287 – What Can We Learn About Child Safety from a Child Abuse Investigator, with Samantha Miller

EHT Cover Image (2)

Sandie and Samantha Miller, a child safety and restorative justice consultant, discuss how parents and organizations that work with children can empower children with tools to protect themselves and create a safe space for children to disclose harm. The outline five preventative safety rules and seven elements for an effective child safety protocol.

Samantha Miller

Samantha Miller is the founder of Voices Heard LLC, and serves as a consultant on child safety and restorative justice. She conducts training and inquiries into allegations of current and historic child abuse, primarily within the Christian missionary context. Samantha is trained as a child forensic interviewer and spent years as a federal investigator in the United States. Samantha has a master’s degree in Intercultural Studies from Wheaton College in Illinois, where she focused her thesis on restorative justice and human trafficking. She currently volunteers as a facilitator for her city’s restorative justice program and previously volunteered as a member of Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) in Denver, Colorado, where she joined a circle of other volunteers to provide pro-social support and accountability to persons convicted of sex offenses after they were released from prison. Samantha is passionate about keeping the demand side of the human trafficking issue at the forefront of the discussion about how to best pursue justice and restoration. She lives in Colorado with her husband and children. She can be contacted via email at Samantha@VoicesHeard.co

Key Points

  • It is normal for individuals who have experienced abuse to wait till adulthood to come forward, and it is okay to normalize that lapse in time when people finally do speak up.
  • 5 Body Safety Rules for Children
    • 1) My body is mine and belongs to me; I can say no.
    • 2) Develop a safety network of 5 adults a child can trust.
    • 3) Teach children the correct name for parts of the body
    • 4) Pay attention for early warning signs.
    • 5) It is okay to keep surprises, but not to keep secrets.
  • 7 Key Elements of an Effective Child Safety Protocol:
    • 1) Top-down support
    • 2) Defining key terms
    • 3) Screening staff and volunteers
    • 4) Training staff and volunteers
    • 5) Clear child care protocols
    • 6) Reporting and response process
    • 7) Member care


Love the show? Consider supporting us on Patreon!


Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 287, What Can We Learn About Child Safety from a Child Abuse Investigator, with Samantha Miller.

Production Credits [00:00:12] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.

Dave [00:00:32] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:37] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:40] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Sandie, I’m so glad for us to be able to welcome today an expert that will help us to look at the challenges of child safety and really help us to frame what’s next and how we can learn from her experience. I’m so glad to welcome Samantha Miller to the show. She’s the founder of Voices Heard LLC and serves as a consultant on child safety and restorative justice. She conducts training and inquiries into allegations of current and historic child abuse, particularly within the Christian ministry context. She’s trained as a child forensic interviewer and spent years as a federal investigator in the United States. She has a master’s degree in Intercultural Studies from Wheaton College in Illinois, where she focused her thesis on restorative justice in human trafficking. She currently volunteers as a facilitator for her city’s restorative justice program and previously volunteered as a member of Circles of Support and Accountability in Denver, where she joined a circle of other volunteers to provide pro-social support and accountability to persons convicted of sex offenses after they were released from prison. Samantha is passionate about keeping the demand side of the human trafficking issue at the forefront of the discussion about how to best pursue justice and restoration. Samantha, so glad to have you with us.

Samantha [00:02:03] Thank you for having me.

Sandie [00:02:05] I’m so excited to have you here because I met you during the pandemic when one of our colleagues started a book club to talk about the literature in anti-human trafficking circles. And it was so fun. Once a month, sometimes a couple of times, we all got together on Zoom. And now Zoom is one of our best friends, right?

Samantha [00:02:31] That’s right.

Sandie [00:02:32] Yes. So, there’s so much we could talk about because I do want to talk about restorative justice, but today, what I really want to focus on is your expertise on child safety. There’s been a flurry of news and social media posts that my friends with young children, when they see them, the first thing they ask me is, what do I do to protect my child? And you not only have studied the issues around protecting children, but unfortunately, you’ve become an expert in investigating child abuse. So, let’s start with a little bit of your background on how you begin an investigation like this.

