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Child Abuse

Youth and Employee Protection in Park Districts

by Robert A. Porter, CLP
The first obligation of a park program is to provide a safe recreation experience for both the participants and the employees. A child could be damaged for life and a career of an employee could be destroyed without having clear procedures on programs involving minors.

Many written articles have appeared in the past few years concerning child abuse. Its impact has caused many park agencies to think in terms of child abuse potential and it's impact on park employees. There are 2.3 million cases of child abuse reported each year. Experts believe this figure is only a small portion of the problem. The first obligation of a park program is to provide a safe recreation experience for both the participants and the employees. A child could be damaged for life and a career of an employee could be destroyed without having clear procedures on programs involving minors. Paranoia should not be the rule of the land. Common sense approaches to managing the issue should be the prevailing solution. This report will not answer all the facets of child abuse. Hopefully, it will stimulate further discussion concerning the child abuse issue.

There are many myths and stereotype images of child abusers. Child abusers come from all walks of life crossing economic and educational demographics. It is not limited to "dirty old men in trench coats." Abusers tend to be angry people, with low self-ego strength. They are emotionally needy, lack impulse control, and lack understanding of children. Some abusers show excess interest in children. Studies have shown that 10% of child abuse is done by females. These same studies point out 33% of child abuse is done by older children. There is no absolute method in identifying child abusers. Child molesters can be very ordinary people. The prevention of child abuse can only be controlled by better education of the issue at all levels. Adults and children must be educated on the impacts of the issue. Children must be encouraged to report incidents immediately. Authorized and trained professionals must deal with the reporting to allow swift corrective action while protecting the innocent, both the suspected abuser and the child.

The process must start by defining child abuse and neglect. The definition of child abuse is any non-accidental injury of a child that impairs physical or mental health immediately or over period of time. There are three major classifications of child abuse: (1) physical abuse, which is abuse beyond normal parental discipline of the child; (2) sexual abuse, which deals with sexual acts involving the child; and (3) emotional abuse, which deals with damage to the emotional status of the child.

Neglect deals with the omission of reasonable care of the child, such as failure to provide adequate supervision, food, clothing, or shelter.

Child abuse has a high frequency involving the child with some authority source person. This could be an older relative, youth worker, teacher, etc. Children can be drawn into the abuse by the need for self esteem, loneliness, physical disabilities, self identification or love. The abuse tends to occur in isolated environments with the abuser.

The symptoms of child abuse can involve chronic behavior changes, increasing periods of anger, loss of control, social relationship changes, loner patterns, and abnormal patterns of behavior. Physical abuse is sometimes discovered by identifying bruises on non-bony areas of the child's body followed by illogical explanation of why the bruises occurred. Sexual abuse can sometimes be identified by the child acting out sexual behavior, excessive fears of contact, major performance changes, and avoidance of normal peer group relationships.

The child abuse cases usually involve the "seduction process." The grabbing of children by a

36 Illinois Parks & Recreation January/February 1995


passing car for abuse is on the very low end of the percentage factor. Most abuse comes about with the abuser providing a friendly environment with fun activities for the child. An attachment and trust relationship period is developed. Many abusers are well known to the child. Abusers are often a person the child respects as an authority source.

The selection of employees dealing with children is an important task for park districts in reducing child abuse. Park districts are encouraged to use youth program checks pursuant to the Illinois Child Care Act.

Park districts can play a role in the prevention or reduction of child abuse by simple procedural processes. The first task is being aware of the preconditions to child abuse. 1. Predisposition to abuse - awareness of the potential issue. 2. Overcome social taboos learning to talk about the issue verses avoiding it. 3. Overcome protection of the environment keeping safe environments for the child. 4. Overcome resistance of the child keep communication open.

The selection of employees dealing with children is an important task for park districts in reducing child abuse. Employee screening should investigate as much as legally possible about the perspective employee. Police checks, verification forms, and fully filled out applications can help identify potential problems. A complete follow through on references by phone is a key to getting information on unknown applicants. More than one reference should be done on each employee applicant. This includes part- and full-time employee applicants. Park districts are encouraged to use youth program checks pursuant to the Illinois Child Care Act.

There are simple barriers to child abuse that should be incorporated into the park district policies. They are:

1. Two person supervision. There should be two persons (one should be 21 years or older) supervising programs involving children. This does not mean two employees must be hired for every program having children. It does imply line of sight by another park employee on each employee when children are present. This reduces exposure potential. Employees must use two-person procedures when getting a program class of children through locker room or bathroom functions. Same sex must be used with locker or bathroom functions even with preschool age children. One on one contact with a child should not be allowed without line of sight by another employee or adult.

2. Parent involvement and their visual contact with the program should be encouraged. Reviewing windows and spectator areas should be used whenever possible with children programs. All programs should be open always for parent inspection.

3. Respect for the child's privacy should be protected. Locker room and bathroom functions must be administered in a proper procedure.

4. A buddy system between the child participants is a simple procedure for better protection coverage.

5. Proper clothing attire should be required to fit the activity.

6. Physical discipline is never to be allowed. Hazing or initiation activities should be banned.

7. Trips should be strictly controlled by parent permission authorities, documented program agenda, and controlled adult supervision.

8. Any overnight activities cannot allow any employee or volunteer to share sleeping arrangements with any child participant. The exception is parent/child combination.

Children are being taught more in school about the three "R"s in child abuse. They are:

1. Recognize the child is taught what to recognize as normal and abnormal feelings and physical conditions with an adult or other persons.

2. Resist the child is taught how to say "No" in clear terms.

3. Report children are taught to tell their parents or other authority sources of an incident. Children are often confused in this reporting stage. Especially if the abuser is their parent(s) or an authority source. They might have loyalty to the abuser. They might also fear nobody will believe them.

Park employees need clear procedures on how to report abuse cases. A child may spontaneously tell of abuse to an employee. Employees should listen, be supportive, but not solicit when present about abuse by a child. They should not panic or criticize the child. Instead, they should respect the privacy of the child, and assure the child that they are not at fault. The most important next step for the employee is to report it to the director of the park district or designated authority person of the park district.

The park director should report it to the proper authority. This might mean the police, or family services (1-800-252-2873). No non-qualified park employee should do any investigation. Suspicion is enough for reporting. Professionally trained persons need not control the reporting to prevent innocent people being accused of destroying statements. Directors should contact the local police department for their procedures involving child abuse. Many park districts are unaware they are legally required to report child abuse under state law.

Robert A. Porter, CLP, is the Director of Parks & Recreation/or the Lemont Park District.

Illinois Parks & Recreation January/February 1995 37


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