Incident Reports: Responding Promptly and Properly
What happens when a person is injured in connection with a nonprofit’s activities? Two correct answers are (1) care should be given to the injured person; and (2) an incident report should be completed. Additional answers may include mandated reporting for injured children, concern for potential harm to others, attentiveness to appropriate remedial measures (e.g., fixing a broken step), making an insurance report, and providing due accountability to others involved.
Most nonprofit organizations have protection policies and safety guidelines in place to protect their staff, volunteers, and participants from harm. But when harm does occur (whether from an accident, possible abuse, or other misconduct), an incident report should be promptly completed based on key information properly gathered from the victim and others. The written report may prove vital for a later investigation as well as for the nonprofit’s effective risk management. The following sections focus on incident reports along with safety measure pointers, compassionate care, and legal compliance.
TREAT EVERY INCIDENT SERIOUSLY AND IMMEDIATELY
As an overarching matter, whenever a person gets hurt – whether the injury or harm seems significant at the time – an incident should be treated seriously and immediately. Doing so demonstrates the organization’s care and instills trust with the various stakeholders in the organization. Staff, volunteers, and participants feel secure knowing that if something were to happen to them, the organization would empathize with their pain and take it seriously. Other stakeholders (including donors) can see the effectiveness and immediacy with which the organization deals with harm as an indicator of organizational health, crisis management capability, compassion, and risk aversion.
On the other hand, a failure to respond seriously could result in a high risk of repeat incidents or anxiety about the organization’s ability to deal with difficult situations. By responding seriously to correct any safety risks from both accidents and intentional abuse, the organization can promote the safety of others.
INCIDENT REPORTS – PURPOSES AND KEY CONTENT
Incident reports serve many purposes. They provide one location for all relevant details of the incident to be recorded in real time. They also allow for an internal review of policies and procedures to limit similar incidents in the future. Additionally, incident reports can be helpful for external authorities if they need to investigate.
When completing an incident report, a person should record facts and not conclusions. The types of facts to record include the following: who compiled the report; when and where the incident took place; whether the incident involved a child or not and, if so, the age of the child; the names and contact information of everyone involved; description of the incident; relevant observations about the area (e.g. day or night, wet or dry, well-lit or dark, etc.); basic witness statements and contact information; any care, treatment, or other response to the incident; description of any physical injuries or property damage that occurred; and, if appropriate, any photos or videos of the scene or injuries.
Note too that if a situation involves child abuse of any kind, the person speaking with the child must be particularly careful to refrain from collecting more than basic information. Children can be easily directed and eager to please which makes it easy for interviewers to unintentionally influence the child’s responses to questions. Answers thus should not be directed by others, especially to avoid contaminating evidentiary information obtained through a later government or other more thorough investigation. (E.g., do not ask, “Did he hurt you here?” But rather, “What happened?”)
CARE FOR THOSE INVOLVED
When it comes to identifying what happened, the organization should communicate sympathy, empathy, and support for victims and witnesses as they allow those individuals to share what happened. It is important to not pre-judge a situation before gathering the necessary facts and to let the victim or witness speak freely. Additionally alleged perpetrators of harm should be treated with dignity and respect, but they should also be removed from volunteering or participating in any child-care related duties until a later time – if at all.
Keep in mind too that information gathering for an incident report is not the same as an investigation. If child abuse is involved, the police or local government children protection services may carry out an investigation. The police may be called for other situations, as well as the organization’s insurance company. Once these outside investigations are completed, the nonprofit may determine that further investigation is warranted. Note too that while an organization may desire to carry on an internal investigation, an independent third-party investigation may be appropriate In the case of any such further investigation, the completed written incident report may well serve as a critical starting point.
REPORTING TO GOVERNMENT AGENCIES TOO
Depending on particular “mandated reporter” state laws, an individual may be legally required to report known or suspected child abuse. An individual may otherwise voluntarily choose to report harm against children or other vulnerable persons, based on similar safety and well-being concerns. As explained above, the written incident report may prove quite helpful for any follow-up government inquiry resulting from a mandated or voluntary report.
Who is a “mandated reporter”? Using Illinois as an example, any child-care worker affiliated with a church, other houses of worship, or other nonprofit (whether paid or volunteer) is required to report if they have “reasonable cause” to believe a child may be abused by certain persons. Other states have similar laws with varying requirements. Seeking legal counsel thus may be warranted to determine required reporting obligations. Typically, the timeframe to report such incidents are short to protect children (in some cases within 24 hours), so it is important to know the law in your state.
SAFETY REVIEWS – GOOD FOLLOW-UP
While certainly no one wants to see others get hurt, an incident may provide a prime opportunity for leaders and staff to review the organization’s policies, procedures, facilities, and programs to determine if any changes could be made to increase the safety of participants and staff. Should personnel be better trained? Does furniture or equipment need to be moved or fixed? Should the organization replenish its medical first aid supplies? Does the organization need to further address child safety and abuse prevention, perhaps through a new or upgraded policy manual?
Incident reports are a must, for effective safety protocols involving both children and others. Responsible nonprofits thus should use incident reports for accidents, abuse allegations, and other situations involving harm. Additionally, they should remain attentive to related aspects like gathering information effectively, caring for those involved, making “mandated reporter” and other reports to government agencies as necessary, and conducting a safety review to better prepare for future incidents. Accidents do indeed happen, and so do other problems. Responding swiftly and completing a thorough factual incident report will serve the organization well.
 An excellent new resource for effective child safety programs is the Evangelical Council for Abuse Prevention (“ECAP”), which provides accreditation services and an extensive array of helpful tools through membership and freely available materials. For more information, see Wagenmaker and Oberly law firm’s blog article here and ECAP’s website.