When a sexual abuse case comes to light, it often leaves in its wake a damaged institution with a diminished reputation, disillusioned employees who often blame themselves in hindsight for missing warning signals, and, worst of all, a victim who has gone through a terrible ordeal after being entrusted to an institution’s care.
Unfortunately, incidences of sexual violence are increasingly coming to light across prominent health, religious and educational institutions:
In February 2018, Hacienda HealthCare’s CEO resigned after an incapacitated patient at an Arizona facility gave birth, and a DNA test of the woman’s child showed a match with a hospital nurse. This employee was subsequently charged with rape and several other employees, including directors and doctors, resigned in the following months.
Ten years after a child abuse scandal erupted in the Massachusetts diocese, and months after prosecutors revealed widespread sexual abuse in Pennsylvania’s Catholic churches, the Vatican held a worldwide summit to try to put an end to sexual abuse of children by their priests. Meanwhile, the Southern Baptist Church reeled after allegations of abuse were brought against hundreds of ministers and volunteers.
In 2011, Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno was forced into retirement as a result of accusations that he ignored telltale signs an assistant coach was molesting young male college athletes. Less than 10 years later, another massive abuse scandal rocked the world of college sports. A Michigan State University physician was sentenced to 140 years in jail for crimes that include sexually assaulting hundreds of young women in the USA Gymnastics program.
Sadly, it feels like we see and hear stories like these on the evening news or in our social media feeds virtually every day. However, despite increased awareness and media attention around sexual abuse and molestation in the workplace, most cases don’t make the headlines.
What’s more, many business leaders and managers are not currently doing enough to protect the people in their care or their companies from the potential of a similarly tragic situation.
How do you protect the people in your care?
Most established companies, health and human services organizations, and educational facilities already have insurance in place to cover the financial impact of abuse claims. But, what you might not realize is that the marketplace for this type of insurance is going through an evolution, itself. As a result of the growing media attention and awareness of abuse, many of the top national carriers are lowering the maximum coverage limits for sexual abuse and molestation policies and are showing a strong preference for insuring companies who have adopted effective procedures for handling claims.
The problem is that many of today’s companies – for profit and non-profit – believe that their current policies and procedures are adequate to protect them against sexual abuse and molestation incidents. Sadly, often this is not the case.
To safeguard the people in your care and your organization’s reputation from a worst-case scenario, it takes much more than just having guidelines and insurance coverage in place. At Fred C. Church, we believe that companies should aim to be best in class at minimizing this potential risk.
“Although most organizations would say they are on top of this, in reality, they are not,” says Vice President Tom Rogers, Health & Human Services Practice Group Leader at Fred C. Church who has reviewed hundreds of abuse and molestation claims. “Surprisingly, almost all these incidents occurred in organizations that had procedures in place to prevent abuse. Managers felt confident that they were doing everything they could, but their systems failed.”
Rogers continues, “It is rare to review one of these incidents and not identify a breakdown in policy or procedure. Leaders of the organization are often in a state of shock and want to understand, ‘How could this abuse happen when we have a clear process in place?’ My role is to help these companies identify the parts of their system that didn’t work.”
But why do procedures designed to prevent sexual abuse often fail? Typically, it’s because leadership is not paying as much attention as it should
It is true that abuse claims are not nearly as common as other workplace hazards such as auto accidents or slip-and-falls. So, it’s natural that these situations may be getting more of your risk managers’ attention than the potential of a rare sexual abuse incident. Furthermore, because many supervisors may have never encountered an abuse case, they are apt to concentrate on priorities that seem more pressing.
As a result, a policy designed to prevent abuse may sit on paper in a desk drawer or get posted on a wall where it blends into the background, but not become an integral part of daily operations. That’s a way to court disaster.
As Rogers points out, it’s critical that you don’t assume that just because a worst-case scenario has yet to happen (or at least come to light), your organization’s policies are working just fine.
“Complacency is dangerous,” he says. “While most companies design risk management plans to address abuse, many health and human services organizations and schools assume their policies are effective because they have not had an incident. More than with any other risk, abuse is where management needs to be proactive and thinking ahead constantly.”
Unfortunately, many organizations are still not prioritizing the topic of abuse and molestation. While managers might openly discuss some liability exposures with their teams, they are not likely to broach this subject as regularly, if at all.
“As a society, we have trained ourselves not to talk about it,” Rogers says. “It’s ugly, and people are squeamish about bringing up such an unpleasant topic.”
