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  • Nov29Wed

    Are we being buried alive in paperwork?

    November 29, 2017 Melodie Bissell
    Filed Under:
    Policies and Procedures

    Have you heard me say that, “we will buried alive in paperwork as administrators of abuse prevention and protection”? Today, I thought I’d answer some of your most pressing questions about documentation and electronic documentation

    Why should you keep documentation permanently?

    There are many reasons we should be securely managing our documentation.

    • Statute of Limitations – in all provinces and territories in Canada and in many States, there is no statute of limitations on child abuse;
    • A means of demonstrating due diligence;
    • A means of striving for excellence, integrity and accountability for your leadership and the Board;
    • To document history within the organization;
    • For insurance purposes;
    • To demonstrate your duty of care to your participants, staff and volunteers;
    • It protects volunteers, staff and your organization if there is ever a false allegation; and
    • It protects the vulnerable sector.

    What documentation should we be keeping?

    To demonstrate our due diligence and duty of care, we should be keeping:

    On behalf of staff members and volunteers:

    • Screening documentation (Including: Application Forms, Interview Notes, Reference Checks, Police Record Checks)
    • Copy of Driver’s License, Driver’s Abstracts and Evidence of Driver’s Insurance
    • Confidentiality Agreements
    • Covenant of Care
    • Performance Reviews
    • Role Descriptions
    • Annual Orientation and Refresher Training Certificates
    • File Status Notes (i.e. inactive, maternity leave, etc.)

    On behalf of children and youth:

    • Registration forms
    • Attendance records/Sign-in and Sign-out
    • Waivers/Informed Letters of Consent
    • Incident Reports/Suspected Abuse Report forms
    • Medication records

    On behalf of the organization:

    • Insurance policies
    • Rental agreements
    • Policies and Procedure Handbooks
    • Board Member Minutes with motions and amendments

    Is hardcopy, paper only documentation sufficient?

    For years, many of us only kept these documents in hardcopy only.   However, there are a number of pitfalls for keeping paper only documentation.  Here are five risks associated with relying too much on paper documents and manual processes.


    In one survey dealing with a human services industry, 40% of individuals surveyed say they’ve burnt out due to overall job stress - much of it having to interacting with people. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg!  Another 37% of workers cited paperwork, as well as inefficient tools and poor systems, as reasons for burnout. The paperwork burden is also a significant contributing factor to the burnout cycle: when one worker leaves, often others within the organization have to take on more work, causing more stress and strain.  Employee morale declines when given the added burden of paperwork, while building relationships with people suffers and the agency also suffers.


    The second risk associated with paper only documentation is compliance. It’s a given that complete, accurate, and readily accessible documentation is a critical component of compliance best practices.  But, the heavier the paperwork burden and the more manual your documentation processes, the more prone your agency becomes to the inefficiencies and possible human errors—e.g., incomplete files, missing documents, conflicting information, etc.  Inefficiencies and human error will make it difficult for you to demonstrate due diligence - that you’re meeting mandates and requirements.  Furthermore, just think about the amount of time, labor, and resources required for a paper-based agency to prep for an audit or a lawsuit.  In the case of an audit or a lawsuit, chances are multiple staff members would need to be pulled away from their duties for several hours at a time, possibly over the course of 2-3 weeks. That’s a significant labor cost, and an even more significant opportunity cost: workers that get pulled into the pre-audit frenzy are not serving clients or improving outcomes, which can negatively impacts agency operations.

    Dark Data

    The third risk is dark data. Every piece of content has the potential to contain critical information about individuals, but it gets buried deeper and deeper in the file as more new information gets added—especially for agencies that still rely on paper files.  Let’s look at an example. According to conversations, a typical school or daycare may collect approximately 400-500 pages of information per child.  Multiply this by 24-30 students.  Assuming one falls on the lower end of the spectrum, that’s 9,600 pieces of paper across their clients’ case files.  So, what happens when you needs to find one specific piece of information buried somewhere in those files?  Even if that person knows what they’re looking for, they’d still have to sort through thousands of pages of information to find it.


    The amount of time program leaders are required to spend on paperwork is frustrating and discouraging to workers who want to spend more time with people who need their services – which is why productivity is the fourth risk of paper only documentation.  One youth leader said, “We only have more and more and more paperwork. It's always documentation, documentation, documentation. That's just our world. I don't know when we have time to do all this documentation and then to actually have face-to-face time with the youth.”  For individuals that work virtually, relying on paper makes it much harder for workers to access information when they’re in the field interacting with clients.

    Storage and Security

    The fifth risk is storage and security.  With more paper, comes more space required to store and keep it safe.  At Plan to Protect® we often say we will be buried alive in paperwork as there is no statute of limitations on child abuse in Canada and often no statute of limitations on child abuse in the United States depending on which state you are in.  We have visited churches and organizations where ceilings are close to caving in because the boxes of paper stored in the file room above are so massive and heavy. We’ve heard horror stories of fire and flood damage, mold issues, and other hazards.  Can you imagine the implications if years and years of documentation literally went up in flames? Or the amount of time it would take to reconstruct hundreds, possibly thousands, of client files if everything came crashing through the ceiling?  In the off chance that disaster strikes within your walls, having too much paper stored on premise could lead to all sorts of problems.  Not only that, but all humans are error-prone, so there’s always the chance that a worker might accidentally lose a paper file, take it home, leave it in their car, or leave it in view of others.  Storing sensitive case information in the cloud instead of on paper would increase the security of your data while clearing up some much-needed space in the office.

    What are the benefits of electronic documentation?