Samantha [00:03:26] Yeah, I’m happy to talk about that. My background was law enforcement, but I no longer am in the law enforcement field. Right now I use those skills and other skills to help organizations, primarily faith-based organizations who have workers all over the world. And because of the Catholic Church sex assault scandal and others that I know we’ve all heard about in the news, plus the MeToo movement, a lot of organizations are receiving allegations of child abuse and they’re trying to figure out how to respond to them. And one of the things that many of them want is for an external or outside person to lead those investigations or to at least consult with them to be sure that they’re responding in an unbiased and thorough way. And so that’s where I come in. I use my background as a child forensic interviewer, and my knowledge about abuse and interviewing people and travel to speak with the people who brought forth the allegations, and people who could potentially have witnessed what happened, and then the people who are accused of misconduct. And then I produce a report for the organization and in that report has some suggestions and some context that I build in so they understand. And then they can take that information and they act on it from an employment perspective. So it’s a human resources inquiry or a civil investigation. It’s not criminal. And so that’s where I come in in my current work. I see all sorts of things from–when we hear child abuse, our minds jump to sex abuse. But there’s other kinds. There are neglect situations, there’s physical or emotional or spiritual abuse that also can come into play. And those are all things that we look at to hopefully improve the organization’s policies and response and make a safer environment for children. And that’s the ultimate goal, is to make it safe for children to be in these organizations, safe for them to come forward if they had something happen and leave an opportunity for them to get some help. And so yeah, Sandie, that’s where I come from right now. The work that I’m doing.

Sandie [00:05:55] I love that. During October Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we did a series of events on our Vanguard campus. And one of the things that we wanted to do was set the tone that it is safe to tell. And I know from talking to you that that is something that you really make a point of emphasizing. And so let’s kind of start with how you go back. You mentioned the MeToo movement. So how do you help someone who has not told but has had this buried injury, moral injury, how do you help them feel safe to tell you?

Samantha [00:06:46] Great question. I would answer that question differently if it’s a child or an adult. A lot of the people that bring allegations forward to these organizations are adults. And we see that in the research, especially when it comes to sexual abuse, that it’s very common and expected for there to be a lapse of time between the time that it happened and the time that somebody comes forward. And so one of the things I do when I speak with people that are adults sometimes, like I said before, I’ll interview the person who brought the allegation, but then I’ll also interview other people who could have witnessed. And when I approach those interviews, I assume that some of those people could also have been harmed. And I see my job as–the way I describe it to people–is opening a door and inviting people to walk in. I would never try to get somebody to disclose something they’re not ready to. A lot of people take years of counseling before they can come forward. A lot of people wait until the person who harmed them is deceased or until their own parents are gone so that they won’t know about what happened. And so I see it as a very personal thing. Some people never tell their whole lives what’s happened to them if they’ve been harmed. And what we can do really is to normalize things for people and try to create a safe space where people feel that they can share. But then, if they do share some things and they’re feeling shame or guilt, then I try to normalize the feelings. I’ve seen and spoken with a lot of people and there are many themes that run across many different people. And so when people say, I never told anyone until now, that would be a time that I could say, ‘That’s very normal. Many people don’t tell for years and years after, and you’re not to blame for doing that.’ And that helps. And I think when we’re talking about children, a way that we can encourage them to disclose if something inappropriate has happened is our attitude when they tell us anything that is concerning. If we have a calm and level response with them, we show that we’re approachable on any topic, then it opens the door for them to come forward. Often with children, what we’ll find is that they will test the waters before they will disclose. So they might say that something happened to their friend at school and then they’ll see how you respond to that. And if you respond in an elevated way, or if you don’t listen to them, then some children will choose not to continue or to tell you what happened to them. And so as a parent myself and for my friends who are parents, I encourage them to listen to their children. And for children, I encourage them that if something happens to them and it’s inappropriate or makes them uncomfortable and they are trying to tell their parent or their guardian or adult they trust and that person doesn’t listen to them, that they need to keep saying it until someone listens, because it’s really important. As we all know, we get really busy and we have all this technology and all these to do’s on our list that it’s easy to not listen. And so that’s part of it. There are many dimensions, but I’m just touching on a few. But yeah, just to keep telling until someone listens to you.

Sandie [00:10:17] Okay. So you have a guide: five body safety rules for your children. Let’s walk through those five rules.

Samantha [00:10:27] Great. Yeah. And these are things that are a combination of best practices from a variety of sources. This information that I’m talking about now, I know will be available to those of you who want to look at it in writing later. But right now, I was just going to talk through them so that you could see what I teach my own children and what I tell friends and community members to talk to their children about. So the first one is that my body is mine and belongs to me; I can say no. This includes who the child wants to hug or kiss. Oftentimes it’s tempting to say, ‘Give Grandma a hug. Tell her goodbye, or give Grandpa a kiss before he leaves. You have to.’ What we’re trying to do here with this rule is show children that they are in control of themselves and that they have the ability and the right to say no when they’re uncomfortable. And that’s building a skill set that helps them later if they’re in a situation with somebody who has bad intentions. So, they can choose how they want to greet people, how they want to say goodbye. What I say to my children is, do you want to give them a high five, a handshake, just wave at them, give them a hug? And I’ll give them several options. I also encourage the use of safe touch versus good touch. Sometimes things can feel good that aren’t actually safe for children. So I use the language safe touches versus bad touches. Bad touch can be actually on any part of the body. And so I encourage and empower my kids to say no if any touch makes them feel uncomfortable in any part of their body. So that can be somebody grabbing your arm to aggressively or pushing you. And when they do stand up and say, I didn’t like when you did that, then we praise them and say, ‘That’s good, thanks for letting me know.’ Your body is yours and you get to choose how people touch it. And then with that first rule is that we encourage children to tell an adult they trust if someone touches them in a way that makes them uncomfortable. So I don’t mean just on a part of the body that some of us would call private parts. I mean, any part of the body that makes them uncomfortable. And this is, like I said before, this is building trust and being an approachable person to connect with. And these are all skills that we’re building to help our children prevent, and if something happens, to be able to disclose. So that first one is my body is mine and belongs to me; I can say no.

Sandie [00:13:05] I just want to say I really like that we’re looking at any part of your body because the hyperfocus can tend to make this feel a little more intense. Just because the energy that mom or dad or an aunt that’s talking with the child brings to the table. And any body part, I know I’ve talked to survivors who said nothing ever happened. This person would just pat me on the leg. And there wasn’t anything to tell. I just knew I didn’t like it. And so I think that kind of speaks to something we’ve talked about with grooming. It doesn’t have to be really intense at the beginning.

