Nonprofits, faith-based organizations and other similar groups are at risk for false allegations of sexual assault due to the recent spotlight on the issue and the unique characteristics of these organizations, namely the frequent, unsupervised interaction between children and a trusted adult. Whether legitimate or phony, sexual-abuse allegations involving a minor can have catastrophic consequences for your group or organization.
You can take several steps to ensure your organization does not have to undergo expensive and embarrassing lawsuits, including careful screening of all staff; strictly enforced supervision guidelines; sufficient education and training; and a specific plan of action to follow when someone suspects or reports inappropriate behavior.
Carefully Screen Potential Staff
One of the most important things your organization can do to reduce the risk of a sexual misconduct or harassment allegation is to take on staff and volunteers carefully. Require that all staff, whether paid or volunteer and regardless of their job description, consent in writing to a federal criminal background check. If you sponsor or organize overnight trips, those volunteers should also be required to consent to a federal background check. You should also search for all potential employees and volunteers in the National Sex Offenders Public Registry to check for any type of sex offender record.
In addition to conducting an official background check and examining the National Sex Offenders Public Registry, you should require all applicants—whether paid or volunteer—to provide a list of non-family references,
complete with contact information. For those assuming leadership positions, ask to contact their previous employer. However, it is not enough to simply ask for this information—with every applicant, you should follow through and contact the references. Ask specific questions about the applicant’s reputation and character to evaluate whether he or she will present a risk to your organization.
Depending on the size of your organization, many people may look at one application, and the review process could go through several hands. To make the process easier and more effective, require documentation for all background and reference checks conducted. Likewise, if any applicant is allowed to skip the background or reference check process, require that a waiver be signed by the person who made the decision to exempt the applicant.
There are many steps you can take to ensure your organization does not have to undergo the expense and embarrassment of a sexual abuse lawsuit.
Establish Supervision Guidelines
It is important to set guidelines for staff and volunteer conduct for two reasons. First, it protects minors from ill-intentioned adults and makes the environment safer. Also, it protects employees and volunteers from potentially false allegations.
The most serious risks come when an adult has unsupervised contact with a minor, so these situations should be avoided whenever possible. Some suggestions for supervision guidelines include having two adults in the room with children, requiring two or more children to be present with one adult and having a supervisor or other staff member randomly check in on situations when an adult is with minors. For religious organizations, consider implementing a policy that volunteers must be members of the community for at least eight months before being allowed to supervise children or youth alone.