This week we all have our minds on the disclosure of sexual abuse of young boys by a coach at Penn State. I have been struck by the emphasis on who did what when rather than concern for the children who were abused. For many of us it raises the frightening prospect that our children or children we know could be sexually abused.

I want to spend some time talking about how parents can find out whether a camp, preschool, Sunday School, or club is a safe place for their children. The way I see it there are three lines of defense.

Educate Children

One is to educate children about good touch and bad touch, and to encourage them to tell an adult about anything that feels like a bad touch, no matter what someone else told them. But children are young and can be influenced by a powerful adult, especially one they look up to. Most perpetrators are known to their victims. So what else can parents do?

Criminal Background Checks

The next two parts of defense have to do with the policies of organizations that care for children. First, find out whether they require criminal background checks on their staff. If they have checks on some but not all staff, ask how they manage the unchecked staff’s contact with children? Are they always supervised on sight by someone who has been checked. That would help.

However, most perpetrators never make it into the criminal justice system. Doing background checks screens out people who have been convicted, and a policy of doing this conveys that the organization cares to prevent child sexual abuse, but this is not the whole story. Again, most perpetrators are known to children.

Safe Practices

This brings me to the part of protecting children that I think is the most effective: safe practices. If you ask a program coordinator about their policies for child safety, they should be able to tell you about a number of practices. How do they screen new staff? You can ask about what kind of training staff have in preventing child sexual abuse. There should be training for all staff.

Ask who the staff are accountable to. Is there someone who knows what the programming is and can authorize it?

Ask if there is a written policy on protecting children from child sexual abuse in the program. Is it posted? Find out who is responsible to report abuse or neglect to the proper authorities. Find out what the response plan is.

Ask whether staff are ever alone one on one with children. Hopefully, they are not, but if they are, ask what the procedures are to provide supervision in those situations. For instance, they might be in a room with a window in a door so that a supervisor can walk by at any time and see what is happening.

Ask what the practice is for taking children off site. Again, are staff ever alone one on one?

Ask whether parents are welcome to visit at any time. If the answer is no, that is a concern. While you wouldn’t want to disrupt a program, you would not want to feel that there is anything going on that you are not privy to.

Ask whether older children ever have care of younger children and whether they are one on one with younger children.

As you can see, the primary concern is whether there are opportunities for private, unsupervised contact between a child and staff or anyone with greater power (like a teenager). In addition, you want all staff to be accountable to someone.

Some people might find that this type of program sounds a little paranoid, but once it is in place, it protects everyone—including staff. Policies like these protect staff from false accusations. In addition, there are people who might be perpetrators if given enough opportunity. Being very clear about policies and practices can actually be helpful to prevent someone from becoming a perpetrator.

A fine resource on this topic is Reducing the Risk. It is a comprehensive program and training manual written for religious institutions, but the basic lessons are the same for any organization that serves children.

Author's Bio: 

Parent Coach and Licensed Psychologist, Carolyn Stone, Ed.D. ( educates parents of children with learning disabilities, ADHD, Asperger Syndrome and anxiety about their children’s needs using humor and evidence-based practices. Parents learn new strategies through role play and homework. She teaches children to manage their anxiety and attention and to understand their learning styles. You can learn about Dr. Stone’s work from her blog at