Nonprofits Managing Risk for Youth Programs: Ten Key Compliance Strategies

7 min

Many nonprofit organizations, such as summer camps, schools, sports leagues, membership associations, religious organizations, childcare centers, and youth clubs for various hobbies, regularly host programs involving participation by children. When working with children, nonprofits must establish and implement safeguarding practices and procedures to prevent the abuse and mistreatment of children. Below are proactive measures nonprofits can take to design and implement effective child protection practices.

Have a Standalone Child Protection Policy

All nonprofits that work with children and youth should adopt policies and procedures specifically for child safety and abuse prevention. These policies should be distinct yet serve to complement other conduct-related policies maintained by the nonprofit, such as an employee handbook or participant code of conduct.

Effective child protection policies serve to protect adult leaders, as well as children, by having clear parameters for the strategies a nonprofit will employ for youth safety. As a best practice, a policy should describe the measures in place to protect children, how adults must behave when working with children, how and to whom to report issues of suspected abuse or harm, and how the organization will respond to concerns about harm to children.

In addition to maintaining a standalone child protection policy, because every state has laws that protect children from harm, nonprofits that have offices in multiple states, or have chapters, sections, and similar types of units in their structure, should consider the adoption of supplemental addenda to policies to address local legal considerations relevant to those constituent parts.

Proactively Audit Operational Risk

There is no "one-size-fits-all" approach to protecting children. Nonprofits that work with children serve many different interests and provide different services. The nature of measures appropriate to an organization will vary, depending on the nonprofit's functions, the ages of the population it serves, the types of premises it uses, internal culture, and other particular circumstances. Each organization is different, and practices should reflect those differences, as well as the organization's resources and maturation over time.

Run Background Checks for Employees and Volunteers

Multifaceted screening protocols for employees, candidates for employment, and volunteers who will have contact with children is an essential safeguard. Conducting a nationwide criminal history check, reviewing public sex offender registries, searching state child abuse and maltreatment reporting databases, asking appropriate questions during interviewing processes, and obtaining reference checks can help to detect and deter applicants who should not be placed in positions of trust with children. Screening protocols should be conducted prior to an individual being permitted to participate in a nonprofit's youth programming, and individuals should be periodically rescreened during their tenure with the nonprofit for continued suitability to work with children.

When developing personnel screening protocols, it is advisable to consult legal counsel to ensure compliant methods for collecting, processing, retaining, and using personal information are observed. For more information about the interaction between background checks and employment laws, please read here. Whatever combination of screening tactics is used, screening should never be relied on as the sole means of keeping children safe.

Develop a Staff/Volunteer/Participant Code of Conduct

Beyond having guidelines for regulating how adult staff and volunteers must interact with children, nonprofits should maintain participant codes of conduct to ensure a safe and welcoming environment for all program participants, including fellow youth participants. These codes generally require agreement by the parent/guardian and youth (depending on age) to abide by the rules of the program and to outline how participant misconduct, whether directed against other participants or program staff, will be handled. Similarly, staff and volunteers who will engage with children through a nonprofit's programs should be required to acknowledge the expectations and requirements for conduct that they must follow under the child protection policy, volunteer policies, and employee handbook, as applicable.

Ensuring Safe Physical Environments and Technology Resources

Nonprofits that work with children owe a duty of care to take steps to protect children from interactions that can occur in person, through the use of computers and cell phones (including telephone calls, texting, and video conferencing), social media, and other electronic resources. For example, policies should include terms that mandate adults are not allowed to have unsupervised, one-on-one contact with children or, if they do have contact, that outline the necessary parameters for ensuring those one-on-one interactions are limited and appropriately monitored. Effective youth protection programs also provide education about proper boundaries for engaging with children, particularly for programs involving overnight stays, and the appropriate use of cell phones, social media, and similar electronic technologies.

Obtain Specialized Insurance

Nonprofits should routinely consult with their insurance brokers about whether their insurance coverages and liability limits provide adequate protection for the specific nature of their youth-focused activities and their assets. Most director and officer and commercial general liability insurance policies contain exclusions that preclude coverage for claims involving abuse or molestation, as well as for claims involving sporting or recreational activities. Nonprofits need to be aware of coverage nuances and procure the proper endorsements for their insurance policies based on their activities and existing insurance programs.

Assess Practices of Business Partners

Nonprofits often collaborate or work with other organizations in their delivery of youth-focused programs and services. Nonprofits should conduct appropriate due diligence on the policies and practices employed by partner organizations to ensure they have appropriate policies in place to vet their representatives, provide those representatives with appropriate child protection-related training and education, and have processes in place to address inappropriate behavior. Additionally, it is wise to develop a formal contract that defines each party's responsibilities, describes how to allocate liabilities if those respective responsibilities are not met, and includes terms for suspending or terminating the relationship if misconduct concerns arise.

Maintain Accessible Channels to Report Allegations and Suspicions of Child Abuse

Clear protocols should be in place to guide the reporting and prompt investigation of suspected, observed, or disclosed abuse. Complaints should be allowed to come from children themselves, and from parents, staff, volunteers, or even members of the public. Some individuals are also required by law to report suspected child abuse and neglect to law enforcement or the local child protective services and need to be reminded of and trained on those mandatory reporting responsibilities. Ensuring that leadership is adequately trained to receive and respond to reports of child abuse can ensure that cases of child abuse are appropriately handled and allow for intervention at the earliest possible time.

Regularly Conduct Training and Keep Training Materials Up to Date

As the eyes and ears of the organization, staff and volunteers involved in a nonprofit's youth-related programs should be regularly trained to ensure they are familiar with the organization's child protection and reporting policies. Training programs should offer knowledge about the different types of and indicators of abuse, equip personnel to see the warning signs of the "grooming" behaviors of those who would harm children, and outline requirements and expectations for reporting inappropriate behavior. Whether training is conducted in person and/or online, it is extremely important for nonprofits to require staff and volunteers to take youth protection training prior to allowing their interaction with children the organization serves, with refresher training mandated every two to three years to ensure the most current training is received. Documenting training records can help reduce exposure to negligent hiring or supervision claims.

Proactively and Openly Communicate

Visibly talking about a nonprofit's zero-tolerance approach to preventing abuse of children entrusted to its care sends a clear message and can deter bad actors from seeking to become involved with the organization's programs. What is communicated about the nonprofit's commitments speaks volumes, and what is said in the community about the organization's efforts is equally, if not more, important. Speaking about the principles adhered to in order to protect children is just as integral as the formal policy statements themselves.

Youth-serving nonprofits should consult experienced counsel regarding the specific laws applicable to the jurisdictions in which they operate. Nonprofits with questions on these topics should feel free to contact the authors of this article.

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