While many people and companies may prefer to avoid the topic of abuse as much as possible, predators may structure their whole lives around looking for opportunities to find another victim. Rogers has spoken with law enforcement officials who describe the amount of time and effort predators invest in looking for victims as their part-time job. That potentially makes for an unequal contest between an obsessive predator and a distracted workforce, with a horrible outcome.
“The people who perpetrate this abuse don’t give up, and they don’t go away. It’s a compulsion,” Rogers says.
That is why, as risk managers, we at Fred C. Church believe it’s so important to review the steps you have implemented — and what you may be missing — to help prevent sexual abuse and molestation incidents from happening in the first place.
Four Key Insights For More Effective Risk Management
Below, Rogers identifies the critical risk management areas that should be the focus of any organization trying to prevent sexual abuse and molestation incidents in the workplace:
Risk Management Insight #1: Consistently test your policies and procedures
With decades of insurance and risk management experience under his belt, Rogers notes that the organizations that run into trouble usually have not focused adequately on procedural follow-up. They don’t do a good job of ensuring that their guidelines are being adhered to or that they are actually effective.
Instead, Rogers says that organizations should regularly revisit the question, “What can go wrong with this policy?” They should spend time discussing ways to improve these policies, which is often as easy as implementing additional accountability measures at little or no cost and conducting regular testing of your company’s sexual abuse and molestation procedures.
When engineers design a new plane, car or smart device, they will conduct tests to see how well their invention holds up in real-world conditions and what might cause it to break down. Rogers recommends you take a similar approach to test your policies and procedures for preventing sexual abuse and molestation.
Fred C. Church can run simulations with a client, which we call table-top exercises, to see how well policies and plans might fare under various hypothetical scenarios that could result in an abuse report. To replicate real-life situations, we might ask participants to give feedback on questions like these:
Through exercises like this, we might identify troublesome gaps and vulnerabilities in a process.
For example, suppose an organization wants to protect children in a residential setting from a potential predator. So, it implements a policy that requires two or more staff members to be present at all times at night in a wing where patients sleep. However, there are concerns across the staff that some holes in this procedure could enable an employee to violate the policy and escape notice.
If asked to help improve this policy, Fred C. Church specialists might ask the following questions to uncover how well this policy is truly being enforced, or even if it’s working at all:
While policies and procedures may look great on paper, constant oversight is essential to ensuring that they are implemented effectively.
Risk Management Insight #2: Don’t let your guard down after careful hiring
All roads lead back to the people you hire and entrust with your participants, patients or students. You obviously want to be certain that the new employees you hire do not pose a threat to your clients. Using a background checking system may successfully eliminate some potentially dangerous candidates, but it doesn’t guarantee that you are eliminating all possible sexual predators. For example:
Some states, including Connecticut, have enacted “pass the trash” laws requiring agencies to be proactive in reporting possible abusers when they know they are applying for work at similar organizations. Elsewhere, it is still quite possible that a company will quietly discharge employees who have fallen under suspicion and, time and time again, they will not file a report that could show up on a background check.
Fred C. Church advocates national legislation to improve reporting, but, until this happens, we want to stress that companies should not place too much confidence in background checks. Instead, we recommend that you adhere to rigorous enforcement of effective procedures. (See Risk Management Tip #1 above.)
Your policies and procedures must become a living, breathing part of your company’s culture that are incorporated into daily routines. If a predator slipped through the screening process, you want to be confident that your systems are strong enough to keep your charges safe. Constant vigilance is essential.
Risk Management Insight #3: Training staff shouldn’t stop after orientation
Given that even the best hiring practices are not foolproof, organizations need to do an exceptional job of training staff to spot potential problems. A training program should teach employees what to look for and how to respond if they suspect something is wrong.
While you might have policies that require employees to report questionable behavior, these policies won’t be very effective if employees are not clear about what behavior crosses the line. A good training program will not only explain what obvious red flags to look out for, but also how to respond to situations that an employee might find ambiguous.
Because some questionable behaviors may not appear outwardly illegal, palpably immoral, or even against company policy, employees may wonder whether they should say something or if they should just keep their mouths shut. Proper training can give them the tools to sort through what merits being reported and what does not.
Fred C. Church spends time with clients and their employees reviewing behaviors that might be observed between staff and people in their care. More importantly, we talk about whether these behaviors might be considered unusual and how a suspicious employee should respond.
For example, if we are working with a daycare center, a school, or a similar organization that cares for minors, we will discuss a common strategy of sexual predators of children – grooming. In this activity, the predator tries to build trust and a close relationship with a young person.
Below are some real-world scenarios that illustrate potential grooming activity. How confident are you that if your employees witnessed this behavior, they would know what to do?
