’t work with children or teens! And if that’s not enough to turn you off completely, some child safety manuals appear to have been abridged (commandeered?) by the legal department and are jam-packed with so much legalese it renders the document nearly useless to the day-to-day youth worker.
My goal is to avoid all that and to give you, whether you are a youth worker, therapist, parent or clergy person, information that is pertinent and immediately useful to your work with children and minors. Some aspects of understanding and providing safety in your youth programming is simply employing common sense and “thinking safety” with everything that you do. Other components require policy development and training, which of course takes longer to get up and running.
First, I’ll cover the most basic factors to consider and then move into the more difficult areas to be aware of So let’s get started!
A Brief History of Child Protection in America
Why start here? Because if you don’t know where we’ve been in this area as a nation, is hard to understand how we got to the place we’re in now in terms of our laws at the Federal and state levels. Skip this section if you want for now, but do come back and read it through at some point.
Whether you are looking for a brand new location to house your on-going youth program, or are considering a new site to hold a one time event for a particular youth serving program, there are a number of things to consider before you finalize an agreement. Here’s what I have learned along the way regarding site selection.
Detailed in This Section:
- What to look for when selecting a location to hold programs for youth
- Safety hazards (tangible and intangible) to be aware of when choosing a site
- Pluses and minuses of using shared spaces
How to select a new “home base” for your youth program:
Very few youth serving organizations, from Scout and Dance troupes to church youth groups have the luxury of having a particular space all to themselves. So the first question I ask when looking into a new location is who else will be using the space within the building at the same time. This is an important safety consideration to know in
advance. Even if another program is running upstairs or downstairs, or is in a distant wing of the facility that you will be in, you need to assess the potential impact this may have on your overall safety and security plan.
A little story:
Some years ago a program that I was running reserved space in a small publicly owned building for a special event that we were running. I specifically sought out, and arranged for well in advance, a space where our group would be the only function there that evening. About a week before our group was scheduled to use the facility, I received a call from the building’s superintendent who said she forgot to tell me that the local A.A. Meeting uses the downstairs hall on Friday nights for their meetings. The building’s manager hoped that it would be okay… and it wasn’t! Seems the A.A. folks entered the building on the lower side, which is technically the ‘basement” area that included a nice meeting room. However, the bathrooms were located…guess where? On the second floor, two doors down from where our program was meeting! After some wrangling on the phone over available options, it was decided that the A.A. folks would meet on the third floor where bathrooms were also available right next to where they would meet. The good folks in the A. A. group were delighted with their new space and we were pleased too.
Why is this important? Whenever you’re responsible for a group of children, in my case young elementary-aged children, bathroom accessibility (and frequently!) is important. If we had to “share” the use of bathroom facilities with people from another group, it creates the need to closely monitor who goes to the bathroom from our group and to make sure the bathrooms are not occupied by others, etc.
Other things to consider when choosing a new place for your group:
Safety considerations; Make sure that smoke detectors are in place and working. (test them!) Is the facility you are considering in compliance with fire, local building and board of health codes? (Look for a public assembly permit that is usually posted that lists how many persons may be in a meeting space, etc. Check to see if fire exits are clearly marked. If using a second floor area, are there fire escapes?
If you are seeking space for younger people, look for hazards such as wide banister posts that younger children could slip through, live plants, displays that can break easily, or things that protrude that adults would walk around but children, who are shorter, might hit with their heads, etc.
Carpeting: What shape is it in? Can it withstand spills and be cleaned up easily? Any sign of mold or chemical contamination in carpeting? These days, we also need to pay attention to what materials that carpeting is made from, especially if you have even just one young person with chemical sensitivities, etc.
Wood flooring: Some wood flooring can withstand heavy use by groups so you don’t need to worry about it. If the flooring looks “delicate,” will it be an issue if your group uses the space on a regular basis?
Does the space you are looking at meet ADA requirements? Is this a necessity? Determine if this will be a factor in advance.
The kitchen: is one available for use by your group? If so, can you use the fridge and freezer? Are there counters suitable for setting out foods and snacks? If you plan to use the kitchen for cooking meals for your group, ask if there are large pots, pans and other kitchen equipment that your cook or chef can use. In fact, if it’s possible, see if you can get your cook to check out the kitchen and if he or she is happy with it, you’re all set!
Maintenance issues: How often is the facility cleaned? Does it appear that the kitchen and bathrooms are cleaned adequately? If there are maintenance issues when groups are present is there a custodian or maintenance person available or on call?
Overall security: How ‘public” is your space? Can outer doors be secured?
As you already know, I’m sure, wherever groups of children or teens gather, there will be noise! When considering a new location to house your group, consider whether or not you’ll have neighbors or dwellings nearby, or a business establishment that has enjoyed a quiet and sedate setting before your arrival! Will this be a factor? If not, fine. If it might, then plan for ways to contain or mitigate the noise factor.
Out of doors considerations:
Is off-street parking available?
Will your group be using outside spaces? If so, check for hazards like glass, holes, protruding pipes, damaged sewer covers, bio-hazards, unsafe or rotted railings, etc. Are the outside spaces fenced in, and is that a factor for your group?
Check for poisonous plants like poison ivy, etc.
Is the outside area fenced in or not? If not, and depending on how populated the area is, you may need to factor in staff coverage when some of your young people are both inside and outside at the same time.
Overall Feel of a new space
This may seem strange to consider for some, but for me it’s one of the most important things that I factor in when looking at a new space. When I walk into a space that will be used to gather up people of all ages, the space, the room, has a “feel” to it that should not be considered lightly. Where does the light come from? Overhead, from the side, how? What type of artificial lighting will be used? Is the artificial lighting adequate? Some public spaces have lighting that feels more like an exam room, which is not very pleasant after an hour or so.
