One of the side effects of awareness of child abuse is an uptick in claims within youth organizations. We have had numerous clients contact us with reports that they are facing such claims. Sometimes, the allegation comes as part of a new lawsuit, in which case the lawyers and court system handle the allegation. Many times, however, the disclosure comes before any suit, or long after the statute of limitations has expired, in which case my clients simply want to know the right thing to do.
There are many issues to consider and each situation is different. There are some general principles, however, that apply to every claim of abuse.
Put Your Team Together Now
The first step is to decide who will be on your team for the investigation. Sexual assault claims rarely are small enough for one person to handle alone. Plan ahead -- in fact, you can start putting your team together before any abuse claims come in the door. Do table-top exercises with your administrators and staff to talk through potential situations. Decide now who will do what and when.
Third-Party Investigator or In-House?
The first question is whether to hire an investigator or assign the investigation to an employee. It is inevitable that someone will be unhappy with the conclusion of an internal investigation, and one easy charge will be that the organization was biased. An accuser may say that the organization simply wanted to cover up the wrong-doing, or an accused staff member may claim that the organization sacrificed him or her to save its own reputation.
Hiring an outside professional can neutralize these claims. Yes, the organization is paying the professional, but independent lawyers and investigators have their own reputations and ethical obligations to consider. Those obligations transcend any duty to any particular client, and help the investigation start out on an unbiased note from the beginning.
Sometimes, however, the budget simply will not handle an outside attorney or investigator. In those situations, the organization must be even more careful about avoiding any appearance of bias or prejudging the situation.
Attorney or Investigator or Both?
If there is any potential for a lawsuit, then you need a lawyer somewhere on the team. There is simply too much risk that a misstep will hurt your court case. Having an attorney direct the investigation also gives you some protection for communications and investigation that you will not have with a non-lawyer investigator.
Not all lawyers have the experience and skill necessary for an investigation. You may need an experienced investigator to conduct interviews, or even locate former students or staff. Decide early on what you need and what your budget can accommodate.
Public Relations Professional
If the claim already is public knowledge, or might become public, try to find the budget for a public relations professional to help you handle the fallout. The Twitter tribunal has no judge and no rules, so you need an experienced person to guide you.
Do not rely on your attorney for PR advice. Most of us are lousy writers, and very few of us know anything about crafting a public image. Certainly, ask your attorney to review any public statements for legal pitfalls, but recognize the limits of our knowledge. We can tell you how to make our job defending you in court easier, but we don’t know much about how our legal advice will impact your organization. You are the person who can see the entire problem and has the job of protecting the organization on all fronts, not just the courtroom. Keep lawyers in our lane and don’t let us claim a skill set that few of us have.
Someone from the organization needs to be part of the team in order to help gather evidence and arrange interviews. To keep the proceedings as confidential as possible, however, limit how many people are privy to the details of the investigation. Sometimes administrators or Board members want frequent reports about the investigation. Resist giving any details, particularly about witness interviews, before your final report. You don’t want to create an appearance that you are taking instructions from interested parties. If necessary, keep the organization’s representative in the dark so that he or she doesn’t face inadvertent pressure from a supervisor.
In my next post, we'll discuss some principles that your team needs to follow now that it's assembled.