Chapter 4 - Youth Protection

About Youth Protection

Youth protection is a set of policies and practices designed to protect your program, the adults, and especially the youth. This chapter describes youth protection, child abuse, how to recognize signs of abuse, and you and your organization's responsibility for responding to suspected abuse.

Youth Protection Guidelines

Youth protection policies and procedures typically specifically address issues of child abuse. Child abuse occurs when children are entrapped by an adult who abuses his or her position of trust and hurts the child emotionally, physically, or sexually. You may also wish to extend your youth protection guidelines to address use of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco products by adults and youth.

If your organization offers youth protection training for adults, you should require all adults to attend. If you do not offer youth protection training, you should start a program immediately.

These guidelines are intended for general information. They are not a substitute for your own organization's standards. If your organization does not have any youth protection guidelines in place, you should with the utmost urgency encourage your leadership to put them immediately in writing. In these times of heightened sensitivity to issues around abuse, these policies protect not only the youth but your adult leaders and your entire organization.

Sometimes youth themselves may unintentionally or purposefully violate your guidelines. It is your responsibility to make sure all adult leaders, youth participants and their parents are aware of your policies. You should also make clear the consequences if an adult or youth participant chooses to violate your established guidelines.

What is Child Abuse and What is Neglect?

Generally speaking, child abuse is deliberate or intentional emotional or physical (including sexual) injury of a child by an adult or older child. It is usually classified as emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Neglect is harm caused by withholding life's necessities — food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and education.

Standards for Protecting Youth

At the minimum, all adults in your organization should be taught and adhere to the following standards. In situations where older teens may serve as coach counselors to younger teens, similar precautions may also be appropriate.1

Signs of Abuse

Each child reacts to abuse differently. In physical abuse, injuries to the child might be evident, but with any kind of abuse, children often give only behavioral clues. You should be alert to changes in the child's behavior.

Any abrupt change in behavior that is maintained for a week or longer is a sign that the child is experiencing stress that could stem from a variety of causes — including family disruption, illness, death of a pet, a move to a new neighborhood, or child abuse. If you notice a lasting change in behavior for the worse, you should consider seeking help for the child. Some of the specific signs for each kind of abuse are listed below.

Physical Abuse

A child who has been physically abused might exhibit suspicious injuries. These injuries are different from those normally associated with childhood "wear and tear."

Childhood stress can result from any upsetting situation in the child's environment such as family disruption, illness, death of a pet, or even a move to a new neighborhood. It can also be a result of child abuse. If a child abruptly changes his behavior for more that a few days in a manner that you feel is inappropriate, you might want to ask the child if something is wrong or if you can help. Do not immediately jump to the conclusion that the child has been abused.

Emotional Abuse

The indicators of emotional abuse are usually hard to detect. Victims of chronic emotional abuse show behaviors like emotional abuse of others, extreme sensitivity to criticism, continuous unwillingness or inability to form trusting relationships, chronic rebellion against authority, constant socially disruptive behavior, lagging physical development, and in severe cases habit disorders such as thumb sucking or rocking.

You will undoubtedly find youth like these a challenge to work with. They will require a disproportionate amount of your staff members' time. Yet they are the individuals who need the benefits of your program and your individual love and attention most. Do your best to not reject the youth. This is the dominant experience in their lives. It is the ultimate challenge to love and care for someone who acts like he does not want to be loved.

Within the boundaries of your program, get to know the individual. Counsel with them and take time to find out what motivates the individual. Challenge him with opportunities that stretch his talents. Talk frankly and honestly with the individual about his behavior. Hold him accountable and let him experience the consequences of his actions, both positive and negative.

Encourage and support him in their personal growth. Take time to offer praise whenever the youth does anything praiseworthy. Focus on the positive and encourage him to succeed. Many peoples' lives have been changed by a single person who cared, who showed compassion, and encouraged them on.

If the youth shows any evidence of self-destructive behavior or is a danger to others, you must act. If you believe the youth's behavior may justify intervention, see Your Responsibility.


As with emotional abuse, the signs of neglect are usually very subtle and hard to detect. A neglected child might consistently show up at meetings inappropriately or poorly dressed, show obvious need of medical care, lack personal hygiene, repeatedly borrow money for basic necessities, and be consistently hungry.

You will probably find that the parent(s) are unavailable if you attempt to contact them. If you are able to talk with the parent(s), they may be indifferent, exhibit little interest in their children's welfare, or appear even inappropriately defensive when your attempt to talk about their child's behavior and participation in your program. Do not mistake a single instance of a busy parent unable to talk with you for neglect. You should look for a sustained pattern and multiple examples.

