Screening Employees and Volunteers for Child Sexual Abuse Risk: 5 Facts Every Nonprofit Should Know

“Coach Arrested for Molesting 10 Boys at Soccer Clinic”  screamed a recent media headline in a heavily populated metropolitan area. Unfortunately, this headline is not an anomaly, as headlines detailing child sexual abuse in a nonprofit context occur almost daily. Parents entrust their children to camps, youth sports, after-school care and other non-profit programs across the US, desiring growth and development opportunities for their child. Clearly, an otherwise positive experience is shattered if a child is sexually abused while participating in the program.

The reality is daunting: one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before reaching the age of 18. Two out of three children don’t disclose abuse until adulthood, if ever. These statistics don’t skip any socioeconomic status, geographic location, type of programming or ethnic or spiritual paradigm. In one large study, the average convicted male abuser who preferred female victims had an average of 52 victims. In the same study, the convicted male abuser who preferred male victims had an average of 150 victims. Where children are gathered for any purpose, the risk of child sexual abuse exists.

To effectively protect children from sexual abuse, child-serving nonprofits must learn to recognize the offender’s grooming process and undertake effective screening processes to weed out offenders, thereby keeping the wolf out of the sheep pen.

Effective volunteer and employee screening requires more than a criminal background check.

While background checks have become a standard of care for child-serving nonprofits, they cannot be relied upon as a standalone screening tool. Why? Because less than 10% of sexual abusers will encounter the criminal justice system, ever. More than 90% of abusers have no record to find; and they know it. To top it off, basic background check packages are not nearly as comprehensive as most imagine them to be. The basic background check utilized by many nonprofits has significant limitations and largely incomplete data. Not all records are available, some record sources are not computerized, and some rural counties do not sell records. A criminal background check must be included in the screening process, but it cannot be relied upon to identify the majority of abusers.

Effective volunteer and employee screening is rooted in an understanding of the offender’s grooming process.

Sexual offenders come from all segments of society. Sadly, some gain access to children through programming offered by child-serving nonprofits. Abusers groom both children and gatekeepers – trusted adults in a child’s life – to convince them that they are helpful, trustworthy, responsible people. Validated by decades of academic studies, the grooming process of the abuser is known and recognizable. Child-serving nonprofits should evaluate each element of the screening process with a thorough understanding of the abuser’s grooming process, common grooming behaviors and known offender characteristics. As an example, offenders often engage in kid-magnet activities and hobbies which are attractive to children within the offender’s age and gender of preference. If an applicant demonstrates an unusually exclusive interest in activities involving children when asked about interests or hobbies, dig a little deeper into the applicant’s past interaction with children, whether as an employee or volunteer.

Effective volunteer and employee screening creates OPT OUT opportunities for applicants with the wrong motive.

Skillful screening incorporates opt out opportunities in the course of the screening process, before the applicant has access to children. When a child-serving organization consistently communicates current child protection practices and protocols, from the beginning, it communicates to the applicant with the wrong motive that ‘it might be easier somewhere else’.  Written policy should clearly state that all suspicions and allegations of child abuse are immediately reported to civil authorities. Applicants should review and sign child protection policies describing inappropriate forms of communication and physical touch. Training should occur before an applicant is interacting with children. Staff members and volunteers should diligently adhere to the Two Adult Rule. These clear expressions provide offenders with an opportunity to self-select out of the screening process.

Effective volunteer and employee screening gathers information about the applicant from third party sources.

Many employers ask for references, but don’t check them. Others check references, but fail to ask questions meant to elicit a high risk response. The failure to speak with references about a prospective staff member or volunteer is one of the most common yet detrimental mistakes made by child-serving nonprofits. References represent the only third party source of information commonly available to employers or volunteer supervisors. Beyond the initial consequence of missing helpful information about an applicant, untapped references can ultimately prove to be harmful to the organization, as employers are commonly responsible for information that would have been communicated by a reference, if the reference had been contacted.

Effective volunteer and emplogy screening serves as one element in an effective Safety System.

Preventative protocols to protect children from sexual abuse do not end when an applicant has been thoroughly screened and approved to participate in child-serving programs. Training volunteers, staff members and program leaders to understand the grooming process of the abuser and common grooming behaviors is key, because your organization can’t address a risk that workers don’t understand. Once training has occurred, other Safety System components come into play, including tailored policies and procedures, comprehensive reporting policies, adequate supervision and a system to facilitate and monitor safety practices.

Need help understanding how to get started? Learn how to implement an effective safety system with overlapping layers of protection at

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