4 Biggest Risks Facing Human Services Organizations Today & How to Address Them

April 4, 2024
By Lisa Vanore, Partner, Senior Claim Consultant, Sarah Lambert, Partner, Account Executive, and Alexander Buzbee, Vice President, Business Development Executive

Human services organizations are doing amazing work keeping individuals on their feet, cared for and thriving in today’s world. However, even the most humane and well-intentioned organizations face myriad risks that can lead to costly lawsuits and damages when unprepared.

There is an expectation that organizations within the human services industry are in complete control of their participants and their surroundings. But the unfortunate reality is that accidents do happen. And without the right policies and procedures in place, incidents can be extremely damaging to a business’s bottom line and reputation.

Putting the right risk mitigation measures in place is more important today than ever before. Cultural shifts in societal attitudes are leading to juries awarding larger settlements to plaintiffs. In some cases, these settlements are astonishingly high. For example, a jury recently awarded $485 million in compensatory and punitive damages in a case involving child sexual abuse, with a single behavioral health organization left on the hook to pay $405 million of it.

While claims are inevitable, thankfully there are many risk mitigation steps and insurance policies human services organizations can put in place to contain damages and facilitate a quick claims remediation process. As experts in human services risk management and insurance, we understand the biggest risks facing these organizations today and summarized the actionable steps these organizations can take to reduce their exposure:

1. Sexual Misconduct and Abuse
Sadly, sexual abuse and misconduct is a vast problem in the human services industry. The causes of patient neglect can be related to many different factors, including workload, insufficient policies and procedures and inexperienced staff. With the assistance of the right insurance broker, these issues can be addressed and prevented.

Background checks are a critical first line of defense, especially for all workers who will be handling patients of any age. Continuous education and trainings, provided not only upon hiring but on an ongoing and frequent basis, are another preventative measure that can improve the employees’ skills and knowledge on the job.

Developing a culture of reporting and vigilance will allow employees and participants to feel safe and secure and can ultimately lead to more productivity and better experiences. If an incident does happen, implementing a robust investigation and claim reporting process can protect the interests of the patient and organization by detecting misconduct early.

2. Auto Liability Risks
Human services organizations often rely on transportation to provide essential services such as home visits, medical appointments and community outreach. However, operating vehicles introduces inherent risks, including accidents, property damage and bodily injury that can not only cause injuries, but damage reputations and lead to financial consequences. From a safety perspective, incidents can directly impact the well-being of participants, potentially hindering the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission.

Organizations should implement comprehensive training programs for their drivers, emphasizing defensive driving techniques, safety protocols and adherence to traffic laws. Clear policies and procedures should be established to ensure responsible vehicle use and maintenance. Routine motor vehicle records checks on all eligible drivers, even for those who are driving their own vehicles for work purposes, are important to ensure adherence with the organization’s driving qualifications and guidelines. Routine inspections and regular maintenance of vehicles are essential to identify potential safety hazards and address them promptly.

Finally, organizations must carry appropriate insurance coverage, including comprehensive auto liability policies. Understanding policy terms, coverage limits and exclusions is crucial to ensure adequate protection in the event of an incident.

3. Duty of Care Breaches
In human services, organizations have an ethical and legal responsibility to uphold their duty of care to protect and support the well-being of individuals. When a breach of duty occurs, it can have profound consequences. While they vary depending on the nature and degree of the breach, consequences can consist of legal repercussions, professional sanctions and damage to the well-being of the individuals involved.

Thankfully, there are prevention tools and strategies human services organizations can utilize to reduce the likelihood of breaching duty of care and minimize potential risk to the organization.

It’s important to provide ongoing training to human service staff on topics such as ethics, legal obligations and recognizing signs of abuse or neglect. Organizations should also educate individuals under their care about their rights and available support services.

Human services organizations should create and maintain safe physical environments, including homes, facilities or community spaces where services are provided and ensure that safety measures such as fire exits and emergency protocols are in place and in good working order.

When an incident does occur, it is critical to ensure patient safety and well-being first. This may involve calling emergency services or providing first aid, if necessary. Once the immediate situation is under control, leaders should ensure the incident is thoroughly documented. Depending on the severity and nature of the incident, proper notifications could include supervisors, colleagues, family members, legal authorities and regulatory bodies.

Reports should be factual, objective and should not contain any subjective opinions or judgments. After the incident is reported to the appropriate stakeholders and the insurance carrier, if appropriate, the organization should consider investigating the root causes to prevent similar incidents in the future.

4. Elopement Risks
In the context of human services, elopement refers to the act of a vulnerable individual, typically someone with a cognitive impairment or developmental disability, leaving a supervised or safe environment without proper authorization or supervision. Elopement can pose significant risks to the individual’s safety, as they may wander into unsafe areas, become lost or encounter dangerous situations. It can be very distressing for their family members and caregivers.

Updating surveillance services, security systems, tracking devices or training programs for staff is a great first step to prevent elopement in addition to leveraging networks to implement a robust elopement prevention strategy. Organizing training and workshops for staff and caregivers on elopement prevention and response techniques is another crucial step. This could include teaching staff proper protocol instructions and communication, especially involving patient chain of custody.

Additionally, all human services organizations should conduct risk assessments to identify individuals who may be at a higher risk of elopement. Finally, organizations should develop and implement policies and procedures aimed at addressing any potential issues, such as background checks on employees and vendors, visitor access and emergency response plans.

The Power of Partnership
In this environment, partnering with a broker can be an invaluable resource for providing guidance, consultation and taking proactive measures to minimize risk. At Conner Strong & Buckelew, we provide our clients with a true partnership, including safety, claims and advocacy experts. We work alongside human services organizations to provide services that fit your individual needs of managing and preventing claims and implementing safety and risk control programs. While claims are unfortunately inevitable, taking the right prevention and risk mitigation steps today can save your organization countless hours and financial losses down the line.

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Risk Management

Lisa Vanore
Partner, Senior Claim Consultant

Sarah Lambert
Partner, Account Executive

Alexander Buzbee
Vice President, Business Development Executive