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Child Abuse

How to Protect Scouting Youth:

Part 1

by Nancy Schoenherr, David Townsend, Bryan Milliere
- The Leader - Feature - March 1996

The media has made Canadians very aware of the reality and frequency of child abuse. We are beginning to accept the fact that child abuse in its many forms takes place every day in homes, in schools, in families and even in volunteer organizations. As adults responsible for the safety of children under our care, let's consider what we can do to make growing up a fun and easier process.

For decades Scouting has been a safe place for millions of young Canadians to spend part of their childhood. Our leaders want to help children develop into resourceful and responsible adults who respect and honour God, other people and themselves. Yet in every community live adults who, either willingly or from lack of skills, pose a threat to child safety.

Scouters may become aware of a child threatened by abuse either through observing a problem or by the youngster reporting it to them. Many adult members have taken training that describes how to report suspected abuse to child protection agencies. Schools and daycare centres are giving training on street-proofing to children so they can know how to protect themselves from potential or repeat abuse.

The Leadership Team

Within our Movement we are developing better resources for those who interview and recruit volunteers. Concerning our programs, the leadership team approach has been one of Scouts Canada's past strengths. This concept minimizes the time adults spend alone with children. Scouting programs have added protection; most leaders are well known because they have children in our programs. But we need to educate recruiters, leaders and youth how they can identify dangerous individuals.

What is Abuse?

Child abuse is defined as any of the points below if it can result in injury or psychological damage to a young person:

Sexual maltreatment receives the most public attention because of the physical and psychological harm it causes.(See the "Helpful Definitions" section at the end, for a more complete description.)

Children who have been abused may tell their leaders about an incident that causes them discomfort or fear. At other times Scouters may suspect that a child is a victim of abuse by unusual and unexplained injuries, or sudden changes in behaviour. Disclosures by a child are to be taken seriously and acted on swiftly. (Part 2 of this article will deal with this in greater depth next month.)

Practical Advice

Many people who are committed to the care and development of children and youth through their paid or volunteer work are becoming very cautious about working and helping children. They're afraid that others may misinterpret their natural contact as threatening. Adults who work with youth should be careful how and when they touch children, but appropriate caring and touching is still very important, desirable and necessary for the healthy development of young people.

It is good to provide a friendly pat on the back or a tousling of the hair for an extra effort on some activity. The child deserves the attention. When an adult touches a child in positive and appropriate ways, it sends inspiring messages like, "You belong here," and, "I like you".

Make a point of showing appropriate affection to all of your children in open places where others can see and share in the warmth. If you are comfortable with others watching what you are doing with children, you are probably acting appropriately.

If a child is hurting or feeling ill and needs to be examined, ensure that another person of the same sex as the child is present in the room while you are carrying out the examination. If possible, leave the examination of private places to professionals. Don't force the child to remove clothing for an examination.

If a child is sad and needs to be comforted, show affection by placing your arm around a shoulder and giving a hug or a good squeeze from the side. If a child needs to have a private conversation with you, walk beyond hearing distance of others so no one can eavesdrop, but stay in view of the group or leave a door open.

It may be impossible to avoid situations where you have to be alone with a child. If you must be alone, be sure you have taken all of the safeguards and that parents are aware of the nature of your activity with the child. For example, when doing bed checks at camp, bring a second adult. When travelling long hours by car, take either more than one child with you or another volunteer.

When camping, ensure that you maintain the suggested ratios of adults to children. An individual's right to privacy must be recognized and taken into consideration in such matters as sleeping places and sanitary facilities. Adult members should have sleeping accommodations separate from youth members (where possible) unless discipline, safety or available facilities dictate otherwise. Co-educational camps should ensure that every consideration is given to propriety.

Don't be alone and naked with a child anywhere. If you must change at public swimming pools, use discretion commonly practised for such places.

Be cautious about any conversations with children that involve sex. Understandably, children ask honest questions about sexuality; teenagers may ask you advice. Listen to them with respect: that's appropriate. Joking around with youth in ways that encourage promiscuity or the acceptance of sexually explicit material is dangerous for both you and them.

Respect and Common Sense

Respect the integrity of the child in all things. Allow a young person to back away from your well-intentioned affection. Abused children are sometimes fearful or distrustful of any physical contact.

Most of us sense the difference between positive and caring intentions and those which are meant to exploit us. Use common sense and good judgement to guide you in protecting the personal space of children in your care.

The nature of our program provides opportunities for both those who seek to harm children (such as the paedophile) and those who, through incompetence, may put children at risk. Scouting tries to screen out and watch for those who seek to harm, while developing the competence of adult leaders.

