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An organization may receive allegations related to child safety (or other workplace misconduct, such as sexual harassment, but this discussion is focused on child safety). In some cases, a law enforcement or child safety report will trigger an investigation by the government. But sometimes, the organization will have to investigate, either because the government has not investigated, or because more information is needed to make internal decisions. If you need an investigation, what should you consider?
In the child safety context, the main purpose of an investigation will be to determine whether a child safety violation has occurred or if there are other shortcomings related to child safety. This might or might not involve criminal child abuse. Some benefits to conducting an internal investigation include:
- Investigating helps keep children safe.
- It will give members and employees confidence that you are prioritizing child safety.
- An investigation encourages high moral standards of conduct and shows that the organization takes child safety seriously.
- An investigation may protect against legal liability.
An investigation will usually be triggered by a complaint or report of some kind, or an observation made by one of the organization’s staff or volunteers. An allegation of child abuse almost always requires a report to Child Protective Services or law enforcement. If you are in any doubt about how to report or whether it is required in the circumstances, work with your legal counsel. Because many jurisdictions require prompt reporting, failure to make a report quickly could even lead to criminal charges against the persons who should have reported.
Once child safety mandatory reporting has been accomplished, the organization needs to evaluate if there should be an investigation. This may have to be deferred if there is a government investigation, but at a minimum it is important to communicate with the authorities so as not to impede their investigation. The decision about whether to investigate will likely need to be made by high level leadership, and likely in conjunction with legal counsel.
The investigation may be into allegations that someone committed misconduct, such as alleged abuse or an inappropriate leadership response. It may also be more of an audit into child safety policies or training, either internally or by an outside expert.
Beginning an investigation will involve choosing investigators and gathering relevant documents, such as policies, notes of discussions, emails, and so on. The investigator will conduct interviews, review information, and reach findings and conclusions.
The organization may have a trained investigator available or may need an outside third party. This choice also depends on if there is a law enforcement investigation, how serious the allegations are, and whether they involve senior leadership. The investigator must be able to act independently and not be closely involved with those being investigated. The investigator must also have appropriate training. Special skills could be needed, such as a child forensic interviewer, someone with psychological skills, or someone knowledgeable about child safety policies. Finally, if the investigation should be confidential, consider having legal counsel supervise or carry out the investigation, to create attorney-client privilege.
The main purpose of an interview is to gather information, both about the general environment and specific to the complaint. Interviews will be of key witnesses and collateral witnesses. Usually, it is best to have two interviewers, the second of whom will take very detailed notes that include date, time, persons present, and so on. Usually, third persons should not be present on behalf of the person being interviewed, though there are exceptions. For example, parents have a legal right to be with their minor children, even if it is not best practice for interviewing.
The typical order in which people are interviewed are: the person bringing the complaint; other witnesses who may have insight; the person accused; other witnesses suggested by the accused; and perhaps a follow-up interview with the person bringing the complaint. The investigator will determine how credible each witness is, based on the witness’s plausibility, vested interests and bias, ability to remember, and even reputation.
Key interviews should be done in person if at all possible. Evaluating credibility and conducting a good interview are extremely difficult over video conference and cast doubt on the reliability of the investigation.
In the course of an investigation, a good investigative file should be created, containing materials reviewed and summaries of interviews. An investigative memo summarizes each interview. The investigator will typically create a statement of findings, or final report, which will give an overview of the investigation for the organization. This should usually not be widely shared. Any recommendations or legal conclusions should be in a separate document drafted by an attorney, with careful consideration.
Documents should be carefully and permanently stored in a highly secure place, and security should be demonstrated by document storage policies
Leadership will review the investigative results and determine next steps. The complaining party and/or the accused may be given a brief statement or update on what was determined, either in writing or verbally. The organization should consider the following areas as relevant. How can it support those who have been harmed, such as working to provide resources to victims and their families? What remedial action is needed (correcting or updating policies, child safety training, or the child environment)? What disciplinary action is needed, such as termination of employment or membership? The organization should also consider any statements that need to be made, either internally to witnesses or more publicly, but must keep in mind privacy rights, especially of minors
For more information on responding to allegations in ministry, see Theresa’s book Handling Allegations in a Ministry: Response and Investigation.
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 For more information on Mandated Reporting Laws state-by-state, you can visit: https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/systemwide/laws-policies/state/