Screening for positions of trust with children

Research summary
Vol. 11 No. 4
July 2006


How can child service organizations limit the risk of sexual abuse?


The sexual abuse of children is one of the crimes that invoke the most public concern. Most abuse is committed by family members, friends, and those in positions of trust with children (e.g., coaches, church volunteers). Some child molesters deliberately seek out volunteer or professional positions that facilitate access to children. Consequently, child service organizations need to develop policies and procedures to prevent child molesters from being inadvertently engaged by their organizations. Relatively little is known, however, about the methods used for screening potential applicants or their effectiveness in minimizing the risk of child sexual abuse.


The professional literature on sexual abuse screening procedures was reviewed. As well, managers from nineteen youth service organizations completed semi-structured interviews. These organizations included local service clubs as well as large national organizations (range of 13 to 11,000 staff; 55 to 200,000 clients), and were based in Canada (n = 13) or the United States (n = 6).


All the organizations had policies to address sexual abuse potential. From the managers' perspectives, the most important procedures were those limiting the opportunities for abuse, e.g., restricting one-on-one time with children, using open-concept meeting places, and prohibiting "special" clubs and meetings outside of scheduled events.

Most of the organizations screened candidates using procedures similar to the 10 Steps for Screening Volunteers developed by Volunteer Canada. Potential candidates were interviewed, and personal references and criminal records were checked. The managers were generally satisfied with their procedures, but some expressed concern about how to ask and interpret the responses to potentially sensitive questions (e.g., candidate's personal history of sexual abuse).

The research literature identified a number of individual characteristics that were associated with increased risk for committing sexual abuse. These factors included being male, experience of abuse and neglect in the candidate's family of origin, intimacy deficits (no adult partners; having children as friends), sexual interest in children, and attitudes tolerant of adult-child sexual contact. A number of psychological assessment protocols have been developed to screen for sexual abuse potential; however, none of these protocols have been formally evaluated.

Policy Implications

  1. The risk of sexual abuse is sufficiently high that it is prudent for organizations to adopt policies and procedures to limit the risk. These policies can include restricting the opportunities for abuse (e.g., no one-on-one meetings) as well as the screening of applicants.
  2. Organizations wishing thorough screening procedures should not only check criminal histories, but examine the match between the applicants' psychological characteristics and the risks inherent in the position.
  3. Further research is needed to establish screening procedures for sexual abuse potential that have been validated by empirical research.

For further information

R. Karl Hanson, Ph.D.
Corrections Research
Public Safety Canada
340 Laurier Avenue West
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0P8
Phone: 613-991-2840
Fax: 613-990-8295

Date modified: