Twelve great questions to promote effective youth protection


Image of Ann Franke, authorBy Ann Franke, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Higher Education Protection Network and President of Wise Results, LLC.

Higher education received a shocking wake-up call when Jerry Sandusky's molestation of children came to public light in 2011. More recently, Dr. Larry Nassar's crimes against young gymnasts have spurred efforts to prevent harm to youth.

Colleges and universities offer a dazzling array of youth programming. They sponsor camps, pre-college programs and early childhood centers. Youngsters take music lessons, receive clinical services and enjoy athletic booster activities. Members of student organizations volunteer as tutors and mentors in the community.

From the perspective of institutional risk management, should all these programs follow some common procedures? Interacting with youth merits special care and attention. Whether your institution is just getting started in youth protection or already has a well-developed program, here are some key questions to help guide your efforts.

  1. How many minors do we serve annually?
    If you haven't already done so, create an inventory of youth-serving programs and activities. Beyond the camps, look for student organizations that interface with youngsters. Consider clinical internships that serve youth. Include in the inventory not only formal programs, which may involve fees and waiver forms, but also informal interactions. Examine the entire year, not just the summer months. Institutions often learn from an initial inventory that the number of youth they serve exceeds the number of enrolled students.

    Close up of child's face
  2. What state law requirements apply to our interactions with youth?
    Canvas applicable state and local requirements. Every state has laws on reporting child abuse and neglect. Certain types of camps, or even all camps, may need a state or local license to operate. Laws may govern safe environments for kids, criminal background checks for adults and much more. The American Camp Association offers a valuable summary of state laws.

  3. What consistent practices do we want to require in interactions with youth?
    Youth programs may exist anywhere within an institution. Consider what common practices you want the robotics camp, soccer camp and Big Brothers/Big Sisters club to follow. Here are some sample requirements:

    • Report immediately all reasonable suspicions of child abuse or neglect. Reporting should follow state law. Consider requiring both external reporting to government authorities (typically child protective services or law enforcement) and internal reporting.

    • Avoid one-on-one interactions with youth in private spaces. Remain visible. Tutoring can be conducted, for example, in a large room. If one-on-one interaction is essential to services, such as counseling or music lessons, require advance approval, notice to parents and other safeguards.

    • No bullying, off-color jokes, pornography, smoking, alcohol, illegal drugs, weapons, roughhousing and touching (except touching directly related to program purposes).

    • Follow prescribed rules, or prohibitions, on gift-giving, use of social media, transportation and photography involving youth.

  4. What qualifications should we require for those interacting with youth? While only about four percent of child molesters have criminal backgrounds, most institutions require background checks for those who will be interacting, or interacting extensively, with youth. Good practices may also include written applications, interviews and reference checks. State law may impose requirements on screening. Nuanced issues include qualifying volunteers and students to work with youth, frequency of background checks, the elements included in a background check and who pays the costs. Most institutions require training on their youth protection policies. In a general sense, adherence to policies should be an ongoing requirement. Those who ignore, skirt or bend the rules may be unsuited to working with youth.

  5. Do we want to exclude certain situations from our youth protection policies? Many institutions exclude from their youth protection policies situations in which the institution does not take control or custody of the child. A parent may, for example, continuously supervise a child at a college game or arts performance. An elementary school class visiting the campus library may remain under the teacher's control.
    Image of smiling child with paint on her hands
    Most policies exempt enrolled minor students. As a legal matter, though, these students remain minors. State law may require mandatory reporting if they experience sexual abuse.

    Adults who have only brief, intermittent contact with youth, no one-on-one interaction, and no access to sleeping facilities or locker rooms may be exempt from background checks. Yet a newly appointed federal judge who sought to volunteer at his daughter's school was required to undergo a background check, notwithstanding the FBI's full vetting of his personal history in connection with his judicial nomination!

