One Thing Service Programs Can Do About the New Data on Teen Emotional and Physical Abuse by Parents During Lockdown

It’s heart-wrenching to read the CDC’s recent report suggesting that home often wasn’t a safe place for many teens during the pandemic.

Of the 7,705 high school students surveyed:

  • 44.2% described persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness preventing them from participating in normal activities;
  • 55.1% reported suffering emotional abuse from a parent or other adult (swearing, insulting, belittling);
  • 11.3% suffered physical abuse (hitting, beating, kicking, or physically hurting); and
  • 9% reported an attempt at suicide.

Before the pandemic, reports of parental abuse were significantly lower — though still nothing to celebrate.

What can service programs serving teens do about this?

If the numbers in the sample represent what’s happening in the general population, one of the steps youth-serving organizations can focus on right now is reviewing their issue identification practices. 

Since the early 2000s, we at America Learns have found that it’s unfortunately insufficient to only provide “mandatory reporter” training to one’s volunteers and AmeriCorps members.  Training doesn’t mean that reporting happens.  The main reasons:

  • Sometimes, volunteers and members don’t feel comfortable making the reports for a variety of reasons: some are worried about the repercussions of making a report; some don’t have comfortable relationships with supervisors and, as a result, do not feel comfortable sharing that info; some second guess themselves as to what was shared with them; some aren’t comfortable with the tools they have to report information.
  • Sometimes – and on very rare occasions – volunteers and members make reports to relevant administrators who decide not to act on the report because the report didn’t come from a regular employee.

And sometimes, volunteers and AmeriCorps members make reports in unexpected places.  For example, a written report might come in on the standard weekly impact-tracking form, in the “Other Notes” box.  If you’re a supervisor, you know that sometimes there can be a week+ delay between the time a report is submitted and when it’s read.  When abuse-related information is reported, it obviously needs to be looked into right away.

Given the frequency at which we were seeing the above scenarios during our first years, we began to experiment with finding a better way to ensure that any youth safety concerns were reported to the right person ASAP so that our clients could determine if any next steps needed to happen to best serve the child at issue.

As a part of our experimentation process, we worked with a consultant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to create a very basic issue awareness tool that is embedded within the standard reporting forms that volunteers and AmeriCorps members are already completing.  For an incredibly complex situation, the process we developed is simple and can be easily replicated in both free and fee-for-service reporting platforms — at least to some extent.

Here’s how the tool works:

At its core, the philosophy behind the tool is, “Don’t make the volunteer or AmeriCorps member do anything more than they’re already doing.  Embed the safety reporting process into something they’re already doing.”

  • At the bottom of the regular reporting form that volunteers and AmeriCorps members complete about their experiences with each youth (a form they need to interact with anyway, so there isn’t anything extra that the volunteer or member needs to complete), just above the submission button, there’s a section asking if the volunteer or AmeriCorps member has any concerns about the physical, emotional, or mental safety of any person they’re serving.  Within that prompt is a description (or a link to a description) of what’s meant by physical, emotional, or mental safety.  While each organization we serve customizes the language for their own needs, here’s what the tool often looks like:
    Youth Safety Tracking Tool
  • When a volunteer or AmeriCorps member clicks that box, a number of actions happen immediately upon submitting the report:
    1. The volunteer/member sees a special note from their main supervisor, along with the supervisor’s contact information, asking to connect ASAP.
    2. The main supervisor and any relevant staff all receive an e-mail alert notifying them of the possible youth safety issue.  That e-mail contains the contact info of the volunteer/member for easy follow-up.
    3. Whomever is on-call at our organization at that moment also receives an alert, and we follow up with our lead contact at the client organization to make sure they received the alert.  We then step out of the scenario, and the youth-serving organization does what it needs to do to follow up on the concern.

The Tool’s Impact & Unintended Consequences

Since we rolled out the first version of this tool in 2004, many, many children have gotten out of harm’s way.  Thankfully, this safety system isn’t used every day; but, when it is used, it usually leads to a child or teen getting the support they need.

That’s not to say there haven’t been unintended consequences.  Sometimes — and this especially happens with newer AmeriCorps members serving in a community that feels completely foreign to them — tutors/mentors will click the checkbox because the new environment in which they’re serving is just so different from the one they grew up in.  That new environment doesn’t feel completely safe to them.  But even then, as a positive unintended consequence, those false alarms lead to necessary conversations and specialized training workshops to help the new service members gain a better understanding of the communities where they’re serving.

The feared (for us) “nightmare scenario” of an ill-informed volunteer or AmeriCorps member making a false report that then gets a family in unnecessarily hot water has never occurred in the 18 years this tool has been in use.  That said, there was once a legal department at a university who felt that the tool put the university at risk, leading the tool to not be used.

Other Uses

This same tool has been used by adult literacy programs (helping adult learners through domestic violence issues), as well as with veteran-focused programs who used the tool to support clients struggling with thoughts of suicide.  The tool has also been used to identify and support national service members struggling with mental health challenges.

The “Good” News

The “good” news behind this scenario is that volunteers and AmeriCorps members nationwide are doing an incredible job of building meaningful, trust-filled relationships with the teens they’re serving — relationships where teens feel safe enough to share painful things happening in their minds, bodies, and homes.  If that wasn’t happening, all of the technology in the world wouldn’t be of much use during these moments.

Want More Resources?

We’d be more than happy to provide you with any additional information on how this side of our platform works — whether the ultimate purpose is to consider working with us or if you’re interested in building similar functionality into another system.  Give a ring or send a note.