This post is part of a continuing series about responding to claims of abuse within a youth-serving organization. The first two posts discussed assembling your team and general principles for the team to follow. This post discusses first steps in an internal investigation.
In many ways, the first 48 hours after you hear of a claim of abuse are the most important. During that time, you need to address several important and immediate issues.
Develop a Plan
Decide early whose advice you need in order to take immediate steps. Then develop a strategy that decides the following goals:
- Objective of the investigation
- Specific questions to be answered (factual and/or legal)
- Skill sets and team members needed
- Preliminary timeline
- 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, have your investigator locate him or her as soon as possible. An experienced investigator will know what information to disclose and, particularly if law enforcement is also investigating, what not to disclose.
Make any Mandated Reports
Various states have different rules about when and where you have to disclose the claim. The consequences for not reporting can be serious, so do not play games with the rules of disclosure. On the other hand, some cases do not require disclosure. For example, many states do not require you to report claims where the alleged victim is now an adult. Consult with your attorney about the laws in your state and follow that law.
Reach Out to the Reporter
Where possible, establish a line of communication to the person claiming abuse. Do not treat him or her as an enemy. This person has a story to tell, and your organization needs to hear it. 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 this crisis.