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Report suspicions of abuse: Protect young people and the organizations serving them

By Gregory S. Love, Esq., and Kimberlee D. Norris, Esq.

No one believed it could happen. In late 2013, a respected leader at a nonprofit organization in Colorado was accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of the persons served by his organization. The leader, in his mid-30s, was known as a religious man, husband, and father.

The victim alleged that the misconduct, which continued for several years, began when she was a minor. After she disclosed the behavior to the organization’s officials, they began an internal investigation, and the accused leader was suspended from his position.

The woman later went to police and the former leader was charged with sexual assault by a person in a position of trust, sexual exploitation of a child, and unlawful sexual contact. The leader recently pleaded guilty to sexual exploitation of children and stalking. The woman has also filed a civil lawsuit against the organization.

Despite the organization’s knowledge of the incidents, no one notified the authorities about the allegation. Although the woman is now in her mid-20s and no longer at risk by the accused abuser, authorities charged five of the organization’s officials with failure to report child abuse.

Lessons for organizations from the Colorado events
The recent events in Colorado call attention to several important teaching points for the leaders of organizations that serve children and youths:

  • Most sexual abusers are known to their victims; 90 percent of victims are abused by someone they know and trust. In the Colorado case, a police spokesperson said the alleged abuser was a close friend of the victim’s family.
  • Most abusers have no past criminal records to check, and they blend with the rest of the population. Most are or have been married, and many have children, jobs, homes, and a higher education. Because sexual abusers cannot be detected visually, they are identified through their behavior.
  • Abuse awareness and prevention training in organizations that serve children and youths is critical to protect young people.
  • Allegations of abuse must be reported to authorities.

Criminal charges for failure to report becoming more common
Although reporting statutes have been on the books for years, prosecutions for failure to report abuse were rare in the past. They are becoming increasingly common:

  • In 2012, five staff members at a nonprofit organization in Oklahoma were charged with failure to report a sexual assault. An employee of the organization has been criminally charged for raping a 13-year-old girl on the premises.
  • In a widely publicized court case the same year, a retired assistant coach of a major Pennsylvania university was found guilty on 45 charges of sexual abuse of young boys over a fifteen-year period. As details of the abuse unfolded, two high-ranking university officials were arrested and prosecuted for perjury and failure to report sexual abuse.

The message is clear: Law enforcement can and will prosecute organizational leaders or employees who fail to report abuse. After the high-profile Pennsylvania case, many states are tightening their mandatory reporting statutes.

Employees must understand reporting statutes in advance of an incident
Every state in the U.S. mandates the reporting of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and neglect—and the suspicions thereof. Reporting statutes often designate particular people or positions who must report and those who may report. State reporting statutes commonly identify the time period within which a report must be made, the form of the report, and to whom the report must be made. Similar legislation exists among Canadian provinces and territories and in many nations.

Who has the legal responsibility to report—the organization or the individual who becomes aware of it? The answer depends on the jurisdiction. Laws in some areas permit the organization or its designated representative to report. Laws in other areas require the individual and the organization to report. Staff members should know the law in their organization’s geographic areas of service.

Given the time elements for reporting, organizational staff members must act quickly when an allegation arises. Law enforcement agencies and juries are unsympathetic to claims of information delays in large organizations because a child or youth may still be in harm’s way.

Additional fallout of failure to report allegations
Organizational leaders need to understand the critical importance of correctly handling an allegation of child sexual abuse. Two impacts on organizations are clear from the cases cited in this article—criminal charges and loss of employment for the individuals accused and the leaders who mishandle information. Additional effects can be:

  • Perception of cover-up. No organization wants to be known as an unsafe environment for the children and youth that it serves. Yet failing to disclose allegations of abuse fuels a public perception of cover-up that can jeopardize the organization’s ability to attract and retain customers, funding, employees, and community support. Moreover, juries tend to return harsher verdicts if there is evidence of a cover-up.

  • Denial of insurance coverage. Generally, if an organization does not report an allegation to law enforcement, it also fails to report the allegation to its insurance agent or carrier.

    Each insurance policy providing coverage for negligence and general liability has a clause requiring each insured (organization) to immediately notify the insurer (carrier) if the insured becomes aware of facts that could give rise to a claim. Any insured failing to do so risks denial of coverage.

    The Pennsylvania university’s insurance carrier has filed a lawsuit seeking a judgment releasing the insurer from any obligation to defend or indemnify the university in connection with claims made in civil lawsuits. The lawsuit is based on the university’s failure to report facts within a reasonable period of time.

All organizational staff members and volunteers not only need to be familiar with the state reporting requirements, but they also must know their organization’s internal procedures for handling allegations of abuse and neglect. Many allegations of abuse are initially reported to lower-level employees or volunteers who are in direct contact with children and youth. These reports sometimes never rise to the attention of upper-level management, although they should.

Because an organization can be held responsible for the failures of its staff members and volunteers, it is important that everyone who wears the organization’s nametag be trained to understand the controlling state reporting requirements, and how to properly handle information regarding the abuse or neglect of a child or youth.

The action carrying the least risk for the child or youth and for the organization is to report abuse as soon as it is detected or suspected.

What the CARF standards say about abuse and neglect
CARF’s ASPIRE to Excellence® standards for business practices, which are applied on all CARF surveys, address:

  • Procedures regarding prevention, reporting, documentation, remedial action, and timely debriefings of critical incidents, including abuse, neglect, and sexual assault.
  • Analysis of critical incidents.
  • Reporting requirements.
  • Personnel training for the reporting of suspected abuse or suspected neglect.
  • Policies promoting the rights of the persons served, including freedom from abuse, exploitation, and neglect.
  • Verification of personnel background checks.

In addition to demonstrating conformance to the CARF standards during an on-site survey, service providers must submit a signed Annual Conformance to Quality Report (ACQR) on the anniversaries of each of the years throughout their CARF accreditation term.

Accredited service providers must also report significant events to CARF within 30 days of their occurrence.

Editor's note
Although this article focuses on sexual abuse of minors, vulnerable populations are not only children and youths. Adults with disabilities and elderly persons can be at high risk for abuse, neglect, or exploitation.

Protecting the rights of persons of any age or ability served by CARF-accredited programs is at the heart of the CARF accreditation process.

About the authors
Gregory Love, left, and Kimberlee Norris are partners in a U.S. sexual abuse law practice based in Fort Worth, Texas, Love + Norris, The firm represents victims of sexual abuse as well as nonprofit organizations, adoption and foster care agencies, camps, churches and parachurch ministries, educational institutions, and youth sports organizations. Recent clients include the United States Olympic Committee, Awana International, Bob Jones University, and the Penn State Football Letterman’s Club. The attorneys also present at conferences and provide online and classroom workshops to help organizations prevent child sexual abuse.

(Historical Newsletter Articles,Child and Youth Services)

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