Identifying Red Flag Behaviors to Prevent Abuse

The signs of child sexual abuse can be very subtle. That’s why it’s important to educate staff, volunteers and community members alike on red flag behaviors. Because studies have shown that the risk of abuse increases when families or communities are under stress, it is especially important to focus on this issue as we navigate the current pandemic.

The key to preparing your teams and community members is understanding this simple fact: We rarely catch abusers abusing. We catch them breaking rules. So it is important that all staff and volunteers working with youth follow these rules:

No Inappropriate Touching
Abusers may use physical intimacy as either a cover for on-site, opportunistic
abuse such as touching of a child’s private parts—or they may use more subtle forms of physical contact as a means to groom a child for sexual abuse elsewhere. Hugs, tickling, lap-sitting and hand holding are all inappropriate in a professional childcare or youth-serving program.

No Alone Time
Privacy creates opportunities for abuse. That’s why it’s important that no staff or volunteers are left alone with a child without other adults being present. If you need to have a private talk with a youth, make sure you are observable and interruptible.

No Favoritism
Gift giving, excessive praise or other forms of favors are all ways that abusers seek to make their victims feel ‘special’—singling them out and grooming them in preparation of abuse.

No Outside Contact
Whether it’s babysitting, rides home or outreach via social media—abusers may seek to establish relationships outside of work where abuse is less likely to be detected. If your organization is offering virtual programming, make sure that all online interactions are observable, and avoid one-to-one interactions. Be sure to also share resources with families on how to protect children online.

These rules can be reinforced in all signage and posters, emails and print materials, as well as verbal reminders and feedback. By reinforcing these rules in many areas, it sends a message that inappropriate or abusive behavior will not be tolerated at your organization.

By creating an environment where rule breaking does not occur, and where everyone is on the lookout for inappropriate behavior, it’s possible to not only detect potential abuse early, but to actually deter and prevent it entirely.