If asked, the child will likely make excuses for his or her parent(s). You may decide to ask his or her peers, in confidence, if they are aware of problems the youth might be having at home. This should be done with the utmost love, respect, care and concern for the welfare of the youth.

You should be alert for signs of neglect and do your best to support and show love for youths who might be affected. Legal authorities will rarely become involved in a situation involving neglect unless the circumstances materially affect the child's health and welfare, keep him or her out of school, or endanger the youth in some fashion. If you believe neglect may justify intervention, see Your Responsibility.

Sexual Abuse

Given the extreme seriousness of sexual abuse, the best evidence of sexual abuse is a witness. You must treat the child's own report of sexual abuse equally seriously. Reports of abuse do not usually come from the individual but from a peer.

Physical evidence of sexual abuse, if present at all, tends to be temporary. When present, these signs include difficulty in walking; torn, stained, or bloody underwear; pain or itching in the genital area; bruises of bleeding of the external genitalia; and sexually transmitted diseases.

The behavioral signs of sexual abuse are likely to be more conspicuous and present longer. Specific behaviors related to child sexual abuse are an age-inappropriate understanding of sex; reluctance to be left alone with a particular person; persistent and inappropriate sex play with peers or toys; prostitution; wearing lots of clothing, especially to bed; drawings of genitalia; fear of touch; abuse of animals; masturbation in public; nightmares or night terrors; apprehension when the subject of sexual abuse is brought up; and cross-dressing. The presence of any of these behaviors indicates a possibility that sexual abuse has occurred. They are not, in and of themselves, conclusive evidence that the child has been abused.

Your Responsibility

If you notice any of these signs previously described, do not jump to any conclusions. Both the act of child abuse and reporting it are very serious occurrences You must act with all due diligence. No one wants to believe a parent may be abusing their child, that another adult is taking advantage of a youth. Unfortunately, it does occur, and if you feel with a sincere heart that the child may be abused, you must act.

Talk With the Child and the Parents

The signs of child abuse are often ambiguous; they can mean something other than child abuse. Ask the youth in indirect ways if "everything is all right." Be available to the youth. They may be threatened by the proximity of adults, however, and may also be in fear of their own safety should they speak up.

Consider stating your observations to the child's parents. For example, you could say, "For the past two weeks, Johnny has been very disruptive at meetings. He is very aggressive with the other boys and uses foul language. This behavior is very unlike him. I hope that everything is okay." Use your discernment as you evaluate their response. Observe the behavior, demeanor, and well-being of the child at the next opportunity.

You may want to validate your feelings by speaking confidentially with other adult leaders who have contact with the child. The law requires only that you have a reasonable suspicion that a child is being abused. Once you make a report, the appropriate agency will investigate and determine if abuse can be substantiated. Unless you make a report, the child might remain in grave danger.

Do not directly or indirectly accuse the suspected adult of child abuse. Even if you believe abuse has occurred and file a report with your organization's executive or the authorities, it is in no one's best interest to accuse the suspected abuser or voice your suspicions to others. Only speak to those who are responsible for determining if abuse is occurring.

Contact Your Organizational Leader

If you suspect that a child is being abused, you should contact your organization's leader. Your organization should already have established policies and procedures for responding to this situation. They should also have contacts with the child protective services and law enforcement agencies in your area.

In some states or jurisdictions, when an adult believes a child is being abused, he or she is required to report suspected abuse. Failure to do so may make the adult liable to civil or criminal penalties. Most jurisdiction's laws also include "good faith" clauses that protect the adult if he or she files a report based on reasonable suspicion. Adult leaders of youth must be familiar with the applicable statutes in their area.

Youth under 18 who suspect or believe another youth is experiencing abuse should not keep this secret but act to protect their peers. They should immediately bring their concerns to the attention of their adult leader.

Your program leader or executive should be able to tell you what you should do. He will also tell you that he must contact the appropriate authorities and report your suspicions to them.

Failing other action, you should contact your local child abuse hot line, if existent. Generally the telephone number to report child abuse is listed in the white pages under "child abuse."

1. Adapted in part from Youth Protection Guidelines, Boy Scouts of America.

Copyright © 1981— , Brian Phelps. All rights reserved. Short portions may be excerpted for review and quotes. For copyright purposes, only introductory portions of this book are available online. Order the newest edition today.