By David Hench
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 kids safe.
Victor Vieth, director of the National Child Protection Training Center at Winona State University in Minnesota, said youth organizations have vastly 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. 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 had also volunteered with one 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. Frye Island Police Chief Rod Beaulieu was criticized by some parents because he would not reveal the name of the group. Beaulieu said Emerson's alleged victims 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 strategy 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 United States of America. "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.
"Our volunteers would never be alone with a youth. There would always be another volunteer with them," she said, although in some cases, an older participant could serve in that role.
Both the Girl Scouts and 4-H recommend against holding meetings at volunteers' houses, in part because they provide more opportunity for inappropriate behavior than a large public meeting space, but that decision is left to local groups.
"The majority of our groups meet in some kind of public facility, whether it be at a library or church or firehouse," said Phelps.
Vieth said allowing meetings at volunteers' homes increases risk.
"Truthfully, youth organizations should have a policy of not having events at volunteers' houses," he said. "Sex offenders want to get kids on their turf, where they know the closets, nooks and crannies and it's easier to manipulate a child into a compromising situation."
The Boy Scouts of America do allow meetings at private homes but have an extensive range of safeguards.
Volunteers must undergo screenings by the local organization chartered to oversee the Scout troop, at the regional level and at the national level, where a person's application is run through national criminal databases and Scout files of ineligible volunteers.
It was some of those files, comprising cases between 1965 and 1985, that were recently made public that forced a re-examination of safety measures. A judge's ruling in an Oregon case disclosed thousands of the Boy Scouts' files on adults who were banned from participating in Scouting because they posed a potential danger.
Plaintiffs in that case argued that the Boy Scouts organization did not do enough in some cases to keep known offenders away from young boys. In some cases, the men were banned from Scouting but the allegations against them were never passed on to law enforcement officials.
Tarbox said the Boy Scouts' techniques for ensuring safe Scouting have evolved. Now, a volunteer undergoes a background check and then training on youth protection that must be repeated every two years, Tarbox said.
At least two registered volunteers also must be present at any Scout function.
"Our leaders are trained if they ever are in a situation where they are the only adult (with a Scout), they are to remove themselves and find another adult," Tarbox said. "That's hard and fast. There's zero tolerance for breaking that rule."
The group also requires new Scouts and parents to complete programs on how to respond to situations that might lead to inappropriate contact between adults and kids.
"A cardinal, oft-repeated slogan we use to help all children of all ages is the 'three R's': recognize, resist and report," Tarbox said.
Vieth, who was hired to analyze the Boy Scouts' child abuse prevention program, said it is among the best, in part because the organization hired a former child abuse police investigator to design it, rather than an insurance company or law firm whose first priority would be to avoid liability.
Local youth groups have taken positive steps to keep kids safe, says Gorham Police Sgt. Dana Thompson, who oversaw that town's investigation into Emerson's behaviors.
"My son's a Scout. I think they take a pretty active role in protecting against any people who may be looking to victimize a child," Thompson said.
"Even with the best intentions, people still fall between the cracks," he said. However, the benefits of participating in a youth development organization far outweigh the slight risk something might happen," he said.
Vieth said national studies suggest more training and awareness are working because child sexual abuse rates are declining.
"It's a myth to say a sex offender can't control themselves," he said. "The more we increase the risk of them getting caught, the less likely they are to act out."
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: