The Department of Justice has issued a scathing report about the FBI's failures to investigate reports of sexual assault by Larry Nassar. Although the report focuses on violations of FBI policies, it has some important lessons for youth serving organizations, specifically the importance of documenting events and seeking outside expertise.
I do want to resist the temptation to generalize from this case to the FBI as a whole. I worked with the FBI when I was a federal prosecutor in North Carolina, and I found that FBI field office to be extremely conscientious and skilled in handling child abuse cases. Yet, just like our organizations, any single mistake in a high profile case will reflect on the entire institution.
The main lesson we can learn from the FBI report is the importance of documentation. Filling out reports is annoying, and I am no better than anyone else at keeping up with paperwork. Failing to keep an accurate record, however, will come back to haunt you. Be certain that your procedure for handling any accidents or injuries in your organization include the following, at a minimum:
- Written statements from all eyewitnesses
- Written statements from any staff or volunteers with any knowledge of the events
- Written confirmation that you notified the minor's parents
- Written correspondence with child protection agency or law enforcement
- Gather and preserve the minor's file, personnel files of all relevant employees, the organization's policies that are (or might be) relevant, sign-in/sign-out and time sheets for the relevant time frame, and, if you have cameras, video for at least the 24 hours before and after the incident at issue.
Keep all of these documents in a central location clearly labelled so that you can find them later. If possible, keep them in both hard copies and digital backup.
The second lesson from the FBI report is the importance of outside expertise. The FBI has a broad mandate dealing with almost every conceivable type of case. Relatively few of their agents have any training in investigating sexual assault cases, and skills in investigating bank robberies or terrorism threats just don't transfer. Sexual molestation cases are unique, and state or local agencies generally have more experience and training in how to investigate them. In the Nassar case, in fact, it was the Michigan State University Police Department (MSUPD) that kicked off the investigation that ultimately led to Nassar's conviction.
Similarly, our organizations usually don't need to respond to sexual abuse allegations. When the claim comes up, it's outside most administrators' experiences. We need to get help from people who have been through that challenge, either directly or as a consultant. In that sense, we have an advantage over the FBI. Federal agencies rarely have the option of seeking expertise from local law enforcement. Youth serving organizations, on the other hand, have plenty of leeway. We should not let our concerns about PR and our organization's reputation keep us from getting help from our peers or consultants. Also don't forget the need for legal advice as these claims unfold. Taylor English has attorneys experienced in this field who will be happy to help you with any of these situations.