Do youth groups need volunteer blacklists?

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If someone gets kicked out of a youth program for inappropriate behavior with the kids – giving them cigarettes, showing up drunk or watching when they change clothes – can he easily join another youth program?

With recent advances in information technology, criminal background checks and sex offender registries, you’d hope the chances are slim. But Robert F. Murray, director of the Hudson County, N.J., Juvenile Detention Center, laments, “I don’t consider the chances slim at all.”

Even in the wake of recent sex abuse scandals involving youth-serving organizations, most youth groups cannot find out if a potential volunteer or employee has been kicked out of another youth group.

If he’s a swim coach, his name might show up on a national database that tracks swim coaches who’ve been banned. But if he’s a baseball coach, he’ll find that Little League has no such database.

Banned from the Boy Scouts? It keeps files on “ineligible” volunteers. The Girl Scouts? It doesn’t.

Although it seems logical for national youth organizations to keep lists of people they’ve kicked out in one place so that they can’t join elsewhere, “most of the organizations don’t have them,” says John Patterson, a longtime risk management consultant to youth-serving nonprofits – who wishes more of them would.

So even within a group like Camp Fire USA, “it would be somewhat easy to get kicked out in one state and volunteer in another,” says Carolyn Novicoff, CEO of Camp Fire’s Greater Arizona Council. “I worry all the time about volunteers – and staff.”

 

Former Boy Scout Kerry Lewis hugs his mother after he was awarded $18.5 million in punitive damages for his abuse by a Scout leader.

Photo: Jamie Francis/ The Oregonian

 

If the banned youth worker moves to a different organization, he’s probably in the clear. “Other organizations seem to be afraid to give any negative information [about former staff and volunteers] for fear of being sued,” Novicoff says.

There are good reasons to create databases of banned youth workers and dangers in doing so – but this much is clear: Youth organizations can expect to come under increased scrutiny as the result of high-profile sex abuse cases involving the Boy Scouts, the Roman Catholic Church and USA Swimming. Some youth group leaders are even discussing sharing so-called “blacklists,” or creating a national database of banned youth workers, as the United Kingdom is doing now. (See related story on these pages.)

“Wouldn’t it be a lot easier if we had this list of people who should probably not be volunteering to work with kids?” said Larry Wright, CEO of the National Mentoring Partnership.

Not everyone is so sure.

Blacklists – why?

While much has been made in recent years of using criminal background checks and sex offender registries to weed out job and volunteer applicants, confidential blacklists fill huge gaps that criminal records searches cannot address.

The availability of criminal records in various states and to various groups is still uneven, and the process can be expensive and too slow (especially for seasonal endeavors, like some sports leagues). When it comes to child molesters, the vast majority don’t have criminal records anyway.

“We found when you take a look at the cases of molestation, only about 9 percent of the molesters would have had any kind of [criminal] background,” says Patterson.

Sex offender registries? They’ve grown so large and unwieldy that law enforcement can’t keep up with all the offenders. Last month, a registered sex offender was caught volunteering at youth football camps around Detroit; he drew suspicion by taking pictures of the children’s bare feet (to satisfy a fetish). Police said the man had joined camps in several states simply by registering under a different last name.

Child molesters are known to move from community to community, often after getting kicked out of one place for inappropriate activities that don’t result in criminal charges. That’s why internal ineligible volunteer files are especially valuable for a national organization to “help its smaller affiliates avoid retaining someone who is unsuitable,” says Melanie Lockwood Herman, executive director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center (where Patterson, the consultant, was senior program director for 15 years).

Such databases apply to employees as well, but most organizations have more involved processes for screening job applicants and controlling their workers. The blacklists tend to be dominated by volunteers.

At least five national organizations maintain blacklists as part of their child protection systems: the Boys Scouts of America, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, the Salvation Army, USA Swimming and the Civil Air Patrol.

Blacklists – how?

These lists are actually computer databases, usually backed up by paper files. The process of adding someone to the files almost always begins at the local level, with an affiliate sending information about the person in question to a regional or national office, where one or several people make the decision about whether they have sufficient information to ban the person.

People can be banned for numerous infractions, such as stealing money, using drugs and cursing too much in front of the kids. At the Civil Air Patrol, people get kicked out for failing consistently to stick to aircraft safety regulations. The Western Territory of the Salvation Army has a rule against tickling children (which is often a warm-up to sexual activity).

BSA: Its “Confidential Files” appears to be the granddaddy of youth-work blacklists, having been started in 1913, three years after the organization was created. When volunteers register with a BSA unit, the registration information is sent to national headquarters. There, all registrations are checked against the Confidential Files database. (For more on how this process evolved and works, see “Boy Scout Confidential” at http://www.youthtoday.org.)

As part of a lawsuit that was settled in Seattle, the BSA submitted about 5,000 files on people banned from Scouting from 1946 to 2007 for alleged sexual offenses.

Salvation Army: Each of the Army’s four territories receives and investigates “notices of concern” from local organizations about people who should not work with youth. In the Western Territory, for example, there is no separate database for banned leaders; rather, the personnel database includes fields that designate people who have been flagged as possibly unfit.

“We do share the information among the territories,” says Anne Calvo, child safety consultant for the Western Territory.

BBBSA: How sensitive is this issue? The BBBSA repeatedly declined to discuss its Agency Information Management system, not confirming that it had one until the question was asked four times. Finally, it issued a statement: “We do have a nationwide system that allows us to share screening information internally. For child safety purposes, we cannot get into any further detail.”

A BBBSA analysis in the 1980s said that from 1983 to June 1986, the organization received more than 100 reports of sexual abuse of its youth. Most of the reports involved alleged abuse by so-called “bigs,” but some were about youths being abused at home by family members.

USA Swimming: As the national governing body of the sport in the United States, this organization registers coaches but does not run programs. Its database of coaches (about 300,000) includes such information as whether they’ve passed background screening, have been through required training, or have been banned for any reason.

The organization says 36 coaches have been banned for sexual misconduct in the past 10 years.

Civil Air Patrol: Its database of members includes designations of those who have a “termination for cause,” which can include not following aircraft safety procedures, as well as personal offenses such as sexual misconduct. That database is backed up by paper files that explain the termination. When someone registers to work with the organization, and a termination designation shows up on the database at headquarters, “you have to go to the hard copy of the file to find the reason,” says Rafael Robles, the air patrol’s general counsel.

No list = less risk?

If a file of ineligible volunteers is such a good idea, why doesn’t everyone have one? Because other organizations believe their child protection systems work well enough, and they worry about creating a complex personnel system that might actually be dangerous to the organization.

Little League requires criminal background checks of volunteers, but “we do not keep any kind of database on the ‘under the radar’ people who might not have anything that would show up through the background checks,” says spokesman Steve Barr. As for one Little League affiliate finding out whether a volunteer applicant got in trouble with another affiliate, “it’s just through word-of-mouth.”

Word-of-mouth is a common way of getting information, especially for youth groups that are not affiliated with national organizations. “Sometimes people from other [local] organizations will call and let us know” about someone they just kicked out, “but that can be a violation of privacy practices,” says Nickole Fox, health education director at American Indian Health and Family Services in Detroit.

Some national groups – including Girls Scouts, the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) – don’t even require the locals to report to headquarters when they ban someone for cause. “We would ask that that kind of info filter up,” but it’s not required, says Barr at Little League. Jan Still-Lindeman, public relations director for the BGCA, says the organization believes it finds out about such cases through media reports and other monitoring.

Les Nichols, the BGCA’s vice president of safety and design, says a database of banned volunteers isn’t necessary because the risk at BGCA is less than at many other youth groups. Among the reasons: The clubs are “building-based,” giving them significant control over the activities of the youths and the leaders; the clubs tend to own their facilities and can modify them to control such things as lines of sight; the organization is increasingly shifting to more reliance on employees, over whom it has greater control; and its activities occur more in groups than individually.

“I don’t think there’s the potential for intimacy that exists in some other models,” Nichols says.

There are potential legal reasons for not creating a blacklist.

“There’s a burden when you collect confidential information,” says Herman at the Risk Management Center. “You have to make certain you think about how you’re going to protect any confidential information you obtain.”

In several of the BSA files, local officials express concern about the organization being sued for slander by the leaders being banned. It is not clear if that ever happened.

Then there’s the sad but accurate reasoning that once you set up a system to keep out specific people, you might be held liable when that system fails. Just look at the $18.5 million judgment that a civil jury in Portland, Ore., levied last month against the BSA in a sex abuse suit – a suit that focused on the BSA’s Confidential File system.

“It’s disappointing to hear that some groups are nervous about strengthening their youth protection programs because they fear that in doing so they are increasing their exposure if a new strategy fails to prevent harm,” Herman says.

Her retort: “I’d rather be on the witness stand and say we’re doing our best to provide a safer environment, than say we didn’t do anything out of fear that if we made a mistake or our efforts failed to prevent abuse, we could be held negligent.”

Then there’s the publicity that could arise about the organization’s “secret files” about sex abuse. For example, type “perversion files” into a search engine; you get hundreds of references to the BSA, because that’s how news reports (using the BSA’s own terminology) referred to the Confidential Files that the organization submitted in the Portland lawsuit.

Also last month, the ABC program “20/20” ran an expose on sex abuse by swim coaches, revealing USA Swimming’s database.

Sharing the information

Despite these concerns, some leaders in youth work want to expand these kinds of systems, or even share that information among organizations.

“Until there is a way for us to cross-check all youth services organizations, it will be very easy for someone to bounce from one to another if he/she is not convicted,” says Murray at the Hudson County Juvenile Detention Center.

In the early 1980s, legal counsel Donald Wolff of Big Brothers Big Sisters approached the Scouts about several ways for the organizations to cooperate in boosting their child abuse prevention efforts, including sharing information about banned leaders. He was rebuffed. Wolff said the BBBSA’s board wanted to explore somehow coordinating the lists “so we would know who was jumping from their group and coming to ours,” and vice versa.

Wolff recognized, however, the potential privacy and civil liberties issues that might open an organization to lawsuits if it shared those names with other organizations.

USA Swimming raised the issue last month, saying it is “studying the feasibility of making available a list of names of individuals who have been banned for life from USA Swimming for sexual misconduct, in order to provide a resource for other youth-focused organizations.”

In the mentoring field, says Wright, of the National Mentoring Partnership, “people have talked about that [creating a national database] a number of times” – a sort of “no-fly” list for youth groups.

The U.K. just launched such a plan. Starting last fall, just about anyone working with children has to register with an Independent Safeguarding Authority, which will create a list of people barred from youth work for various reasons.

In the United States, one can hear the lawyers typing out their briefs already. Sharing lists among organizations or creating one national list raises numerous privacy and civil liberties issues, especially because at least some of the people who get banned from youth groups have not been convicted.

Acknowledging privacy concerns, Wright says something has to be done – because the continuing cases of abuse throughout youth work show that “what we thought has worked has to be changed.”