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Are Local Agencies Doing Enough to Protect Kids From Sexual Abuse?

Child sex abuse scandal at Penn State is causing organizations across America to 'look within' for potential abusers
Ozarks Regional YMCA
Some agencies, churches, and organizations like the Ozarks Regional YMCA have begun to implement policies that train staff members to look for red flags of potential abusers within the system (Photo credit: KSMU)

The lessons from the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State are trickling down to various schools and agencies across the nation, many of which are asking themselves, “Are our children as safe as possible from sexual abuse?”  We posed that question to some local groups that work directly with children.  KSMU’s Jennifer Moore reports.

Thousands of children in Springfield spend their free time at camps, sporting activities, and facilities where parents aren’t always around.

Our first question to a couple of the largest agencies:  do you run criminal background checks on your staff members who work with children? The Ozarks Regional YMCA and the Springfield-Greene County Park Board both do.  The Park Board even runs background checks on its volunteers, like a parent coaching a 1st grade basketball team.

But Barbara Brown Johnson, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center, says a criminal background check is just the beginning...because the vast majority of perpetrators who are prosecuted don’t have criminal backgrounds.

“So, we can’t just say, ‘Whew, check that off the list,’ so we don’t have to be worried anymore. Anytime any agency or organization works with children, you have to do due diligence with the background checks, but you also have to set internal safety measures to make sure that, for instance, there’s never one adult left alone with a child,” she said.

Brad Toft, CEO of the Ozarks Regional YMCA, says every one of the staff members at the "Y" is a mandated reporter, and they know it because they all are required to go through training on child abuse prevention. That training, he says, looks for signs of abuse in a child, but also keeps an eye out for a potential abuser—in other words, always looking within the system.

“We’ve taken the position that, in regard to child abuse prevention, you really cannot trust anybody. And so the key is to develop operating policies and systems that will really make it hard for someone to be in a position where they could abuse a child,” Toft said.

Toft said he feels the “Y” holds itself to a very high standard when it comes to reporting even gray areas.

“If we ourselves feel like we messed up in terms of the safety of a child—and that could be something like if a child got out of our babysitting area for a short time—we are pretty proactive in calling and hotlining ourselves, just because we want to make sure we’re doing everything possible to, again, create that safe environment for kids,” Toft said.

And that looking within the system, according to Barbara Brown Johnson, is half the battle.

“First and foremost, they have to be open-minded.  They have to believe that the possibility exists that someone would seek out an organization that’s serving children, to be associated with, so they could have legal access to kids. I think that’s the one best thing they can do to prevent—is to be aware of that,” Johnson said.

In addition to that, she says, those agencies that work with children need to have yearly mandated reporter talks.  In those talks, staff members learn about what she calls a “huge list of red flags.” 

A couple of examples of those red flags?

“If they have a staff member who seems to manipulate the environment, if you will, or whatever the context is, to make sure they’re alone with children. [Also] if they have poor boundaries, because a lot of times these folks do have poor boundaries,” she said.

Many local organizations are affiliated with national or regional groups that have a list of safety procedures to follow.  If they don’t, however, Johnson says the Child Advocacy Center can help an agency write up guidelines and tips.

Several years ago, the Community Partnership of the Ozarks (CPO) asked the Greene County Prosecutor’s Office, the local Children’s Division, and the Child Advocacy Center to make at least quarterly talks to mandated reporters in the area.  Johnson says the demand is great, so volunteers are out and about giving these mandated reporter talks at least six to eight times a year.

Sarah Garcia, who works with CPO, says Boys and Girls Club staff members are trained two or three times a year, and Springfield Public School employees are required to go through the mandated reporter training by video and PowerPoint. Also, OACAC, including all of the area Head Start programs, go through the mandated reporter talks every year, and Burrell Behavioral Health just completed its training.    Bob Belote, interim director of the Springfield-Greene County Park Board, says the park board goes over mandated reporting during its orientation process, and then again with regular training sessions.

CPO offers the training free of charge to local agencies.  For larger organizations, trainers will do the presentation on-site.  CPO also offers free mandated reporter training at The Library Center four times a year.  

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.