If an employee gives someone extra dessert, that certainly could just be an example of a caregiver providing a special treat for one patient on one specific day. However, the proper training should teach employees to watch for a pattern of behavior, and, if they see one, to talk with managers about what they observed.
Providing some extra help in a school setting may be appropriate, even commendable. But when the relationship and extra attention far exceed the attention the teacher gives to typical students, and especially when the activity occurs away from the school, administrators need to know.
People have a natural reluctance to report questionable behavior that is not blatantly illegal. They certainly don’t want to ruin someone’s life because they are being overly suspicious. During the training process, companies should emphasize that what an employee is reporting is simply an observed behavior that rarely results in an abuse charge. But it can and should bring something to a supervisor’s attention for further observation and discussion.
“The last thing you want is for your employees to feel they have to be absolutely positive before reporting suspicious behavior,” Rogers says. “My team works with several insurance carriers who can provide your organization with videos that can be used to train your employees to spot grooming activity and other reportable behavior.”
Rogers also cautions that even the best new hire training is not enough to create a culture of safety. Ongoing training, policies and management practices all must reinforce these lessons.
In some healthcare settings, Rogers notes, the likelihood of an abuse case might be equal to the risk of a worker getting a disease from a needle prick. “Organizations should implement ongoing safety training that reviews abuse prevention procedures at least as often as how to properly handle needles, but I rarely see them doing that. Too often, a company’s sexual abuse and molestation policy is only covered during new employee orientation.”
Below are just a few thoughts from Rogers on how to keep the topic of sexual abuse and molestation part of the discussion throughout the year:
A comprehensive and continuous training program can help people overcome their natural squeamishness in discussing abuse. When your employees feel knowledgeable about this topic, they should also feel comfortable speaking up and out about something that concerns them. That willingness to act on their suspicions might ultimately save an innocent child or adult from being abused.
Risk Management Insight #4: Managers must focus on communication
Training your staff is only the first step. An effective risk management plan should ensure that all managers at every level of the organization know how to respond when someone reports suspicious behavior. From the top down, everyone in the company should not only be comfortable with the process for reporting and vetting information, but also feel that their feedback is being properly addressed, and not ignored.
If a line supervisor expresses a concern, but sees no action taken and gets no explanation, how likely is the supervisor to step forward again? “Nothing will sap the energy of employees more than feeling nobody cares,” Rogers says.
Instead, Rogers suggests that managers respond with:
Effective management communication is not just a critical tactic for preventing an abuse situation, but also a vital part of the response if an incident does happen despite all precautions. It’s important to be as transparent as possible with employees, people in your care and their families, law enforcement, funding agencies, and others with a vested interest in your company, like a board of directors. Optimally, you would provide immediate notification of an abuse event to these key ambassadors, rather than letting them hear about a situation through another source – like a media outlet – that is not management.
A clear, concise, accurate and rapid response is even more critical in today’s social media-driven news environment, where a story of abuse in your organization can spread almost instantly and to a very wide audience. Letting your employees know that an investigation is happening, regularly updating them, and reminding them of their obligations to protect privacy by not posting workplace information on their personal social media accounts, are all crucial elements of your communication strategy.
Rogers recommends putting a top-level person in your organization in charge of communication. It’s ideal that this individual has expertise in public relations and experience investigating sexual abuse and molestation claims. If you do not feel that you have an employee that can fit this role, Fred C. Church has built relationships with several local public relations firms that we are confident will be able to provide you with assistance.
Rogers adds, “Should a sexual abuse or molestation event occur, we stress to our clients that we want to be one of the parties that they contact within hours of the initial report. While swift notification is critical from an insurance requirements perspective, more importantly, we want our clients to be able to lean on us during what is going to be an inescapably challenging time period. Our clients know that we will do whatever we can as their insurance partner to help them reach an effective resolution of the situation.”
Fred C. Church can help you build a safer workplace culture
While the world’s awareness of the potential for abuse in the workplace is growing, there is still too much overconfidence in the ability to manage this risk.
Many organizations have policies and procedures addressing sexual abuse and molestation. However, these policies often only exist on paper rather than being incorporated into the daily practices of the workplace and embedded in a company’s culture.
At Fred C. Church, we want to help you protect those in your care with a risk management plan that focuses on testing and improving your current procedures, including your hiring practices, your training protocol, and your management communication process.
Rogers notes, “We have worked with clients who have already had an event that they were not prepared for and we helped them improve their procedures so that a similar situation does not happen again. However, the primary goal of our thoughtful and thorough approach is to help you to hopefully never have a claim in the first place. The best time to ask Fred C. Church for help is before any abuse incident occurs. Maybe then, it never will.”