To protect children and youth from sexual abuse, groups raise standards, vigilance

How organizations keep their young charges safe


Recent revelations about the Boy Scouts of America’s decades-old confidential “ineligible volunteer files” raise questions about the quality of youth protection today.

What do the Boy Scouts and other youth-serving organizations do to keep kids safe? What should they be doing?

Volunteering with an organization serving youth has often been a pedophile’s pathway to new victims.

“The more barriers you put up … the harder you make it for the predators," said Mike Gurtler, a partner at Safe-Wise Consulting in Bar Harbor, Maine. The firm helps clients -- primarily YMCAs and churches -- develop youth-protection plans.

Scouting has augmented its safety measures in recent years by requiring background screening for all volunteers and staff, banning adults from being alone with Scouts, and requiring safety training for youth, volunteers and parents.

“We have a system that works,” Boy Scouts National President Wayne Perry told Scripps in an interview. “We’re trying to improve it all the time.”

But, he also acknowledged, “it’s not perfect.”

Interviews with child-protection experts and reviews of websites show the Boy Scouts on par with many other national youth-service and youth-sports organizations in screening adult participants and setting standards for interactions with kids.

Perry said the Scouts would continue using its files on “ineligible volunteers” -- people considered unfit to participate -- as a screening tool. Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Civil Air Patrol and the Salvation Army have done similar tracking, according to websites and consultants.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed the measure in its 2007 report, “Preventing Child Sexual Abuse Within Youth-Serving Organizations.” Representatives of the Boy Scouts and roughly a dozen other youth organizations contributed information.

Following up on that effort, the Scouts and CDC will host a two-day National Youth Protection Symposium starting Thursday in Atlanta. The program, for youth-service nonprofits, will focus on how to prevent child sexual abuse.

Some groups, such as the Amateur Athletic Union, have a centralized system for background checks and national standards for interaction between coaches and youth athletes. Others, such as the YMCA, the Girl Scouts of America and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, let regional councils or local affiliates determine screening requirements, according to youth protection documents and interviews.

Each group needs safety procedures tailored to its program, Gurtler said.

 In Big Brothers Big Sisters, where mentors and children regularly spend time alone together, "our procedures for protecting children are very comprehensive and multifaceted,'' said Julie Novak, assistant vice president for youth safety. The organization's Standards of One-to-One Practice rely heavily on close contact with professional staff "skilled in recognizing problem behaviors.''

Prospective volunteers must pass an in-person interview and criminal-history and reference checks; as well as professional assessments of their ability to work with children and home environment. Before they’re matched with a child, they get training in mentoring, special education and child sexual-abuse prevention.

If any abuse is suspected, "we work with law enforcement to address it promptly,'' Novak said.

Child-protection experts caution against putting too much faith in criminal background checks. Research suggests no more than 20 percent of pedophiles are reported to authorities.

Gurtler said he suspects that, with increased vigilance in major youth nonprofits, molestation is more likely “in the smaller youth organizations and sports groups that don’t have those protections … fully in place. Adult predators will find those places.”

(Contact Lee Bowman at

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