Things I Never Learned in Library School: Dealing with Minors and Pornography
Does your library have a plan for what to do in case a patron is caught viewing child pornography on your public computers? What about if you suspect that a child or teen in your library is being subjected to pornography, such as receiving nude pics?
In my library career, I have had a couple of extreme instances that I have had to deal with. In one, we caught a patron using our public computers to search for and view child pornography. In the other, we learned that an adult was sending inappropriate pictures to one of our teens. Here’s what I’ve learned from the police and legal counsel about dealing with these situations. Please note, this is not legal advice.
Both incidents occurred in different libraries and we were told both times that we were not only right to call and report the criminal activity, but that there would be severe consequences for us had we not (Duty to Report Suspected Child Abuse Under 42 U.S.C. § 13031). Those statements have always stayed with me. To be honest, I wasn’t clear what to do because I never imagined being in these type of situations. So I’m sharing with you what I have learned in order to help you better prepare. Although to be honest, I hope that you never have to face a situation like this if you already haven’t. If you have additional thoughts or experience, please share them in the comments. And again, let me stress, this is not legal advice, I’m just sharing with you what I was told and what I have learned.
1. You need to have a plan and train staff BEFORE something happens
Our staff made several missteps along the way because we didn’t know what we should do. Both times we went back and formulated policies and trained staff, but it would have been better for everyone involved if we had already done this. In order to create your policies and plans, consult with your local police and legal counsel. Know what your legal obligations are.
2. Know that pornography involving minors is a crime and you are legally obligated to report
This is not the same as being a mandated reporter. This is about being aware of criminal activity and failing to report. And since your library devices are used for the transaction of criminal activity, you can become complicit if you fail to report. Not only is pornography involving minors against the law, but it is my understanding that so is viewing pornography with minors or sending/receiving pornography to and from minors. But I can not stress it enough, talk to your local legal counsel to help staff better understand what is illegal activity and what to do about it.
3. Preserve the evidence
It’s uncomfortable, but staff needs to preserve the evidence. This means taking screen caps, printing pictures, etc. If you can, unplug the device and remove it from the public so that the police can investigate it. Do not log out of any accounts if it can be avoided.
4. Have staff fill out a detailed incident report ASAP
The police will show up pretty promptly, but you’ll want to make sure that you have as much detail as you can to give to the police. You’ll have to make sure and understand your state’s privacy laws and incorporate that into your policy and staff training, but there are often exceptions in the laws regarding criminal activity.
5. Take detailed notes during the process
Get the name of any reporting officers. Ask for case numbers. Keep in contact with your library’s legal counsel.
6. Advise staff on how to talk with the public/press
Should the information get out into the public, you’ll want to make sure and advise staff in how to handle the situation. Give staff a scripted response that basically says, “You’ll have to talk to our library director about this.” Let them know that they should avoid talking with other patrons or the press about the situation. Also, you’ll want to remind staff not to talk about the situation in a public space where patrons can overhear. Your goal here is to protect any victims, prevent misinformation from getting out, and to prevent staff from making any statements that can be misconstrued and garner negative PR for the library. And again, your goal is also to keep the library free from any legal issues.
7. TRAIN YOUR STAFF
After you have written a comprehensive policy and procedure on what to do in the event of pornography involving children, train your staff on how to implement it. Have all staff and department meetings, especially for those departments that work directly with children on a regular basis. Make sure all staff understands what to do, who to contact, and when in the case of suspected pornography involving children. For example, do you want staff to contact their immediate supervisor or call the police themselves? That should be made clear. I think that in this type of scenario you always want to make sure the director is contacted ASAP, this should also be made clear.
8. Invite the police and your legal counsel to come train your staff
Get the people who deal with these situations on a more regular basis to come do the training and answer any questions. They best can explain the law and your library’s legal obligations. And I can’t say it enough, train your staff.
9. If you have an incident, do a postmortem
If you have an incident, meet with staff to make sure that all of the steps in your policy and procedures manual were followed. Also, use this as an opportunity to clarify any questions and refine your policies and procedures.
10. Know that you may never know what happens after the fact
In the case of the minor who had been sent pornographic images from an adult, there was not follow up with the library. We reported it to all the appropriate authorities and then we just had to trust that they were doing what needed to be done. Because of privacy issues, they don’t really come back to you and say x, y and z happened. In the case of the patron caught viewing child pornography, they had enough evidence that the library wasn’t really involved.
I will be honest, it is scary and stressful when this happens. And I definitely hope it never happens again. But having policies and procedures and a well trained staff in place can help staff should a situation occur. And although I’ve mentioned that this isn’t legal advice (seriously, I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice), I do want to give you this one piece of advice: don’t wait until it happens to figure out what you’re supposed to do.
Filed under: Things I Never Learned in Library School
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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