Protecting youth

Youth safety has been a hot topic in light of the horrific abuse at Penn State. For mentoring programs, youth safety is always a priority with pre-match screening, background checks and ongoing match monitoring and support.

Mass Mentoring Partnership conducts a Screening for Effectiveness and Youth Safety training in support of programs working towards high operational standards. Our curriculum is based on the Elements of Effective Practice and the comprehensive work led by Program Director Sarah Kremer of the Friends for Youth, Inc. in California.

A Board Certified art therapist, she received her master’s in art therapy from School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has worked with adolescents in mental health, probation, school, and mentoring programs. She authored the Mentoring Journal (2007), published by Friends for Youth. As director of the Mentoring Institute and training consultant for CARS Mentoring, the National Mentoring Center, and MENTOR, she draws upon her knowledge of adolescent development, volunteer management and screening, therapeutic treatment, art-based directives, evaluation, research, and mentoring to provide interactive workshops on best practices for youth mentoring.

Sarah, as our guest blogger, offers excellent recommendations and procedures for programs that want to strengthen or revamp their prevention tactics.

[caption id="attachment_495" align="alignleft" width="134" caption="Sarah Kremer, program director of Friends for Youth, Inc."]Sarah Kremer[/caption]In response to the latest media reports regarding the child sex-abuse scandal involving Penn State’s former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, Friends for Youth, Inc. would like to express our sorrow about the young men victimized and our disappointment at another preventable tragedy. Sandusky, charged with molesting eight boys over 15 years, with some of the alleged abuse taking place at the Penn State football complex, is now under scrutiny for years of child sexual abuse about which others knew but either did nothing or were not heard.

As a recognized leader in the field of mentoring we are unfortunately not surprised by these horrific events. The very nature of our business demands that we match volunteers with children, much like the Second Mile program. Vulnerable youth are encouraged to establish trust and break down natural barriers of caution creating the perfect opportunity for sexual abuse such as exactly what occurred with Mr. Sandusky.

Because there are those who look to exploit and victimize children under the auspices of a volunteer role, Friends for Youth developed, implemented, and promotes best practices, tools, and information to inform and educate any youth-serving organization about the potential for child abuse. In 2006, we gathered together this information and published a resource SAFE (Screening Applicants For Effectiveness); Guidelines for Preventing Child Molestation in Mentoring and Youth-Serving Organizations (www.friendsforyouth.org/SAFE.html), a comprehensive guide to volunteer screening. I have been leading workshops around the country and webinars since then. Screening volunteers is an essential first step, but, as many of you know, not the only step and not always completely reliable for predicting future behavior. Mentee and parent/guardian training about child sexual abuse and close, consistent ongoing monitoring that includes mentees and parents/guardians also round out the necessary steps.

As the authors of an upcoming chapter focused on Mentor Screening and Youth Safety in the 2nd edition of the Handbook on Youth Mentoring, we looked for any research about screening and monitoring and found almost nothing. There are no mandated standards and the laws for procuring information vary state to state. Data can be unreliable, too, and, most importantly, most offenders have never been in the system, i.e., convicted, arrested, investigate, or accused. We recommend a number of tools and processes, based on research from allied fields and practitioner knowledge, in the chapter for programs to follow in order to ensure that they are doing everything possible to keep their youth safe and matched also with effective mentors.

Next to understanding research about this population (and knowing how to break a culture of silence) and staff using their Informed Intuition as explained in detail in our resource SAFE, one of the tools that is research-based is The Diana Screen. This online tool helps to increase a program’s risk management strategy and is based on years of research on convicted child sexual abusers. This tool is highly recommended for all youth-serving programs and can be used for employees. If you’re interested in more about The Diana Screen, you can view the slides from our April 2011 webinar about this tool here: http://www.slideshare.net/sarahmentoring/the-diana-screen-an-effective-screening-tool-79289

Unfortunately, child sexual abuse is an uncomfortable topic, especially in the male-dominated sports world. In our 32 years of serving at-risk youth, we have seen reports of this situation all too often: child sexual abusers offend multiple times and get away with it, even when someone knew about the abuse.

Friends for Youth is saddened by the alleged initial abuse perpetrated on at least eight boys by Sandusky and even more disappointed by the second offense, the culture of silence surrounding and protecting him. Many times in situations with child sexual abusers, people may notice something “off” or something “not right” but will then discount what they see and hear, especially when it involves those who are in positions of leadership. Our SAFE <http://www.friendsforyouth.org/SAFE.html> publication offers ways to prevent exactly this.

The primary duty of youth service providers is to care for the well-being, healthy development, and growth of children. It is vital that we are informed and educated on the inherent risks in the relationships we create. More information about SAFE <http://www.friendsforyouth.org/SAFE.html> and how Friends for Youth can help build awareness of this tragic issue in communities and youth-serving groups can be found on our website <http://www.friendsforyouth.org/>.

We’ll be leading a workshop about our research on safe practices at MENTOR’s summit in January and will also be featuring the material during our January webinar. Be sure to check out our webinar page frequently for sign-up information here: <http://www.friendsforyouth.org/Webinars.html>