    Consider, too, partial or full exemption for students who participate in academic internships in schools, hospitals and other settings with their own robust child protection protocols. Research and clinical services involving youth also merit attention. Consider the risks that these situations create and ways to mitigate those risks. One pediatric hospital, for example, shortened the curtains that separate patient beds, so that caregivers' feet remain visible.

  6. Will our policies focus on abuse and neglect, or will they include other issues such as disability accommodation, medication management, transportation and emergency planning? Some youth protection policies seek primarily to reduce the risks of child abuse and neglect. They also help guide appropriate responses should these problems occur. Other institutions have developed policies that reach more broadly. Common subjects include: accommodations for youngsters who have disabilities; management of prescription and over the counter medications; and approved transportation arrangements for youth. Emergency managers also now often address the needs of youth in their planning. Considerations include methods for contacting parents, supplies such as diapers and much more.

  7. How will we enforce the requirements? Lots of institutions now require youth-serving programs to register in advance. Registration software can monitor when each program completes all background checks, training and other requirements.

    Some institutions, particularly larger ones, are now appointing youth protection coordinators. Whether full- or part-time, a coordinator supervises the implementation of policies, answers questions from program staff and parents, and helps troubleshoot tricky situations. Other institutions place policy enforcement in the hands of a small staff group. Representatives from human resources, public safety and risk management might meet regularly to oversee the same functions that a youth protection coordinator would fulfill. What could possibly go wrong? Consider, for example, the parents who dropped their daughter off for gymnastics camp with the mistaken belief that the program was residential, not a day camp. The parents promptly departed for a long weekend, incommunicado. Youth protection staff can help navigate complexities such as these. 
    Graph showing under which departments youth protection falls in higher education
  8. What is the role of parents?
    While many institutions seek to distance themselves from the parents of college-aged students, youth programs often need a different playbook. It's useful for parents to understand the details of the daily camp agenda. If a child arrives home at 7 pm instead of 5 pm, what's been going on? An institution can invite parents to raise any concerns they might have and provide a point of contact. Yes, you will likely receive complaints that a coach is allocating insufficient playing time to a given camper. More significantly, you may receive complaints about questionable conduct, excessive favoritism or even suspicions of abuse. Consider, for example, sharing with parents how to contact your ethics hotline.

  9. Who has authority to shut down a youth-serving program?
    Occasionally, a poorly run program will place children in harm's way. Who at your institution has the power to reject a proposed youth activity that is ill-conceived or, more dramatically, to close an operating program that is creating undue risk? These are not abstract questions. In 2017, at least two universities shut down summer camps early. If you create clear lines of authority in advance, the institution can take decisive action when needed.

  10. Do we rent our facilities to outside groups that serve youth?
    Closeup of child looking off into disanceTake a look at your rental contracts with outside groups that serve youth. You will need those groups to alert you to relevant crimes for your annual security report. You may wish to require them to carry sexual assault and molestation insurance. Perhaps they should also provide you with notice of injuries, illness or other unusual situations. Some institutions require outside camps and similar organizations to adhere to the institution's own youth protection policy. They hold the outside groups to the same standards for background checks, training, behavioral standards and reporting of abuse and neglect.

  11. Do we serve other vulnerable populations, such as people who have intellectual disabilities?
    Your institution may provide services to the elderly or people who have intellectual disabilities. Workforce certificate programs for adults with Down syndrome, to take one example, are growing in popularity. Individuals who have disabilities are more likely to suffer abuse than individuals who are not disabled. Consider mirroring your youth protections for other vulnerable populations.

  12. How can we find out more?
    Check out the URMIA webinar, "Who Are All These Kids — And Who's Responsible for Them?," presented on November 29, 2017. There's also a new organization that can help. The Higher Education Protection Network, founded in 2017, offers an array of resources for college and university staff working on youth protection. Its 115 members come from institutions that collectively serve over 3.5 million youth annually. Check out HEPNet today.

Sample policies

Here are a few sample institutional policies on protection of minors, offered for information only:

Large institutions:

Mid-sized institutions

Smaller institutions


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