Mar9MonMarch 9, 2015
Katherine is a 72-year-old, dearly loved volunteer at Rapid City Community Centre. She has hardly missed a week of volunteering in forty years. She is the first face that children and parents see when they come to the Centre for Saturday morning play. She serves as registrar and snack coordinator.
On “bad weather days,” she is one of the first people to arrive at the Centre greeting families. It is on these days that Katherine makes hot chocolate and homemade oatmeal cookies for the families. It is often said, “If you don’t get along with Katherine, it is your fault.”
It was on a Saturday morning in January Katherine was asked if she would take the one child with severe disabilities (Rachel) and keep the eight year old engaged during gym time. Katherine willingly agreed; however as she made her way to the kitchenette to prepare snacks for the children she thought to herself that she might not be able to keep up with Rachel. She was not as spry as she used to be.
Almost every organization has a Katherine. The committed volunteer we all depend on. She is one of the faces of our community. We value her and wish to honour her for she has been faithful through many changes over the last 40 years. She has weathered them all, or has she?
Twenty-four hours later, the Centre’s Director sat across the desk from Rachel’s parents. Rachel’s parents were extremely angry as they reported they were certain that Katherine had physically abused their child the day before. They had the evidence to prove it! A bruise the size of a baseball was on Rachel’s arm. The girl also attested to the fact Katherine had hurt her.
Our organizations never want to face a scenario like this. We can hardly believe that such a volunteer could be accused of abuse. Could Katherine be guilty of hurting Rachel and if so, how many other children over the past 40 years could she have hurt?
As a Coordinator of children’s programs not only will you be concerned about the possible outcome for the child and volunteer but you should rightly be concerned that the organization could be responsible and held liable. You also know you have a legal responsibility to report the abuse to authorities and to call your insurance company. Now the organization is required to defend their actions, and the volunteer is often left on her own to defend her actions.
Forty-eight hours later, the entire community had heard about the incident and alliances were being formed. The Children’s Aid Society had been called, and the police are now involved. It looked like Katherine would be criminally charged, and the Centre may also be held responsible. Where did the organization go wrong?
We may be doing our volunteers a great disservice by not excelling in our volunteer management and fulfilling our Duty of Care. The concept of duty of care identifies the relationship that exists between two persons (e.g. two individuals, an individual and an organization) and establishes the obligations that one owes the other, in particular, the obligation to exercise reasonable care with respect to the interests of the other, including protection from harm. The duty of care arises from the common law, as well as municipal, provincial, federal and international statutes.
Protecting volunteers goes hand-in-hand with Plan to Protect®. It is all in your perspective. If you view Plan to Protect® as an obstacle to programming, you may be positioning volunteers and the organization for failure if an allegation or suspicion of abuse lands on your doorstep. If you view Plan to Protect® as a necessary evil, you are missing the tremendous opportunity of communicating to your community that the you care for your people. One leader said in training, “Plan to Protect® is not about us not trusting our staff and volunteers, it is about our community trusting us!” If Plan to Protect® is a priority within your organization, parents and volunteers will rest assured that the leadership is upholding them as valuable. It is all in your perspective.
In our scenario, Katherine could either be on her own attempting to defend her actions; or she will have the support of the Centre in demonstrating that she indeed can be placed in a position of trust with children.
Ideally the Centre should have a volunteer file in place for each volunteer. With a file in place, you and the volunteer will be armed for these allegations. The file should include:
It made a significant difference to the police officers when they saw the contents of Katherine’s file. When they read the notes made by the screened Hall Monitor, who was also on duty and the incident report that he had co-signed with Katherine the police officers backed off and did not lay charges. (Rachel had apparently become anxious and had a meltdown, they accompanied her to the handicap washroom and she had thrown herself against the door. Rachel was indeed hurt but not abused.)
The greatest care we can provide to our volunteers is to equip them for service and to provide them protection. We cannot avoid false allegations or misrepresented stories of events that occur. However, we can certainly excel at volunteer care and Plan to Protect®.