Samantha [00:13:56] That’s right. That’s right. And that’ll come in one of these other rules. But this trusting children’s instincts, that’s something that is really important. Often when we look back at these situations where there’s been a serial abuser, a serial sexual abuser, many of the interviews will show that children knew or felt that that person was unsafe before that person ever really spent time alone with the child. And so listen to your children for sure. And at the bottom of the sheet, when you all have a chance to look, there’s a list of books and resources. One of those books is called “God Made All of Me.” It’s a book that helps children protect their bodies. And in that book, it talks about how every body part is good. So there are not certain body parts that are bad that we can’t talk about and other ones that are good. And that feeds into one of the other rules. I’m skipping to number three, but I’ll come back to number two. So the body parts should be taught to children in the correct name, and that enables the child to one de-stigmatizes the part of the body so the child can talk about it and know they can tell you if something happens. But two, it makes it more likely that a child can go and disclose to anyone. Because if you have a, let’s call it a nickname or a pet name for a part of the body because you’re uncomfortable saying the word penis, you teach them–there’s a variety of other names I’ve heard that people come up with a name that other people wouldn’t know. Then people put their children actually at a disadvantage for telling somebody what happened to them. So the body parts that are covered by underwear or bathing suit should be taught to the children with the correct name. And that would be a penis, vagina, breast, nipples, bottom. Your child should know what their body parts are called and that nobody should touch those parts or ask your child to touch their private parts or show them pictures of private parts. Often we forget the mouth. That isn’t necessarily a private part, but it’s a personal part of your body that also it’s important to tell children that others should not be touching the mouth or putting anything in their mouth. Children are very literal, as I’m sure many of you who spend time with kids know. So if you give them a very strict list of things that are okay and not okay, then they get a bit confused in the gray areas. So what we’re trying to do is show them the correct names, but then give them a lot of gray areas to talk through. So only those people taking care of the child and helping them stay clean and healthy can touch those parts. So parents or grandparents who are helping clean them in a bath or the doctor when you’re sick and a mom or dad is in the room. And so this is another way of having a conversation with your child and giving them situations that would be appropriate so that they can think through it ahead of time. Children do a lot better if they’re prepared and given time to practice responses than if they’re surprised with something that they’ve never talked to anyone about. So that would be the private part section of the body safety rules. Another thing that I haven’t spoken about, I have listed as number two. It corresponds to what I was just saying. So this is practicing with your children a safety network of five adults they trust that would believe them. And so this is the kids choice. And this is a conversation where you say, who are five people that you could tell anything to that you know would believe you if anything happened to you and you needed to go to them. And then you actually write those people’s names down and you say to the child, if something happens or somebody touches you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, you can go to grandma, and you list all the names of all the people that they came up with, and that protects them because they don’t feel alone. It also prepares them to know who to go to and to be ready. And there are two more. One I touched on. It’s the early warning signs. If the child feels scared, shaky, or unsafe with someone, then we encourage them to tell an adult they trust and those five people that they identified, it’d be good to give them a copy of these body safety rules so it’s not the first time they’ve heard of these. So then if the child comes and says, I feel unsafe around that person, I don’t want to go near them or talk to them, then they won’t be dismissed by those people who are well-intended but didn’t realize that this was one of your body safety rules. Another good thing that I’ve seen people do is come up with a family word. One of the resources down below, it’s called “I Said No: A Kid to Kid Guide for Keeping Privates Private.” And that is a book that was written by a child and his mom after he had a situation at a sleepover where he felt unsafe and he was encouraged to join in to some inappropriate behavior. And so this family word is a word the child can use if they’re at something like a sleepover to alert the parents that something’s wrong. It’s hard for kids to draw attention to themselves. And as you can imagine, for many of us, it’s hard to speak out when you feel that there’s peer pressure. But if there’s a family word that all of you know, they can call home and just use that word, and you as the parent know immediately something’s not right and to go pick them up at the slumber party.

Sandie [00:19:52] I think sometimes we overthink that the use of a family word and it can be something that doesn’t make you feel comfortable. And so I’m going to share my family word when I was growing up and started going and staying at somebody’s house or getting invited places. And if I said to my mom or my dad, pretty please–because I’m not that kind of person–they knew something wasn’t quite making me feel comfortable and they would just say, I think it’s time for you to come home. We’re going to come pick you up or I don’t think you should go to so-and-so’s house, you’ve got homework. They would give me a graceful way out. I love that strategy. It doesn’t have to be some really weird signal. It can be pretty simple.

Samantha [00:20:46] Great point. Yes. And oftentimes with children, they’ll have somatic symptoms. So they’ll have something like a stomach ache when they’re anxious or nervous about something. So if you have a child that’s consistently telling you they have a stomach ache, you should be paying attention to that. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re being sexually abused or touched inappropriately, but it can mean that something is making them very uncomfortable and they don’t have the words to explain it. And so these early warning signs, we should listen to them and pay attention to them. And I tell my kids, I’m on your team. I believe you and I trust you. And so they always know that if they come to me and say something happened, I’m going to be on their side. And that, again, is part of that being approachable and building trust with your kids from a young age.

Sandie [00:21:41] Okay, let’s dive into number five.

