Actually, and this is scary. Far too few parents spend the time that they should checking out the credentials of the individuals who will have responsibility of their children, or the track record and background of the organization that they’ve just left their child with. Usually, mom or dad’s paper-thin litmus test is that they’ve heard “good things” about a person or program, or, that their child’s friend “likes going” to whatever it is your offering, and that’s that. Insuring the safety of children needs to be the first priority of not only parents, but also of every person who works with children.
So the onus, the burden, the headache, the extra step needed is on your shoulders my friend! You need to make sure that you are attending to EVERY reasonable measure of safety that’s needed while children are in your care! And while it’s hard to believe, some youth-serving organizations and programs say that child security is their number one priority, but in practice over time, they (can) let things slip due to a lack of personnel, training, spotty compliance checks and the like. Don’t let either a parent’s trusting nature or an organization’s blind spot think that you can relax about child safety too, because you can’t. Please read on:
The Adult(s) to Child Setting:
- Pay attention! In group settings where several or many people are moving about, pay attention if doors leading to other spaces are suddenly closed. With teens, anything could be up…including just two teens who need to talk about something privately and forgot to ask first, or the door got closed for what could be “disturbing” reasons. Encourage your staff to knock and ask, “May I come in?” with the intention of opening the door.
- Being transparent: Whenever possible, teach yourself and your staff to strive for transparency and to keep themselves visible to others whenever the need arises to speak privately with a young person. I believe that it is important to make every attempt to honor a child or teen’s request to discuss something in private with an appropriate adult. However, there are risks here too, that adult youth workers need to be mindful of. Always let other staff know that you and a child or teen are stepping into another area away from the mainstream for conversation. Doing so helps to protect you, the adult caregiver from suspicion. It also helps to protect the child and is an example of good role modeling for them to observe as well.
- Staff screening: I’ll cover this import topic in its own section, but let’s just say here that it’s important to make sure that you have vetted the applications of all your staff people who are or will be working with children.
- The Gut Check: If you have control over selecting staff that will work with children, great. If so, the “gut check” is an important and quiet first step in deciding if so and so is the right fit for your program. Do you get a good sense of their body language and emotional readiness to be working with children? What’s their manner like? When checking references, try to ascertain if the applicant has a history of interacting readily and gracefully with children. This is really important. Watch out for “control freaks” in disguise, adults with hidden social and political agendas and people who think it’s their mission to save souls, etc. What are their skill sets, and can they blend these talents along with an ability to honor, teach and share with children?
- A note of caution: Over the years I’ve had many people ask if they could use me as a reference for a position somewhere working with children. (And a few who never asked at all and just provided my name on an application.) Fortunately, I was thrilled to recommend the great majority of job seekers. But there have been a few times when the interviewer called me checking references, and I said clearing that I would not recommend this person for that position for a variety of reasons. And much to my dismay, they hired these people anyway. So if you didn’t have a say in a person who was hired, but you’re responsible for them, or, you have to work alongside them, just be aware that just because they were hired doesn’t mean they should have been.
The Physical Setting:
- Space matters: Is the actual physical location safe for the population that you’re serving? A space that works just fine for teens may not be safe at all for younger children and vice versa. Keeping a razor knife out of reach of children in a group makes perfect sense, but that same sharp knife seen by a teen on a high shelf may get stolen by a teen later on who is dealing with self-destructive behaviors. A teen group that popped a few balloons while celebrating a birthday of one of their members could create a deadly hazard to a toddler whose mom came in the next day for a consultation.
- Containment: Do you have adequate staff coverage to monitor usual exits and entrances? Having a watchful eye on who might “slip out,” or being able to see that an unanticipated guest just walked in is an important safety consideration. Children and teens actually appreciate that you are always watchful for things like this even though they may not say so directly. Teach your staff/volunteers and coworkers the importance of paying attention to things like this.
- Food and environment: With the seemingly ever-increasing numbers of food allergies out there…and some of which can be life-threatening, you need to determine who is allergic to what food and pay attention to it! It’s important to remind people who attend your program that so and so is allergic to peanut butter, so don’t bring goodies that contain peanut butter! Conversely, be aware if you have a child who may be allergic to substances like vinyl, certain dyes, pets, mold spores, etc. Getting this kind of info at sign-up is every bit as import as emergency contact info, cell numbers and back-up phone numbers.
- Safety matters: Does the space you are using have smoke detectors? What about carbon monoxide detectors? (This is very important during the heating season, especially within old buildings, etc.)
- Weather worries: If you are in an area prone to dangerous storms and such, do you have an established evacuation route? Do all your staff know the evacuation route?
- Emergency Info: Everyone (should) know about dialing 911 in an emergency. But do you and your staff know the number for poison control?
- We’re meeting where? Oftentimes, programs that serve youth get the leftover spaces, the rooms in the basement, the old part of the building, etc. If this is the case, with every step you take down to the basement or hallway to the back room, keep asking yourself, “how do we get out of here quickly? Where are the emergency exits? And what is it that smells so bad in here anyway?!”
- The way out: Make sure that emergency exits are in fact working, that they’re not locked, and that there are no obstructions or potential blockages that could delay or prevent a client, student or members of a group from getting out quickly. When things get busy with an activity, etc, and there are several staff members and lots of young people moving stuff about, pay attention that hallways and exit doors are not blocked with play equipment and tables, etc, which can happen easily.
Safety and security don’t just happen, they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear.
– Nelson Mandela
Text by K. Lee.
Art work by Amanda, age 7, which graced my office wall for years.