Peer-to-Peer Abuse Prevention: Lessons from an Incident

Last December, at an after school program, a staff member brought in a bedsheet for the kids to build a “fort” and play in once they were finished with their homework. She only allowed the same sex children to play in the fort at the same time. Typically, boys would play with Legos in the fort and the girls would color in the fort.

One afternoon, two second grade girls invited a younger, first grade girl to play in the fort. They asked her to play a “licking game” with them. This game escalated to licking each others’ private parts. The counselor did not see this happen during the day. The organization learned of the peer-to-peer abuse when later that evening, the first-grader asked her mom if she could play a “licking game” with her cousin.

This fort created a blind spot that made it difficult for the counselor to supervise the children playing. Because of this blind spot, the peer-to-peer abuse was able to go undetected.

It’s important to prioritize peer-to-peer abuse prevention when developing before and after school programming. Here are some things to consider as you create and recreate activities that are fun, while still keeping the kids in your care safe:

  • Create structure at all times, and develop a schedule with supervisor-approved games and activities. Your schedule can include homework/quiet time, snack time, bathroom breaks, and play time—with play time being structured as well. This way, kids will know what to expect, and staff will know what activities are acceptable and appropriate.
  • Peer-to-peer abuse can occur between any minors. This includes children of the same sex, different sex, same age or different age. There aren’t any minors that are too young, or too old to be at risk of engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior with their peers. “Natural curiosity” is still considered sexual abuse that must be reported.
  • Schedule group bathroom breaks so that children are never alone with their peers. Bathrooms are one of the most frequent places for abuse to happen in youth-serving environments. Some before and after school programs take place in a school, and children may be accustomed to going to the bathroom on their own with a hall pass. This is not an appropriate arrangement for before and after school care.
  • Set clear boundaries when reviewing the rules so that children understand where they can and cannot go. Identify blind spots and let kids know that they are prohibited from going behind, in and under certain areas. Remind them, “If you can’t see me, I can’t see you”. Designate zones for staff members to supervise. This encourages staff to spread out and keeps their focus on a specific area.
  • Empower the children in your program to use and accept appropriate touch only, and educate them on the parts of the body that are off limits. As a rule of thumb, no-touch-zones are generally anywhere a bathing suit covers, but be sure to let kids know that inappropriate touch can occur on any area of the body (e.g. the stomach, hair, face). If it doesn’t feel right or welcome to the person being touched, then they should always feel empowered to speak up.