Types of AbuseThis chart shows the different types ofchild abuse in the United States and the prevalence of each type.

Physical abuse is second only to neglect.
Types of AbuseThis chart shows the different types ofchild abuse in the United States and the prevalence of each type. Physical abuse is second only to neglect.

While aquatics programming provides some of the greatest opportunities for youth development, it also presents some of the highest risk factors. One such risk factor that should be included in staff training is child abuse prevention.

Aquatic environments have a high vulnerability to most of the primary risk factors for child abuse, including changing and shower areas; unsupervised or underutilized areas, where supervision is weak or nonexistent; mixed age and use groups; and youths in various stages of undress. Just like any emergency response training, staff members will be most effective at child abuse recognition, response and prevention if given opportunities to repeatedly practice identifying and addressing vulnerabilities.

Preparing your staff with realistic and scenario-based trainings is key to successfully preventing instances of abuse in an aquatic environment. The YMCA of San Francisco has broken its aquatics staff training program into two parts: Allegation Investigation and Case Study Analysis (including How to Respond and Policy and Procedure Overview), and Identifying High-Risk Situations and Key Indicators.

The allegation investigation incorporates a variety of activities that aim to accomplish three things: familiarize the staff with written child abuse prevention policies, allow the staff to practice communicating effectively when incidents occur, and create opportunities for discussion and evaluation regarding effectiveness of current policies.

One effective staff training tool is a mock investigation. It consists of a scripted child abuse scenario at an aquatics facility. Each participant is assigned a role, including witnesses, investigators or staff as they read through an incident investigation from beginning to end. Upon completing the mock investigation, staff teams debrief and review written policies to identify procedural breakdowns that occurred and may have contributed to the incident. Conducting a mock investigation helps people develop an accurate understanding of the impact of an incident and how it may have been prevented.

Another training tool is conducting a case study analysis. In this activity, staff members are given a written case study of a child abuse incident in an aquatic setting. Participants are divided into small groups and asked to review the case study and provide recommendations for policies and procedures that should be put into place based on that incident. This process allows people to think critically about their current policies and procedures, and how they might apply them to a real-life scenario.

Training the aquatics staff to identify high-risk situations is critical in preventing child abuse. They should become familiar with indicators of abuse, the populations most at risk to be victims of abuse, and situations in which abuse is more likely to occur.

To practice identification, divide employees into groups of four to six and give each team a site map of the facility. Ask them to walk through the facility and identify high-risk areas (isolated areas, places where people are changing and so forth), where child abuse could occur — and offer reasons why these areas are designated high risk. This will heighten staff awareness of such areas and the need to increase supervision there. It also serves as a reminder that the staff is responsible for all areas of the aquatics facility.

Also, during this activity, station volunteers or other staff members throughout the aquatics area. Have each wear a name tag that includes the age of the character they are representing, or lists physical or emotional traits that would possibly make them more susceptible to being a victim of abuse. This helps the staff identify traits that make a child more likely to become a victim of abuse. Indicators could include being small for their age, mixed age groups, or specific physical/emotional needs.

When training the staff in child abuse prevention, allow time for them to practice policy enforcement. It can be uncomfortable to approach members regarding such policies, and role-playing scenarios will help build your staff's confidence.  Encourage them to explain the validity of the rule during the role playing. This helps them articulate the importance of the policy in a nonaccusatory fashion. 

If and when there's a policy violation, it is important for employees to understand to whom they should report it, and that it must be done in a timely manner. The supervisor, or in some cases, their supervisor, needs to be made aware of the violation immediately so it can be addressed. Again, role-playing activities give  people the opportunity to act out scenarios and practice proper reporting.

It is vital for every organization to adopt comprehensive child-abuse policies and procedures for response and prevention. This should include detailed expectations and training requirements for staffs in aquatics programs. Additionally, they should have opportunities to repeatedly train and practice. Lastly, have a process in place to audit aquatics facilities and to ensure there is no gap between policy and practice.

Aquatics programming offers life skills and opportunities for youths to thrive. Safety is paramount to success.