The so-called “ineligible volunteer files” the Boys Scouts of America kept since the 1920s is supposed to have been the organization’s system of protecting children from abuse.
The files – made public last week – proves that system did not always work, leaving thousands of boys vulnerable and now serving as a reminder to youth groups.
“As organizations we can’t rely on our own internal processes,” warned Cindy McElhinney, program director at Darkness to Light, a child sexual abuse awareness group.
The South Carolina based nonprofit provides child abuse prevention training to some of the country’s largest youth organizations such as the YMCA. McElhinney said the group’s training and awareness is aimed at adults because they believe adults are emotionally and intellectually stable enough to understand what is child sexual abuse and are sometimes mandated by law to report it, depending on their professional role.
“Policy has to say if there is abuse, if there’s an allegation, if there’s suspicion, it’s immediately reported and acted upon and it’s reported to the appropriate authorities based on the laws that exist in your state,” McElhinney said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a 2007 report with suggestions on policy and procedures to prevent child sexual abuse within youth organizations. The main points emphasized screening potential employees, setting boundaries for them, training on sexual abuse prevention, monitoring employee behavior and responding to breach of prevention policy.
“At youth serving organizations, we don’t catch abusers abusing,” McElhinney said. “But what we do catch is them breaking rules. They’re breaking rules on one-one time with kids, giving gifts or special treatment to certain children.”
Experts say most national youth serving groups such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the YMCA, and even the Boys Scouts of America have adopted strong child abuse prevention policies.
Not all policies fit all organizations. It is a delicate balance of care and caution especially for youth advocates who try to give nurturing support to kids that may not get at home with family. And lots of neighborhood clubs, groups or centers are independently run so policies are custom crafted.
At the Boys and Girls Club of Santa Monica, club president Aaron Young opens the door to the upstairs “Teen Room.” Here teenagers get homework tutoring in one study room, surf the net on the computers against the wall and can lounge on the fashion forward sofas. But the wide loft-style hangout is full of windows allowing staffers and other teens the ability to see everyone and anything.
“Our staff is never allowed to be alone with a kid, period,” Young said. “There are cameras also all over the building. That helps.”
That is one of the child abuse prevention policies almost all the large youth organizations have in common: No one-adult-one-child activity. In 1991, the Boys Scouts of America prohibited one-on-one adult and youth activities. Another common policy is background checks for staff and volunteers and abuse prevention training.
Anel Henry is the risk manager for the YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles. It operates several locations at schools and has 25 YMCA branch centers.
Henry said staff and volunteers are required to have a live scan, a fingerprinting process used by law enforcement agencies. Character references are requested and all staff and volunteers must take online training modules on child abuse prevention within 60 days of working for the YMCA. For temporary workers or camp staff, the training is required prior to employment and prior the camping trip.
One of the abuse prevention policies of the YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles prohibits any relationships to build and carry on outside of the Y. For example, a parent cannot ask for a YMCA staff or a volunteer to babysit his or her children on the weekend. Henry said the organization couldn’t risk giving people any opportunity to potentially groom a child for abuse outside their watch.
Bathroom breaks for children can be facilitated by one YMCA staff member but the staffer must take a minimum of three children and the bathroom must be inside of a building where another adult can watch the group walk in and out.
Henry said most of the child abuse prevention policies at YMCA of Metropolitan L.A. were implemented in the 1990s and have been updated and revised as society becomes more aware of the child abuse issue.
“People think like: ‘Wow, how did we not have this before. How did this just happen,'” Henry said.
When a staffer or volunteer hears of an allegation or suspicion of child abuse, Henry said the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services is immediately contacted to investigate. When it’s severe, the YMCA contacts the police, too.
A sign posted in the lobby of the YMCA on La Grange Avenue reads: “The Westside Family YMCA is a Child Abuse Reporting Agency.” Although staff and volunteers here are mandated to report child abuse because they work with children, Henry said it should not stop anyone from picking up the phone to report child abuse.
“You may not be mandated to but that doesn’t mean you can’t,” she said. “It just means you don’t have a civil penalty if you don’t. It doesn’t mean that you can’t, everyone can.”