Samantha [00:21:44] Yeah, the last one is huge one for me. It’s secrets versus surprises. And so the concept here is that it is okay to keep surprises, but we do not keep secrets. And how this looks in my family is we don’t even use the word secret. We don’t encourage the kids to use the word secret, and we correct the word secret with the word surprise. And so if grandma or grandpa comes over and whispers, I’m going to tell you a secret. This is why these body safety rules are important to give to Grandma and Grandpa. We want them to know we don’t keep secrets in our house. And my kids have said to adults, we don’t do secrets. And then I’ll explain to the adults why and what that means. And so it’s a way of educating people. But surprises are something that are always eventually told, like a Christmas gift that you’re keeping as a surprise for someone. It’s a good thing that’s going to make someone feel good. You’re just waiting to tell them until it’s the right time. A secret is something that is not told and could make you feel bad or uncomfortable. And so sometimes in our English language we’ll just use the word secret, but we actually mean surprise. And that’s why it’s important to clarify the difference for children who could be vulnerable if they’re in a situation where they are taught that secrets are okay. And so my husband and I always say to our kids, we never keep secrets from mom and dad. And the reason this is, is you touched on grooming earlier. Grooming is this process of building trust with children, but also with the adults that are responsible for those children. So somebody who may have nefarious intent or may be looking to prepare a child for sexual touch or inappropriate touch, will go through this grooming process of building trust with the children and the adults in order to gain access or alone time with the child. And part of grooming is setting up a relationship of secrecy. And so this includes things like breaking a rule with the child and then telling the child, if you tell anyone that I touched you, I’m going to tell them you did this. And so any time that even the most minor secret is brought up as normal, we are trying to teach our children to tell us proactively that somebody is asking them to keep a secret. And so grooming is a subtle behavior that initially doesn’t appear inappropriate, but it’s a process that builds a situation where a child can be really vulnerable. And I have an example about this from real life: a situation where a teacher at school, when no one else is around, is giving children piggybacks, for instance, and afterwards says, all the kids love it and they’re laughing. And afterwards the teacher says, ‘Don’t tell anyone that I did this because I could lose my job.’ And the children then, they didn’t use the word secret, but they understood the idea that it’s something we’re not ever supposed to tell anyone else. And if you prepared your child and talk to them about how we don’t do that, then that should initially and immediately let your child know something doesn’t feel safe and they tell you. And so that could just be a teacher who wants to be cool and wants to give a kid a piggyback. Or that could be part of a grooming process of building secrecy and later giving this teacher access to do things that are inappropriate with children. We don’t want to wait and find out. We want to address these things in an early and quick fashion. Both training our staff and our friends and family and also protecting our children about what is safe and what is not.

Sandie [00:25:46] And I think that really then kind of leads into the last point that we’ve got to cover here is if you’re any kind of work that involves children, having a child safety policy is imperative, whether you’re at a school, a church, a community after school program, talk to us about what needs to be in that policy.

Samantha [00:26:11] Yes, it is really important. So the policy needs to include several things. A good policy does, and there are some resources. The Child Safety and Protection Network is one. It’s a network of faith-based organizations and schools that are trying to share best practice standards. And they train organizations on these seven key elements of an effective child safety program and the elements they go over as government. So making sure your organization has the top down support of a child safety program and then definitions, that’s defining things like grooming, like sexual abuse, inappropriate behavior, and making sure all the people who work in the organization know those definitions and know what is allowed and not allowed in our organization. Another huge part is screening, making sure that your organization has the correct screening mechanisms in place to find people who are a risk to children before they’re included in the organization. Training is one of the seven key elements. That’s teaching the staff and volunteers what your child safety policy is, but also teaching children some body safety rules and who they can report to if your organization works with children. And then setting really clear protocols for child care in the organization is another part of those seven keys of a good child safety program and coming up with a response process. That’s what I was talking about earlier. When an allegation comes forward, does your organization have a clear protocol for responding to allegations? And then the last one of those seven is member care. So that’s being sure that your organization has personnel who are providing care for others that are going through a hard time, who have a child safety issue, who need counseling. That member care before something becomes something that needs a response process and who checks in with the people who are going through one of those child safety responses. So, like I said, that’s the Child Safety and Protection Network. They train organizations on effective child safety programs and those seven key elements of an effective program. So that would be the best way to summarize the things that I would encourage all organizations to have. I would encourage you, if you leave your children under the care of anyone else, to ask them what their faculty handbook says or their child safety policy is and to review that. There’s another organization called the Evangelical Council for Abuse Prevention, and this is a group that helps organizations improve their policies. So there are resources out there and there are free resources. But before you leave your children with people or before you oversee children, you should really be sure that there’s a child safety program in place.

Sandie [00:29:26] What stands out to me in this description of a good, clear process and policy is that you never said, ‘Oh, and do a background check.’ That just makes me so frustrated. It’s like the people that may be more inclined to abuse may never have been caught. So a child workers background check is maybe a beginning place, but it is not the end. And so really appreciate your description.

