Child Abuse Prevention Through Cultural Education
An International Perspective on Appropriate Boundaries and Interactions
We all have boundaries. You can probably think of a few right now. For example, maybe you don’t like to be hugged, or you’ve limited your mother-in-law’s authority to punish your children. Even a laid-back person would probably feel wary if a stranger touched their face or lower back. We develop these boundaries to maintain comfort and control in our personal space, and we interact with people who have their own boundaries every day. When working with youth and vulnerable adults through work or volunteering, it is even more critical to be aware of and knowledgeable about appropriate boundaries.
It’s natural to navigate these interactions assuming that the consumers you are working with have the same boundaries as you or appreciates the same gestures. However, this is often not the case and can lead to grave misinterpretation and accusation.
Most people don’t know the cultural boundaries of everyone they meet. For example, Asian cultures in and around Japan have a low tolerance for social physical contact. So, Janet from Nebraska might think she’s comforting a child with a hug while she’s making that child feel that their personal comfort and autonomy have been violated. As leaders in our organizations, it’s imperative that we maintain safe and comfortable environments for everyone. That means firm standards for personal boundaries.
Personal Boundaries in Different Cultures
The following generalizations illustrate how different our cultures can be. Never take it for granted that someone feels the same as you do about common gestures and behaviors. As generalizations, these won’t apply strictly to every person, particularly if the person has experienced multiple cultures or is part of a younger generation.
- The Chinese use eye contact to communicate anger.
- The Vietnamese use eye contact to express romantic interest.
- Girls and women prefer more personal space than boys and men.
- People in colder climates also prefer more personal space.
- Saudi Arabians prefer the most personal space for personal acquaintances.
- The Japanese nod instead of shaking hands as a greeting.
- Muslim men and women do not touch in public.
Showing Physical Affection
Youth and adults of all ages may be comfortable with different types of physical affection. It is important to remember that even though something may be acceptable in your culture, it may not be appropriate in the organization for which you work or volunteer. When you want to show affection or praise to a consumer use safe gestures that everyone is comfortable with, like a pat on the upper back, a side hug, a high five, or verbal praise.
- Give unwanted affection
- Put your hand in someone else’s pocket
- Give a full-frontal hug
- Touch anyone’s genitals, bottom, or chest
- Lay down beside someone
- Let a child cling to your legs
- Hold a child in your lap
- Give or receive a massage
- Pat someone on the bottom or thigh
- Tickle or wrestle
- Play games that involve inappropriate touching
Which interactions require policy?
We encounter many types of interactions throughout the day when working with both youth and vulnerable adults. Each of these interactions requires its own standards to eliminate the opportunity for confusion. Unfortunately, offenders often violate policies to gain access to consumers; when employees know and understand policies, they can identify, interrupt, and report policy violations. When you draft standardized policies for your organization, specifically address each of the following scenarios.
We know that electronic communication and social media platforms are some of the main ways individuals communicate with one another. While these tools provide many benefits, they also present the potential for inappropriate behavior, increased access to vulnerable consumers, and privacy violations. Help to eliminate the opportunity for email and text violations by clearly defining how to appropriately communicate electronically. For example, it’s often recommended to prohibit one-on-one electronic communication with youth and vulnerable adults.
A physical contact policy promotes a positive, nurturing environment while protecting consumers, employees, and volunteers. There should never be a prompt to consumers for physical contact, whether silent, verbal, or electronic. Physical contact should be shared only in the presence of trustworthy witnesses and never in one-on-one situations. Some kinds of physical affection can be misinterpreted or make the youth feel uncomfortable. Avoid giving hugs or resting your hand anywhere on the youth’s body. Limit all shows of affection to pats on the shoulder, high fives, and handshakes.
Some people don’t realize that words can make consumers feel uncomfortable or violated, just like physical touch. Employees and volunteers must not initiate sexually oriented conversations with consumers. Make it clear in your policy that employees and volunteers are prohibited from speaking to consumers in a way that is, or could be construed by any observer, as harsh, coercive, threatening, intimidating, shaming, derogatory, demeaning, or humiliating.
