Safeguard – COVID-19 and the impact on safeguarding children and vulnerable adults
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has compelled a range of organizations and businesses to make very swift adjustments to how they manage their operations and interact with their stakeholders while taking on additional tasks and responsibilities. Among the many demands and priorities confronting them, entities that provide services focused on children and/or vulnerable adults should ensure their safeguarding efforts are assessed (and potentially adapted or strengthened) to address the new channels of communication.
The shift to an online or virtual environment since the crisis began is perhaps the most fundamental change we have seen in working practices and the provision of services. With the rapid nature of the shutdown, many organizations, including those in education, healthcare and not for profit sectors, made these adjustments within days and in many cases on an unprecedented scale.
As an example, in the education sector online tools perhaps deployed previously on a more limited basis have now become the sole or main means for learning. These platforms can include elements of direct messaging and even video interaction between teaching staff and pupils. Institutions relying on these platforms should ensure that appropriate risk assessments, training and messaging for all participants, including teachers, students and their caregivers, occur and are maintained.
To help manage the risks in this new environment, the following considerations should be taken into account:
- WHOwithin the organization is permitted to communicate via electronic means with youth and vulnerable adults during this transitional time? To minimize privacy concerns, communications should limit and if possible avoid one-on-one interactions and include a group setting. Organizations should consider a policy of copying in a supervisor and/or parent (or providing parental access to the system) when group discussions are not feasible.
- WHATare these individuals allowed to communicate? If not already defined, electronic communications should focus on programmatic operations, curriculum or projects, goal attainment, and safety tips, rather than disclosure of personal details. When providing general encouragement or support to youth and vulnerable adults during this challenging time, teams should keep in mind the necessity to maintain consistent and professional boundaries.
- WHENare communications allowed? Clearly define the days of the week and times of day to further maintain professional boundaries and provide regular reinforcement around what falls within an acceptable bandwidth of behavior.
- WHERE and WEAR. When using video platforms, individuals and teams should be mindful of background surroundings, as well as personal appearance and attire, in order to maintain professionalism.
- HOWto communicate. While the available technology platforms vary widely, don’t lose sight of the importance of maintaining appropriate boundaries and privacy, and strong cyber security measures when selecting and operating online communications. When connecting on social media, communicate through designated or authorized organizational “group pages” or “group profiles” on social media platforms. For telephone communications, consider utilizing corporate or agency-issued mobile phones or services like Google Voice that allow for de-identified connections.
Organizations also need to be aware that the pandemic could place considerable strain on the usual pastoral, welfare and reporting structures and procedures they have developed around safeguarding. Such pressures need to be identified and managed. For example, with many organizations having laid off or furloughed staff (or facing workforce reductions due to illness or self-isolation) the reporting chain in cases of suspected abuse may have significant gaps that should be resolved and any revised channel of communication should be shared quickly and effectively with relevant stakeholders. Once the current situation eases and children and vulnerable adults begin to return to the settings and structures they are used to, organizations should be prepared for them to raise abuse-related issues that occurred during lockdown with staff and volunteers. Staff and volunteers should therefore be briefed about such issues arising and trained in how to respond to them.
The strains on staffing availability created by the pandemic may also necessitate the recruitment and on-boarding of additional employees or volunteers, perhaps on an expedited/emergency basis. In such circumstances, the usual best practice of a standardized application, criminal background checks that capture information at a wide and deep level, interviews, and references may have to be adapted. However, this is not the time to skip on the basic protocols. At minimum, anyone with access to vulnerable populations, such as employees, volunteers, interns, contractors, etc., should undergo a national criminal background check plus a national registered sex offender search. While best practices also indicate completion of a county-level search for all counties implicated within the last seven years, slower result turnaround times may occur during COVID-19 related court closures and skeleton crew operations.
Where an organization deviates from their usual policies and procedures by adopting modified screening protocols, they should document what those modifications are and ensure their consistent application. Organizations should also consult their legal and human resources teams to evaluate potential screening result delays, provisional hiring parameters, and how to close screening gaps at the first practical opportunity.
There may also be circumstances where an organization has repurposed its services and even its facilities to help address specific aspects of pandemic response. For example, we have come across a situation where an organization that was not previously focussed on childcare has stepped in to provide such services for essential workers. To better control who has access to vulnerable populations and prevent sexualized abuse and behaviors between youth or vulnerable adults, organizations should create monitoring and supervision guidelines for facility use and higher-risk interactions. Recommended guidelines include:
- Identify and develop a plan to manage locations where architecture may compromise supervision.
- Develop a system to check program participants and vulnerable populations in and out of the facility.
- Clearly designate any off-limits areas.
- Adhere to established methods for supervising and monitoring diapering, toileting, and personal care assistance.
- Create and strictly adhere to an organized daily schedule with vulnerable populations split into small groups based on age and development (for supervision and social distancing). Ensure this schedule addresses how to manage transition times between activities.
- Utilize line of sight supervision.
- Maintain approved ratios.
Amid the intentional physical distancing efforts, we have seen an extraordinary coming together across the globe of people, ideas, and safeguarding solutions. These unexpected connections reinforce the opportunities all organizations have to evaluate their operations, adjustments, and newly-created communication channels to ensure they create a culture of safety for youth and vulnerable adults during and long after coronavirus.
Christina Herald, executive risk underwriter Beazley
Paul Nash, employment practices liability focus group leader Beazley
Candace D. Collins, JD, Director of Strategic Alliance Praesidium
Aaron Lundberg, MSW, President and CEO Praesidium
About the author:
Paul joined Beazley in May 2001 as an Employment Practices Liability (EPL) Underwriter. Paul is the EPL product leader for both the UK and US teams. Paul has over 25 years experience in the insurance industry and London market in both claims and underwriting roles. Paul holds a Bachelor of Arts degree and has helped to establish Beazley's EPL team as one of the leaders in the market. Paul is frequently requested as a guest speaker and has presented at conferences including ACI, ExecuSummit, The Defense Research Institute and NAPEO.
About the author:
Christina joined Beazley in June of 2009. She is an underwriter for public company and private company directors and officers liability, employment practices liability, fiduciary liability and Safeguard, Beazley’s sexual misconduct liability offering. She started in Beazley’s New York office and moved to London in 2011 as an Underwriter at Lloyds. She moved back to Atlanta in 2015 as part of Beazley’s regional growth strategy. Christina graduated from Vanderbilt University with a degree in Business and Financial Economics.