Child advocate Michelle Bellon says there are things parents can do to decrease the likelihood of their children being abused while entrusted to churches, schools or other institutions:1) When choosing a program, ask about employee (and volunteer) screening and how interactions are monitored.
A criminal background check is not sufficient to ferret out sexual abusers because many never have been charged or convicted. Instead, the program should look for warning signs in written applications and interviews. For instance, some predator adults spend all of their time with children and have no significant adult relationships. Policies on interactions between adults and children should include examples of appropriate and inappropriate conduct, as well as definitive steps for monitoring and addressing concerns and complaints.2) Ask about the training.
Staff and temporary volunteers should undergo training to recognize signs of sexual abuse and to learn when it's appropriate to report concerns. There should be a designated person to handle reports. Training should be required for staff and volunteers who come on board midway through the summer. Policies should include procedures for handling not just potential abuse, but also violations of the code of conduct for interactions.3) Ask about interactions between older and younger children.
Some programs allow older children to serve as junior counselors or activity assistants. Ask about the guidelines for these situations, including whether and how long children may be unsupervised by an adult.4) Make sure children understand personal boundaries.
Teach children the importance of recognizing and respecting the invisible barriers that separate them from other people. They should be able to recognize their comfort zones—and that of others!—and know they can and should speak up about setting limits. Start at home by respecting a child's right to say no to physical contact, such as tickling and hugs. Never force a child to kiss a relative.5) Recognize signs of a problem.
Children often won't or can't tell you what's happening; but there are signs to watch for, including changes in behavior such as withdrawal or unprovoked crying, night terrors, bedwetting, eating problems, unexplained injuries, suddenly avoiding a particular person and unusual interest in or knowledge of sexual matters.