Research shows that most abuse occurs when an adult is alone with a consumer. One-on-one interactions have to be approached differently than group interactions. The margin for misinterpretation, miscommunication, and accusation is much wider. The purpose of this policy is to ensure the organization clearly communicates expectations for employees and volunteers and gives examples of appropriate behavior when one-on-one interactions may occur.
Incorporate Cultural Considerations
It’s impossible to implement policies that address every possible interaction between every possible culture. Therefore, the foundation of your policy should be mindfulness and respect for individual boundaries. Even within a single culture or demographic, there will be a diverse range of preferences. For example, while some physical interactions with youth are appropriate and beneficial to the child, some youth may not need physical interaction to feel seen and validated.
Implementation of policy should incorporate top-to-bottom training. Members of your organization must understand the policy, that it is firm, and that disregard for the comfort and safety of others will not be tolerated.
Be aware of your own physical, verbal, and emotional boundaries. Awareness of your own boundaries helps you communicate those boundaries to others, promoting a culture of respect and comfort. When someone is crossing a boundary, you can usually shut down the behavior by communicating, “This makes me uncomfortable.” You may also need to communicate those boundaries to a superior when reporting a behavior if it’s not resolved immediately.
- Be aware of the norms throughout your community.
- Openly discuss expectations.
- Follow all guidelines and policies closely.
Knowing what not to do can be difficult when dealing with an unfamiliar culture. However, by setting general appropriate boundaries and high standards of professionalism, you can eliminate most unintentional offenses. Most importantly, pay attention to how you’re making people feel. They may communicate discomfort nonverbally, especially if they feel unsafe or offended.
- Make any assumptions about another person’s customs or boundaries.
- Ignore or dismiss signs that someone is uncomfortable.
- Assume privacy online or in text.
Familiarize yourself with mandatory reporting requirements in your area.
Each state and county has different mandatory reporting requirements. These requirements are in place to ensure the swift protection of children and vulnerable adults who may have been exposed to abuse. It’s your duty as a leader who works with children or vulnerable adults to ensure every member of your organization understands and abides by these requirements.
What is mandatory reporting?
Mandatory reporting is a legal obligation to report abuse. It might be required by a federal or state law or both. Regulations regarding mandatory reporting appear in child protection legislation, criminal legislation, and social services legislation and were enacted as part of a public health response against child maltreatment.
Mandatory reporting law varies significantly by state and county but generally covers existing situations or situations where harm has already happened. The reporter should never investigate. Instead, they should immediately report the suspicion and evidence to the specified authority.
Recommendations for Mandatory Reporting
Learn the reporting requirements specific to your jurisdiction if you’re not already familiar. Childwelfare.gov offers a free factsheet for federal regulations. It defines who is required to report, what needs to be included, and how to report. You’ll also need to find your state and county regulations.
Educate and train your teams and always make the rules easily accessible in case someone needs a refresher in a hurry. Convey that these are not organizational guidelines but mandatory legal obligations that can have dire consequences for the individual and the organization if ignored.
Introduce yourself and your organization to civil authorities and entities that you trust. Develop and maintain relationships with them so that you’ll have a powerful resource in a mandatory reporting situation. The shared goal is always to eliminate abuse and minimize the effects of abuse as quickly as possible.
If you have retained legal counsel, bring them into the conversation. They can help you and your staff understand the law and execute mandatory reporting flawlessly for everyone’s benefit. If you don’t have retained legal counsel, consider consulting an attorney to develop an internal mandatory reporting policy.
Upon investigation, you might find that your area has no mandatory reporting requirements for your organization. Consider establishing mandatory reporting requirements internally if that’s the case. Mandatory reporting protects your organization and the children and vulnerable adults you work with, so there’s never any reason to ignore signs of abuse.
Is your organization practicing culturally aware abuse prevention?
Don’t leave your organization and the people you serve unprotected. Praesidium can work with you and your teams to prevent sexual abuse and harassment through education, training, supervision, and feedback. Contact us to protect the people in your care from preventable harm.