November 11, 2012

Boy Scouts scandal puts focus on how youth organizations protect children

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A recent national scandal involving files kept by the Boy Scouts of America to screen adult volunteers and Scout leaders considered to be a threat to children has shined a light on what youth organizations are doing to keep children safe.

Victor Vieth, director of the National Child Protection Training Center at Winona State University in Minnesota, said youth organizations have far more safeguards in place today than in years past.

"Twenty-five years ago, most youth-serving groups really had no child protection policies. This issue of abuse really wasn't on their radar screen," he said.

"Research says a lot of folks still don't report because they don't know what is and is not suspicious," he said. "We all assume our church, our local organization is free of abuse; but we need to understand you can't tell who a child abuser is by looking at them."

Youth organizations have a responsibility to be proactive in screening the adults who work with them, and abusers are attracted to youth organizations because that is where they can be in contact with potential victims, he said.

"When we see (abuse) up close and personal, it's usually somebody we know really well or somebody related," Vieth said.

Locally, the issue came up after Michael Emerson, a 48-year-old, self-employed computer programmer from Gorham, was charged with abusing two girls and one boy, all under the age of 14. It was revealed that Emerson also had volunteered with an organized youth group for five years, had physical proximity to another group in which a family member was active, and had applied at one point to be a Girl Scout volunteer, although he didn't follow through.

Emerson was arrested in September, and authorities feared that his involvement with a youth group meant there may have been more victims. Some parents criticized Frye Island Police Chief Rod Beaulieu because he would not reveal the group's name. Beaulieu said the children whom Emerson allegedly abused were not involved with the group, and no other potential victims have been identified.

The episode, however, brought attention to the extent to which youth groups screen volunteers and enforce policies aimed at keeping children safe, even from those who might have only peripheral contact with them.

Child safety experts say measures aimed at protecting children from sex offenders have improved dramatically.

The news offers some reassurance to parents. Even as the Boy Scouts recently released thousands of files on people who have posed a threat to Scouts in past years, recruitment for Scouting in Maine is on the rise.

"Parents should feel safer engaging their sons in Scouting than at any point in our history," said Eric Tarbox, of the Pine Tree Council, which oversees Scouting in most of Maine. "We do our best to be prepared for any situation."

One common safeguard employed by nongovernment youth organizations is safety in numbers.

The Girl Scouts require two unrelated adults to be present with a single child, though a single adult can supervise multiple, unrelated children.

"The rules are pretty clear locally. It really is about safety in numbers," said Michelle Tompkins, spokeswoman for Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. "Men are allowed to be co-troop leaders with an unrelated woman, just to keep any questions at bay."

Background checks are left to the discretion of local troops, but the organization requires that they be done, Tompkins said.

In Maine, background checks for 4-H Clubs, the youth development program run by the nation's land-grant colleges, are done through the University of Maine's human resources department, said Lisa Phelps, program administrator. Local clubs must have at least two volunteers at each function, said Phelps.

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