This post is part of a continuing series about responding to reports by a now-adult of past abuse at a youth-serving organization. The first post discussed general principles, and this one discusses first steps in an internal investigation.
In many ways, the first 48 hours after you receive a report of historic abuse are the most important. While you are putting your team together, you also need to address several important and immediate issues.
Develop a Plan
You need a strategy for your investigation, and you need to develop that with your team. However, don’t delay any of the tasks below while you are recruiting the final team members. Decide early whose advice you need in order to take immediate steps. Then develop a strategy that decides the following goals:
(1) Objective of the investigation
(2) Specific questions to be answered (factual and/or legal)
(3) Skill sets and team members needed
(4) Preliminary timeline
(5) Likely witnesses and sources of evidence
Isolate the Accused
If the reports concern someone who is still on staff at your organization, you need to suspend him or her immediately. Even if the investigation ultimately concludes that the accusations are unfounded, you must start with the assumption that the reports may be accurate. Take whatever steps are necessary to cut off his or her continued access to the children in your care. Even if this action seems unfair, it is necessary to protect your organization.
If the accused person is no longer with your organization, locate him or her as soon as possible. Determine the best person to discuss the claims with him or her, and to emphasize that this is an internal investigation, not a legal proceeding.
Make any Mandated Reports
Various states have different rules about whether a disclosure by an adult of past abuse must be reported to authorities. Consult your attorney about that question, and report when necessary. Most states have strict time limits for mandated reporting, so make this decision as soon as possible.
Reach Out to the Accuser
Where possible, establish a line of communication to the adult reporting the abuse. Do not treat him or her as an enemy. This person has a story to tell, and your organization needs to hear it. If this person was once in your care, decide what moral obligations you still have and what resources you can offer, such as assistance in obtaining counseling. Of course, if the person has a lawyer or has threatened litigation, then you need to relay all communications through your attorney. But if the reporter initially reached out to someone in your organization, decide the best person to continue to communicate with him or her.
Consider Hiring An Attorney
If you have been sued or think a lawsuit is likely, then you need an attorney to guide you through the legal pitfalls. In other situations, consider whether an attorney’s advice will be helpful. Experienced attorneys can conduct the investigation and will have protections for client communications and investigations work product that other professionals do not have.
Locate and preserve documents from the relevant time frame, including email, personnel records, time sheets, and correspondence. Depending on the allegations, you may need information about the accuser’s activities in your organization, opportunities that the accused had to be alone with him or her, and other people involved in the program. You will need to develop a list of potential witnesses and will need as much information as possible about them.
If the accused is still connected with your organization, be sure to restrict his or her access to the computer system, organization records, or other sources of evidence.
You will need someone to search social media to see if there is any relevant information there. Once attorneys get involved, people often shut down their social media accounts, so you need to get as much information as you can before that happens.
Juggling all of these tasks and getting them done at the same time only seems impossible. Getting a good investigator on board right away is a key step to getting everything else done efficiently. Responding to reports of historic abuse will be challenging, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Develop your plan of action, assemble your team, and put them to work. Together, you can get through the crisis.