    Along with avoiding these pitfalls, there are a number of advantages to maintaining documentation electronically. Here are some of the benefits:

    • Easy access
    • Search an entire library of files through keyword
    • Better collaboration across your team members
    • Restrict access to certain documents
    • Space saving
    • Disaster recovery
    • Maintain privacy
    • Keep things in one place
    • Maintain history of candidates and participants
    • Store various document types (including word-processing files, emails, PDFs and spreadsheets)
    • Monitor who is viewing documents and when
    • Track edits being made to documents
    • Retrieve previous versions of edited documents
    • Control and regulate when out-of-date documents can be deleted
    • Access, edit and share documents via mobile devices

    How to Begin Using Electronic Documentation

    Begin by developing a policy and procedure for documentation retention, responsibility and oversight.  Policies and procedures should include:

    • If a lawsuit is filed against your organization, you will have a legal duty to maintain relevant documents, in their original form, and suspend their destruction or alteration as soon as you learn that litigation is imminent and/or until the lawsuit is resolved. Although documents may be scanned into electronic form at this time, paper copies should not be destroyed during a lawsuit or if it is pending.
    • Account for ease of retrieval and searches when designing and implementing electronic document creation and storage protocols. Put time and effort in upfront to design detailed metadata to improve search ability.
    • Establish security protocols, so that only authorized individuals can access each electronically maintained file. This includes creating a secure and reliable electronic storage environment, including off-site backup and complete, secure destruction protocols consistent with the retention policy for hardcopies.
    • If technology does not self-audit or contain compliance monitoring, consider a quality assurance program which includes regular evaluations and checks of the electronic record-keeping system.
    • Retain paper copies of any records that cannot be clearly, accurately, or completely transferred to an electronic record-keeping system (i.e., performance documents which include notations in pencil or light ink, and documents containing insignia).
    • Retain permanently any and all documentation directly related to suspected or actual abuse – for example Suspected Abuse Report forms, whether it is substantiated or unsubstantiated.

    What are the different types of electronic documentation?

    Once you have identified the documents and information you need to manage, you will need to determine how you will maintain it.  If you are in the market for a document management system, one of the first questions you must answer is, whether you want to house the system inside your business or have it hosted in the cloud. While both options provide a framework for storing and organizing your electronic documents, each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

    Self-Hosted Document Management System

    • All the software is stored inside your organization on your organization’s own servers.
    • Self-hosted systems allow you to store as many documents and files as your server allows.
    • The software has a one-time cost that's based, in part, on the number of users. Self-hosted systems typically cost at least several thousand dollars. Some systems charge an initial fee for the software, as well as license fees for each user. In addition, some charge an installation fee.
    • There is an optional yearly charge for ongoing support and software upgrades.

    Pros: The biggest benefit, of a self-hosted document management system, is that you are always in-control of your system and not relying on anyone else to keep it up and running. You're not dependent on the internet either. If your online connection goes down, you still have access to all your documents.

    Cons: The downside comes in the large upfront costs, as well as the extra yearly expense of software updates. In addition, it's up to you to make sure you have a proper backup system in place, since your files aren't being automatically saved in the cloud. Another possible negative is that not all self-hosted systems work with both Windows and Mac computers. Many are compatible with only one or the other.

    Cloud-Hosted Document Management System

    • All the software is hosted by a provider and accessible online.
    • You can log in to these systems from any computer or mobile device connected to the internet.
    • You pay a monthly fee for each user. Costs range from a few dollars to close to $100 per user, depending on the provider, the number of features you choose and the amount of storage you want.
    • The system's provider, for no additional cost, handles the software upgrades and maintenance.

    Pros: The biggest benefits are that you don't need an IT team to install the software and keep it running properly, and that there aren't any large upfront costs. You also can tap into these systems from anywhere that has online access, and you don't need to back up your files, since they are automatically saved in the cloud.

    Cons: The downside is that you are at the mercy of your provider to keep the system up and running. If your provider has a problem with its data center, it could prevent you from accessing your files until the situation is resolved. In addition, if your internet connection fails, you won't be able to get to your files. Cloud solutions also have storage limits.

    A few things to note:

    Plan to Protect® is pleased to partner with organizations that mirror the HIGH STANDARD of protection that we recommend.  For information on these systems, please reach out to us.  If you are a member of Plan to Protect®, check out our member section of our website for recommended customized fields for your information management system and database.

    In our Administrator and Leader Certification Training we also include a full module on documentation management.

    Thank you for your commitment and dedication to protecting the vulnerable sector – your attention to documentation management truly demonstrates this commitment. Together we can create safer environments, together we can make a difference.


    On Tuesday, October 22, 2019, Adrian Tuen said:

    The second sentence under Storage and Security, "At Plan to Protect® we often say we will be buried alive in paperwork as there is statute of limitations on child abuse in Canada..." Should it not be "...as there is NO statute of limitations on child abuse in Canada..."?

    *revised 24.10.19

    On Thursday, January 10, 2019, Katrina Welch said:

    Thank you for this valuable information. It will be useful as we evaluate our current document management procedures.


    On Tuesday, December 11, 2018, Terry Fleming said:

    This is very valuable information especially for a "non-techie" like myself. I realized immediately that I need to get assistance from a qualified source to know which system to use to manage our document storage. It is all a bit scary but I know there are people in our church who can handle this big question. Thanks


    On Monday, November 12, 2018, Karen Hansen said:

    Thanks ... most helpful


    On Tuesday, July 17, 2018, Joyce Baker said:

    With not ever being involved in the technical aspect of organizational storage I appreciate the explanation of the benefits of each method of data storage. I was actually surprised by the alarmingly high amount of people who are burn out and stressed over paperwork in their organizations. That alone is a motivating factor to digitize everything.


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