Sometimes, how the space is used at other times impacts how the space feels when you’re there. Hopefully, in this day and age, nobody is smoking in the room when you’re not there. But if you do detect stale smoke in a place you’re considering for young people, I’d advise you to look elsewhere for your group’s home.
When sharing a space with other organizations and ongoing programs
If your group will share space with other youth-focused organizations, there are several pluses and minuses. It’s been my experience that many of the challenges can be overcome and managed effectively with good communication among the group leaders. Here are some considerations:
Naturally, you will need to coordinate schedules so that your group won’t collide with the other. It helps to sit down several times a year with leaders of the other group so you both can synchronize schedules and planned events.
Whenever I go into a new space I like to do an informal inventory of things that are damaged, badly worn, gouged, missing or broken upon arrival and write it down. When you are sharing the same space with other groups, it’s doubly important to establish a baseline of how the facility is just before you arrive…just so that you don’t get blamed or charged for damages or wear and tear that you didn’t create. I know, it sounds a little paranoid, but it’s better to be safe than sorry later!
Determine how you you will keep supplies separate and secure from being used up by the other group. Some things you may also want to share. See below.
Sharing resources: One advantage to sharing mutual space with another group is the chance to share some reusable resources and equipment, especially outdoor play structures, picnic tables and the like. It might also work out to share in the purchase of some larger kitchen and cooking equipment, etc. Nurturing partnerships among organizations is not only cost-effective, but it also is good role-modeling for the youthful members of your program.
Detailed in This Section:
- Weather considerations and policies
- Weather extremes and emergency preparedness
- Environmental hazards to be aware of
Weather, and its extremes, will likely be the biggest thing you need to pay attention to when programming youth programs and activities. You work hard to plan events, with many pieces needing to come together, including scheduling, getting supplies and lining up staff, and, not to mention the youthful participants themselves, contribute to making a decision to cancel very difficult.
Extremes in weather, such as large snowstorms, flooding, extreme heart and so forth are no brainers, really. You cancel, period. Environmental emergencies which are rare, but do happen, such as chemical spills resulting in air and water contamination, can also require quick action to cancel an event. In these extremes, safety officials will usually make the decision for you anyway when roads are closed or travel is restricted and basic utilities are are temporarily unavailable. At times like these it’s important to pay attention to emergency bulletins and make sure that you or your agency is signed up to receive Reverse 911 announcements (via phone and email) from local and state authorities.
Public Health emergencies and declarations can also happen, though rarely. Even declared flu epidemics or out breaks or outbreaks of Hepatitis C have been known to require canceling or at least postponing youth related events where large groups of people were planning to come together.
That was the “big stuff,” but by its serious nature, actually makes decision-making easier. Now, back to the far less critical weather related factors where a decision still needs to be made. Here’s my little checklist that I use when deciding whether or not to cancel, delay, or postpone an event for young people:
- Am I creating a hazard, danger or hardship on parents, children and staff by keeping the program?
- Would it just be easier to jump to a “rain” date, and is postponement possible?
- Does “going with it” increase the workload on me and/or staff?
- Does going forward as scheduled, regardless of the impediments, increase my agencies risk of liability?
- Have I sought the input of staff or superiors?
Truthfully? I sometimes want to resist checking my own list. Because when I do, the answer is usually is clear. Good luck, and may all your events unfold in fair weather!
Staff and Volunteers
Detailed in this Section:
- Distinctions between paid staff and volunteers
- Importance of background checks
- The “gift” of volunteers!
- Who’s in charge? The topic of authority
Obviously, there needs for distinctions between who is a paid staffer, and which people graciously give of their time as volunteers. Some youth serving program directors, however, sometimes unintentionally cloud the two roles because both paid staff and volunteers work side by side and usually work very well with children and teens. All that is good, of course. Program directors, however, also need to keep in mind liability issues, boundaries and matters related to confidentiality. For a thorough discussion on emotional, physical and professional boundaries, please read my article titled, “Understanding Boundaries.” As we say here in New England, you’ll be wicked smart once you’ve done so!
These days both volunteers and paid staff need to undergo background checks. For a complete discussion on the ins and outs of background checking companies, how they gather data and where they get it from, please visit my article called Checking References and Backgrounds. Do yourself and your organization a favor by not assuming that all is well simply because you sent the Background Form in for a new staffer or volunteer. What these companies do and don’t do will surprise you.
If your organization has interns or volunteers, then you’re a lucky person! Volunteers especially, I have found, bring a measure of joy, love, easiness and dedication to the youth in an organization for one simple and important reason; they love what they do and that love shines straight through to the children and teens in your program. And that, to be sure, is all gift.
Who’s in charge here?
Children and teens who participate in programs that are offered for them thrive within and prefer to be a part of activities where clear and consistent leadership is always present. Nothing is more threatening to a newcomer who has no idea of who calls the shots, who makes the decisions and who, ultimately, will keep them safe. Don’t make the mistake of saying something like, “we’re all friends here, all equals, and nobody needs to be the boss.” That’s a kindly thought, that in my view is misplaced and unhelpful.
If you are leading a youth activity or program within an organization, then consider it your responsibility to be in charge and the person then and there to be in authority. If you are the overall director, train you staff and volunteers to understand the necessity of maintaining clear and consistent modes of leadership, however that takes place with your setting. Waffling to and fro when a decision needs to be made just puts good staff and volunteers at disease and leaves them feeling uncertain.
Thanks for reading thus far. As I said at the top, I’m publishing as we go along so that others can use this material even though it’s a work in progress. Please stop back again soon and see how I’m doing. My ending goal is to shape this Child Safety Handbook for Youth Workers into a free eBook that youth workers in various settings will find useful. Your comments along the way are always welcome, too.