From after-school care groups to youth sports and more, many organizations develop and oversee activities for children outside the school system. These groups, often led by nonprofits, most frequently rely on volunteers to supplement paid administrative staff. These volunteers might be parents themselves, young people looking for opportunities to gain experience, and many other types of people.
By and large, this type of arrangement works well—but it isn't without its risks. A tour of the headlines from recent years would quickly reveal numerous occasions when those in volunteer positions abused their authority and committed criminal acts. It is difficult to overstate the amount of harm such actions can cause. So, what can volunteer organizations do to foster a safer environment?
New laws in California that went into effect at the start of 2022 can provide an effective framework. Designed to put up strong guardrails to limit the abuse of children by volunteers, the new law outlines a wide range of requirements. California defines a "volunteer" as someone who spends a minimum of 32 hours each year or 16 hours each month in supervision over or contact with children.
What does the new law require? Some of the steps include:
- Mandatory training in recognizing the signs of child abuse and neglect
- Training on mandatory reporting practices
- Developing a thorough, written policy to prevent child abuse in the organization
- A mandatory criminal background check, including fingerprinting
For youth organizations nationwide, these mandates in California can serve as the basis for a good model in other locales where there may not be such legal requirements. At the very least, smart hiring processes—including the background check and a drug test—can help to reduce the number of volunteers who could pose a risk to those in their care.
Going further and building a framework for protecting children is a wise choice. Some states have similar requirements, while others leave due diligence largely up to individual organizations. Consider that implementing a written policy, as required in California, has two essential purposes: providing guidance for volunteers and their supervisors and protecting the business. It is easier to hold those in charge accountable for failures and missteps with clear guidelines.
Periodic re-screening of volunteers is a smart idea, too. In fact, upon the passage of the new California law, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in California required all volunteers to submit to a brand-new background check, even if they had already completed and passed one. This type of ongoing monitoring, like random drug screening, can help organizations uncover concerning evidence sooner rather than later—and make changes based on that information as needed.
Youth organizations provide a critical pillar of support in society, opening doors to new opportunities and experiences for children. With the right policies in place, volunteer-run groups can improve the effectiveness of their work to foster a safe environment. Now is the time to take a step back, evaluate existing guardrails, and ask: are we doing enough?
About Michael Klazema The author
Michael Klazema is Chief Marketing Technologist at EY-VODW.com and has over two decades of experience in digital consulting, online product management, and technology innovation. He is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based backgroundchecks.com with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments.