Keeping kids safe by choosing the adults in your child’s life: External caregivers - Part 1

How to thoughtfully decide which adults are safe to be around and care for your child.

A little child's hand holding a big adult's hand.

Most people have a hard time thinking and talking about child sexual abuse, but if we are going to prevent it, education is key. A parent's top priority is the safety and well-being of their child. Therefore, letting go of the reins and letting someone else care for your child without your supervision can be very scary for parents, especially when they are outside of your family or close circle. Not only are you picking adults to keep your child safe, but also choosing the role-models in their life. Ensuring that your child is surrounded by safe adults is a key protective factor in your child’s development and safety.

Taking the proper precautions while choosing external adults to care for your child can help alleviate some of the risk and fear of this process. Use these tips from Michigan State University Extension to think thoughtfully about choosing external caregivers to care for your child.

Who are external caregivers?

There are two main groups of external caregivers:

  • People you choose to be around your child, such as babysitters, caregivers, child care providers, etc.
  • People who are “assigned” to be around your child, such as teachers, camp counselors, mentors, etc.

With chosen caregivers, you can be proactive to ensure the people you are choosing are safe for your child. Assessing assigned external caregivers is just as essential as assessing chosen ones. Even though they have been chosen by another organization does not mean they are a safe individual. Child predators are skillful in grooming adults, families and even whole communities in order to hide their actions, gain access and decrease the risk of being found out and stopped. It is easy to say, “Oh no, they are safe, they are a doctor, teacher, coach, etc.” However, this is just one example of how child predators gain access through establishing rapport in their community. It is important to evaluate assigned caregivers with the same criteria as you would evaluate chosen caregivers.

Educate yourself on child predators

It is a parent’s worst nightmare to have anything bad ever happen to their child, especially by a loved one. Unfortunately, even when all of these preventive measures are taken to choose a safe adult, abuse still occurs. According to RAINN “As many as 93% of children under the age of 18 know the abuser.” Thinking about your child being hurt in any way is extremely difficult; however, educating yourself on warning signs of sexual abuse and how sexual predators groom children, families and communities helps protect your child’s present and future safety.

Choosing safe caregivers

There are proactive steps you can take to evaluate the safety of the chosen and assigned caregivers in your child’s life. This is not a checklist, and you will not be able to use all of these preventive measures on each external caregiver in your child’s life. When considering the safety of an external caregiver, think about the following actions.

Conduct a background check on the National Sex Offender Public Website. This search can be conducted on anyone and is immensely helpful in pointing out red flags in adults and child predators. It is important to look beyond someone’s apparent personality and reputation when considering your child’s safety.

Conduct a search on the Michigan Sex Offender Registry or your state’s registry. The state of Michigan has its own sex offender registry where anyone can search the name of an individual to inquire as to their status on the sex offender registry. Offenders can move from one state to another so you may also consider checking registries in other states.

Call their references. Ask for references and then follow up with them. Ask their reference about the candidates’ relationships, personality and temperament. It is important to focus on more than just their work ethic. When speaking with references, pay attention to their words but also their tone and pauses. You can learn a lot from how someone says something or what someone does not say.

Host an interview. Meeting the individual in person (or over the phone/computer if need be) helps you understand what type of relationship they might have with your child. What is their personality and temperament? Will their caregiving style work for your family needs?

Observe their interactions with your child. It is important to observe all aspects of the caregiver’s interaction with your child. During these interactions, think about:

  • How the adult engages, plays or interacts with your child. Do they stay in the role of the adult or do they act like your child’s peer?
  • How the adult touches or engages physically with your child. How, where and when does the adult touch your child? Is there handholding, lap sitting or lots of hugs?
  • How your child acts before, during and after their interactions with that adult. Do they seem nervous or anxious or try to avoid interactions with that adult?
  • How the adult sets up interactions with your child. Are they only interacting with your child in an appropriate way (language used, spatial proximity, time left alone)? Do they incorporate both individual and collaborative activities? Are they attentive to the emotions and behaviors of your child? Are they providing the right level of interactions with other children that are present?

Avoid being a helicopter parent. Choosing safe adults helps to make sure your child can develop in a safe and caring environment. It is essential to let the other adult interact with your child to get an accurate representation of how they will treat your child unsupervised. It is important to let go of the reins and observe how they interact with your child (body language, actions, temperament, etc.). Avoid the urge to hover over your child and step back a bit while actively observing their interactions.

Drop in unannounced. It is important to observe the caregivers' interaction with your child when they are not expecting it. Sometimes people might “put on a face” or act more responsible in front of parents as a tactic of grooming and gaining your trust. When you do leave your child in the care of a friend or family member, dropping in unannounced can give you a better lens into how the caregiver actually acts around your child when you are not there.

As a parent, your child’s safety is your number one priority. Being intentional and thorough in screening the adults who interact with and care for your child so you can do your best to keep them safe.

Find out more

To find out more about keeping kids safe, check out these other MSU Extension resources:

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