How Can Youth Service Providers Keep Sex Offenders Out?

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child abuseMost all youth-serving organizations rely upon criminal background checks (CBC) to filter out applicants with sex offenses. According to Michael Johnson, youth protection director of the Boy Scouts of America, a complete reliance on CBCs, however, could be a major error.

“Bottom line? You should do them,” he said, “but the expectation -- and that is, the be-all, end-all -- is a big, humongous mistake.”

Johnson presented a lecture, titled “When a Criminal Background Check is Not Enough: Recommended Prevention Policies and Initiatives for Youth-Serving Organizations,” as part of the 7th Annual World Day for the Prevention of Child Abuse Conference, held Thursday in Kennesaw, Ga.

Andrew Agatston, a metro-Atlanta attorney, is the interim management co-chief executive officer of the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Georgia, Inc., the presenter of the conference.

“We always want to give a training resource to those professionals who are responding to allegations of abuse of any kind to a child,” Agatston said. “It’s important to understand that they can have those resources at their fingertips to really become educated about the dynamics of child abuse and how offenders offend and how they’re able to get in to these youth-serving organizations.”

Perhaps counterproductively, Johnson said criminal background checks themselves may be one of the reasons why some child predators end up in youth-service positions.

“It’s just one of many tools, and a challenge for many youth-serving organizations is they don’t have the staff and the capacity to do all of this expected due diligence,” he said. “So far as criminal background checks…it is not going to eliminate all risks.”

Outsourcing background check functions to private providers, Johnson said, is unlikely to yield completely satisfactory outcomes, either. “The more responsible ones will flat out tell you that this it’s limited in its ability to do a background check.”

Perhaps the largest downside to relying on criminal background checks, Johnson said, is that it only filters out sex offenders who have been arrested and convicted.

“The vast majority of offenders who are actively sexually abusing haven’t been arrested and haven’t been convicted, so criminal background checks are very limited in what that information can provide you,” he said.

Various forms of background checks are available, Johnson said, and online sex offender registries are improving. However, there are still many challenges facing youth-serving organizations; among them, he said, were state-by-state variance in sex offender classifications.

Resources provided by organizations like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, he said, were likely the best places for youth service providers to turn to for information on background checks and standards pertaining to sex offenders.

Other common protective measures taken by youth service organizations include leadership selection, interviews, reference checks and the monitoring of staffer and volunteer behavior. Inter-organization sharing of “ineligible volunteer” files, Johnson said is an emerging -- albeit controversial -- practice.

“Most youth service organizations are doing a much better job of providing any information to any law enforcement or governmental agencies, so what we’re really talking about is [sharing information] between one another,” he said. “There’s obviously some civil discussions, but we’re engaged in the process as we speak with other youth service organizations about what we can do to better protect youth in our program and other programs, as well as in society.”

Most members of society, Johnson added, are unlikely to pick up on the problematic or criminal behaviors exhibited by high-functioning predators. Sex offenders targeting youth, he added, tend to not only “groom” young people receiving services, but in many ways, the youth service organizations and the community itself.

“The signs are literally the very same behaviors that make an individual seem like a fantastic volunteer,” he said. “It’s usually one of those things that’s after the fact that we realize that this individual, who we now have information has offended against a child, has also groomed the parents.”

Agatston said that youth-serving organizations, however, no longer “circle the wagons” when allegations of child sexual abuse arise. “What Mike is saying and others, I think, is that it can happen to any youth-serving organization,” he said. “So instead of hiding from it like it doesn’t exist, [they] take it on, be proactive…that is the direction we all need to go forward with as a society.”

Likewise, Johnson believes that youth service organizations are making great strides to weed out potential sexual predators and curb child maltreatment incidents.

“I think all youth-serving organizations are committed to keeping our kids safe,” Johnson said. “When an offender is in our midst, it’s a scary thing -- we’re working together collaboratively to address that, and I think the future is going to be much more promising for us going forward.”