A recent Ms. Foundation report properly described child sexual abuse as “one of the most pressing issues of our times.” This was not an overstatement. Every year, 35 million adults come into contact with more than 70 million children in youth-serving organizations (YSOs) across the country; over 50 million children attend our public and private schools. These settings are designed to provide children with guidance and opportunities for learning and personal growth. However, they can also unwillingly provide the "cover" and access to children and teens that sexual abusers and exploiters require. Consider the sobering facts from a U.S. Department of Education report which indicates 7 percent, or 3.5 million school children, report having had physical sexual contact from an adult in their school, most commonly a teacher or coach. When non-touching sexual offenses were included, the figure rose to 4.5 million. Clearly, without a comprehensive strategy to prevent sexual abuse, youth organizations and schools will not succeed in their obligation to protect our children from this insidious threat.
As a result of national attention generated by the Penn State scandal, many institutions are recognizing the pressing need to develop more effective prevention strategies to combat the problem. In a survey conducted by MassKids with small to mid-sized YSOs, however, most reveal they don't know where to begin to strengthen their policies to prevent abuse and don't have the resources to hire risk management consultants to guide them.
A capacity building grant from the Ms. Foundation has supported the Enough Abuse Campaign’s efforts to address this identified gap. Through our "GateKeepers for Kids" program, we are educating school and youth-serving leaders about the basics they need to strengthen child safety policies and practices. We have produced a practical 12-page guide detailing the latest training, screening and reporting strategies in the field; a comprehensive assessment tool to help an organization identify its strengths and vulnerabilities; an online bank of policies, video tools and resources; and fact sheets that include steps to develop a code of conduct so that inappropriate behaviors can be identified early before they escalate to abuse, to match an organization's policy to its unique mission and clients, and to modify physical spaces to reduce opportunities for sexual abuse to occur.
To spur prevention efforts further, the Enough Abuse Campaign is convening a first-of-its-kind Prevention Summit on November 19th near Boston to help jumpstart the effort to set a new standard for child safety among school and YSO leaders, advocates, policymakers and funders. National and state leaders will provide participants with: an understanding of the scope of the problem; the latest, practical tools they need to review and improve their policies; specific skill-building around screening, reporting, modifying physical spaces, dealing with disclosures from staff and children, and handling alleged abusers in ways that support both accountability and compassion. The Learning Community we plan to organize post-summit will provide an ongoing vehicle for the exchange of prevention ideas and strategies far beyond the event itself, including the mobilization of new advocates pushing for legislative changes aimed at preventing child sexual abuse.
Taken collectively, we believe these efforts will help generate a new culture of safety and accountability within organizations whose mission is to ensure the right of every child to a healthy and safe childhood – one free from sexual abuse and its devastating effects.
For more information about summit speakers and session topics, and to register, please visit www.enoughabuse.org.
Jetta Bernier is executive director of MassKids and directs its Enough Abuse Campaign. To learn more visit www.masskids.org.