The Law of the Wolf Cub pack is: The Cub respects the Old Wolf. The Cub respects him/herself. The Old Wolf in the Cub program is the leader. Abuse in its many forms is really a question of respect and trust. Does the Old Wolf respect the Cub? Children and their parents put a great deal of trust in the adults who provide the Scouting program. Leaders often find themselves giving what parents have failed, or been unable, to provide the child. Sometimes this involves necessary equipment for an outdoor activity; on other occasions it might involve really listening to his or her concerns.

Be Prepared

The Scout motto, "Be Prepared", reflects how Scouting prepares youth for the challenges they will face in the program and later in life. A program that does not prepare youth for these challenges may even constitute a form of neglect. For example, taking first year Scouts winter camping without checking their gear and reviewing methods to ensure personal protection from the elements would be neglectful. As a leader it's also important to know your limits. Respect yourself and the youth by avoiding situations that you are not prepared for. Seek the appropriate training or obtain some experienced help before tackling more difficult activities.

Using youth leaders such as Keeos, Kims and Scouters-in-training builds leadership skills in them. Adults working with these young people are responsible for ensuring that they're prepared for the roles they accept. Make sure young leaders are not put into situations that they cannot work through safely. For example, does a young leader have the ability to maintain the discipline of the group without resorting to force? Does a young leader know the limits dictated by safety for the activity?

Build them Up

The Scouting experience can do a great deal to build self-assurance and self-esteem in an individual when leaders support and encourage a child to face new challenges. Scouting can be a "safe place to make mistakes" when leaders view mistakes as a normal part of the learning process and risks associated with predictable errors are minimized. Let's remember that Cubs are challenged to do their best and are accepted at their level of ability. These principles apply to all sections.

Children may sometimes be very cruel to peers who are challenged in various ways (e.g. overweight or slower than the rest of the group). A good leader will model respect for individuals by not making fun of physical or mental conditions. Cruel teasing like this by youth members and adults is unacceptable. Look for opportunities to congratulate each member for doing his or her best whatever that 'best' might be. Showing favouritism to the overachiever or the underachiever fosters resentment.

Initiation ceremonies and practices are not part of the Scouting program. Don't let youth engage in such rights of passage. See your leader's handbook for details on how to conduct an investiture ceremony that makes a new section member feel welcome.

Vary your program to allow youth to realize their strengths. Active, running games may be suited for some youth while others might excel at music, or problem solving. Young people understand each other's limitations; they will follow your example in accommodating and helping those with special needs. Know the strengths and limits of your members; it will help you plan appropriately challenging and fun programs.

If these steps to providing safe and responsible programs are obvious to you, please teach them to new volunteers joining your group. Your local council can provide additional information if you need it. Speak up if you see leaders putting themselves, or the children they work with, at risk. Your intervention may make a lifelong difference for the adult and the children they seek to develop.

Scouting is fun. Let's make sure that those lasting memories are good memories.

Helpful Definitions

Child abuse takes many forms, Here are some definitions that might help Scouters understand the problem better.

Neglect: Chronic inattention to the basic emotional and physical needs of a child.

Emotional Abuse: Inappropriate care, control, affection, stimulation for the child. This includes inappropriate demands placed upon a child and exposing a child to frequent incidents involving family violence.

Physical Abuse:The use of physical force, resulting in non-accidental injury. In some cases injury is caused by over-discipline. Despite different cultural standards of discipline, injuring a child is not acceptable and must be stopped. Children have clear rights under Canadian law and must be protected.

The Criminal Code of Canada tries to protect children from sexual abuse by defining specific issues. Here are some of its definitions regarding sexual activities with youth.

Sexual Exploitation (Section 153): An older person who holds a special position of trust and responsibility (for example, a teacher, coach, minister or doctor) must not touch any part of a young adult, aged 14-17 for "sexual purposes"; nor can that person invite a young person aged 14-17 to touch him/herself for sexual purposes.

Sexual Interference (Section 151): An adult must not touch any part of a child under age 14 for "sexual purposes".

Invitation to Sexual Touching (Section 152): An adult must not invite a child under the age of 14 to touch him/herself for "sexual purposes".

Exposure (Section 167): This occurs when any person who, in any place, for a sexual purpose, exposes his or her genital organs to a person who is under the age of fourteen years.

Others laws cover the activities of anal intercourse, sexual assault, exposure, pornography, incest, bestiality, and false reporting.

See April's Leader for more information on this important subject. Part 2 will discuss how to report suspected abuse.


-- Nancy Schoenherr is a Scouter working with the Children's Aid Society in Ottawa, ON. David Townsend is a Field Executive in the National Capital Region. Bryon Milliere is Director of Volunteer Services at the National Office.

"Reproduced with permission of the Leader magazine and the author."

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