Last week a Vancouver man was sentenced to 15 months in prison and 15 years supervised release as a registered sex offender after pleading guilty to possession of child pornography (1). During the investigation, authorities found 2,092 images and 47 videos of child pornography involving male victims, most under the age of 12, and depicting violent acts. This criminal child predator worked at a child day care center, was an elementary substitute teacher at several schools, and the Treasurer of a Boy Scout Troop. It is hard to miss the pattern of where he positioned himself in his career and volunteer choices.
When this case posted to internet news feeds two responses quickly emerged:
- Defensiveness to protect the reputations of youth organizations like the Boy Scouts, and
- Anger over how child predators continue to be found in these youth organizations
Both points are valid, however, after our first responses, I propose that rather than advocate for or against any youth organization, we work together to ensure that awareness, practices, policies and procedures, and proper screening of staff and volunteers is taking place in all organizations that work with youth and children. Together, this kind of advocacy and accountability to best practices will help reduce the risk of harm and increase the protection and overall health of children and youth. It also helps provide protections for your organization and the staff and volunteers that are working with youth.
Most youth organizations as a whole are not systemically abusive and exploitive, however, child predators do intentionally and strategically position themselves in locations, jobs and volunteer opportunities that put them in close contact with children. Focusing on predator positioning in the work and volunteer force, let’s look at what we know about positioning and safety tips for parents and organizational leaders.
Child predators go where children and youth are likely to be. If you work or visit locations that are designed to be attractive to, or to serve kids, like parks and rec, public transportation, or youth centers, then it is important to be aware of signs and indicators of predatory behavior. My own law enforcement career brings 3 examples immediately to mind. Traffickers looking to recruit juveniles into child pornography and sex trafficking troll areas frequented by youth. Reports from youth and adult survivors are consistent that traffickers recruit at homeless youth shelters, libraries, popular main streets, and in our state of Minnesota, the public transportation bus depot at the Mall of America. Second to mind, is a home video found in the home of Phillip Gerrido and his wife Nancy. If you remember, Phillip Gerrido was convicted of the kidnapping of Jaycee Dugard in 1991 and of the sexual assaults she endured for the 18 years of her captivity. After her rescue, a search warrant of the Gerrido property found, among many things, home videos taken by the couple at local public parks dating back to the 1980’s. Pretending to be taking video of Phillip at the park playing his guitar, Nancy was actually filming the children playing at the park including close ups of their body parts. On one video you can hear them discussing how close kids were getting to Phillip while playing and how to best film them. Third, is a disturbing conversation intercepted by law enforcement during an investigation of an online child pornography sharing network. The conversation was between a veteran manufacturer of child pornography and a man who stated that he wanted to go from “just watching” child porn to producing his own. The veteran gives advice on where and how to lure children away from their homes and friends for abduction. He advises to scout in neighborhoods that have kids who are rarely or sometimes totally unsupervised. He gives specific qualities to look for to identify these types of neighborhoods like communities that have a central playground or field located away from the homes. He also specifically mentions having good luck at trailer home communities because the playground is usually away from the homes.
Predators can and do come from all professions. There is no profession that is riddled with child predators, but we have to be aware that no profession is exempt. Some of us also have a tendency to assume people who choose to work with kids and show a love for kids, would never harm or hurt a child intentionally. The good news is, this is true for most! And every parent is thankful for these high quality people that work with and serve our kids and families well! Although it’s ok to expect the best, we cannot assume the best character and safety of a person because of their career choice, first impressions, or clear background checks. Sex crimes, especially against children, often go unreported and do not show up on criminal background checks. As parents and guardians we need to get to know everyone who will be involved with our children. As organizations we have a responsibility to have a consistent hiring process up to best practices and standards. Also, just as important as the hiring process, is the oversight and training we provide to hired staff. In March of 2015, a registered sex offender applied and was hired to be the Easter Bunny at a shopping mall in Greensburg, PA where children would sit on his lap and pose for Holiday photos. He was a registered sex offender for prior convictions of sexual assaults of minors and was charged in 2010 with the rape of a child under 13 years old. His status was discovered after he already worked with kids. An investigation into his employment, found that procedures for screening applicants were in place, but NOT followed by the hiring agent.
So much of the greatness and compassion of humankind is shown in those who serve and volunteer their time and talents to make significant, positive impacts on schools, organizations, neighborhoods, and churches! But we need to be careful not to let the relief of long awaited, or much needed help, make us too eager to accept this offer of service, without getting to know, who it is making the offer! A great answer is, “Thank you so much! Let me help you get started with our volunteer application process.” If we are able to communicate our heart, motivation for process with confidence, everyone will be more accepting of a few extra steps. If there is resistance to, or even an attitude of “you should just feel lucky I am willing to help”, then it may not be the type of volunteer you want to have as an example to your youth or representing your organization. We will never be able to screen out and predict every potential problem or harm, but we do a much better job at it and give others confidence in our leadership and our organizations when we have an established and CONSISTENTLY FOLLOWED vetting process for potential volunteers.
Advocacy and Accountability
The goal with predator positioning at locations, in careers, and with volunteer opportunities is access to children and to establish familiarity and relationship with them for luring, grooming, abduction, and assault. These actions to obtain a child, unfortunately, are just the beginning step of further evil and criminal intentions.
Being aware of predator positioning is intended to make us informed and intentional in our kids’ safety. It should not make us back out of activities, but rather cause us to be all in!! Kids do better, organizations and churches do better, schools do better, when everyone including parents, leaders, pastors, educators, coaches, and communities all have a unified vested interested in their health, safety and success.
To begin your conversations and advocacy for child safety, as parents/guardians and organization leaders, here are 5 starting points:
As parents and guardians it is our responsibility, but also a joy and peace to our heart to know we are doing our very best to raise happy and healthy kids in the safest environments possible!
- Get to know the people who know your kids
- Nurture open, honest, nonjudgmental communication with your kids early on
- Purposefully set aside daily “chat time” with all your kids, at all ages, to catch up on their day, happy or exciting moments, and any concerns they may want to talk about
- Stay current on information and tips regarding child safety
- Don’t be afraid to take this information and have age appropriate discussions with your kids
As organizational leaders we have a responsibility to our name and reputation, our stakeholders/supporters/investors, the kids we serve, and to our staff and volunteers to instill trust and confidence that we adhere to industry best practices and standards not just in theory, but in practice.
- Do your research and know your industry standards, best practices and legal requirements
- Evaluate your current policies, procedures, and practices. Do they meet standards? Where do you need adjustments? Create a structure for accountability to implement any needed changes
- Host in-service awareness trainings on topics that keep staff and volunteers informed on current child health, wellness and protection issues. Do they know the signs and indicators of child abuse, trafficking, and exploitation? Is everyone aware of the reporting process?
- Have policies and procedures for the hiring process as well as for training that you can communicate confidently about and that are consistently followed
- Have practices, policies and a work “culture” that also protects your employees and volunteers from harassment, abuse, or the potential of a false allegation, or sexual advance, from a client you serve.
Evaluation of your policies and procedures is taking a proactive, intentional stand as an organization to help protect the children and youth you serve as well as build protections for your employees and volunteers. It lends to a trustworthy reputation and you take your place as an industry leader!
Keeping ourselves informed and involved as parents, guardians, and communities, we give our children and youth safe and healthy environments to live, play, learn, work, and grow!
Lead Facilitator A.C.T. United
Carver County, MN
#unitedwewin #kidsmatter #actunited
(1) Columbian Court Reporter, Aug 23, 2016, by Jessica Prokop