Samantha [00:29:59] I’m glad you said that. I’ve had a lot of people that I’ve asked, before I leave my children with them, ‘What is your child safety policy?’ And many the initial and only thing they will say is exactly what you just said. We do a background check. People need to realize that the majority of people who harm children would never come up on a background check. And it is still important to do those state and federal background checks. But the background check process is bigger than that. It includes calling previous references and asking child safety related questions to those references and then asking those references for other references that the candidate did not tell you about and asking those people child safety related questions about the candidate. So there are other ways to do a good, thorough background check that’s more than just saying if they’ve ever been convicted of a sex offense.

Sandie [00:30:57] Wow. Okay. So we’ve run out of time and we have to have more conversations. We will invite you back. But I want to remind people that we will put the links that Samantha has given us, the resources. There’s one more thing that she said to me in an offline conversation. When you read any of these books on the book list, where do you put them after you read them?

Samantha [00:31:25] Yeah, with my children, I put these books in among their other normal books. These books are written for children and they have pictures in them that kids can look at. So I put them with their normal books because these books are only effective if you are regularly talking about them. The point of these resources is teaching them the basic rules in a non-threatening way, in a way that’s not awkward for the parent, but it also is allowing the children to, it’s inviting them opening that door, like I said, to disclose if anything has happened since the last time you had a conversation. So I put it among their other books, and when they choose books for me to read at night, maybe they’ll choose “God Made All of Me” and I’ll read it. And they may have a question, these books have discussion questions. So they may have a question about something that happened to a kid at school. Always pay attention when it’s hypothetical like that, a kid at school or someone else because they could be talking about themselves and just be available and approachable to your kids. There’s also a good email at the bottom there, Protect Young Minds. It’s also called Defend Young Minds, and it gives a lot of digital self-defense information. That’s what they call it, digital self-defense. So that’s resources. If your child stumbled upon pornography or saw a picture that they shouldn’t have seen in the digital world, and so this helps you protect your children from that or to talk to them about it if they have come across something inappropriate. Can I say one last thing? I just want to say that if your child is harmed and they do disclose to you, the most important thing you can do is stay calm. Tell them they did the right thing by telling you and they are not in trouble and it is not their fault. And then you are making it your continuing to keep that trust up. What we find with research is that if children disclose close to the time that the event happened, then the impact on their long term life is a lot less than if they keep that a secret for most of their lives. The emotional impact is less, so we want children to disclose. These rules are to help prevent and keep our kids safe, but also to make it so they can disclose, so we can get them counseling and help if something happens. So it’s not the end of the world if something happens, we just need to respond right.

Sandie [00:33:51] Wow. Thank you. Dave, close us out.

Dave [00:33:55] Thank you so much for this conversation. What a critical conversation for every parent or anyone who cares about a young person for them to hear. So thank you so much, Samantha. What a privilege for us to hear from you. And we’re inviting you to take the next step. We mentioned there’s going to be a bunch of links available. Go over to endinghumantrafficking.org. That’s where you’ll find all of the links, the notes from this episode. And it’s also a place where you can take the next step as well. You can download a copy of Sandie’s guide, The Five Things You Must Know: A Quick Start Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. It’ll show you the five things Sandie’s identified in her work here at the Global Center for Women and Justice that you should know before you join the fight against trafficking again. You get access to that at endinghumantrafficking.org. We’re also expanding our community of advocates by inviting you to become a patron of the show. If you’re interested in supporting our work, in helping to end human trafficking through the work we’re doing through the podcast, we invite you to go over to Endinghumantrafficking.org. There’s a Patreon link where you can get access to more content and resources. It’s a simple and affordable membership, and it’s a great opportunity not only to support the show, but also to continue to help us to get the word out about those who want to support ending human trafficking. Again, all the details are over at endinghumantrafficking.org. As always, we’re so thrilled to have you as part of this conversation so we’re all learning together. Sandie. I’ll see you back in two weeks.

Sandie [00:35:27] Thank you, Dave.

Dave [00:35:29] Thanks, everyone. Take care.

Scroll to Top