YMCAs seek community help against child sex abuse

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 11, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Long before the Penn State child sex abuse scandal prompted youth organizations nationwide to reexamine how their staffs interact with children, 19 YMCAs in the Northeast were already working on the problem.

In 2010, they decided that to really impact the incidence of child sex abuse in their service areas, it simply wasn't enough to better police their own workforces and workplaces. They had to train local adults outside their organizations to recognize and respond to child abuse wherever it occurred in the community. The more trained eyes and ears, the safer the neighborhood.

"This is not a YMCA problem. It's a community problem. So we cannot abuse-proof a 'Y' until you abuse-proof a community," said Kevin Trapani, president and chief executive officer of The Redwoods Group, which insures 500 YMCAs across the country.

Working with Darkness to Light, a national organization that trains adults to spot and prevent child sex abuse, Trapani helped launch the "Shine the Light" program last year, in which the 19 YMCAs encourage and recruit area adults to get the training.

Nearly a year later, about 40 YMCAs nationwide now have staff who teach the Darkness-to-Light curriculum. And interest in "Shine the Light" has been growing steadily since the arrest of Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State University assistant football coach charged with assaulting underprivileged boys whom he met through his charity.

"We have Ys calling every day that want to participate at some level," said Cindy McElhinney, director of programs at Darkness to Light's Charleston, S.C., headquarters. "We're prepared and ready to help any Y that wants to take this on in their community."

Redwoods' charitable foundation put up $100,000 to fund the initial effort and a federal matching grant added another $200,000.

The program goal is for 5 percent of adults in YMCA service areas to take the three-hour training.

"At five percent, that's when you start to see behavior change, and that's when you start to see a cultural shift," by improving the child-protective behaviors in adults, said Tony Calcia, vice president of child protection and social responsibility at the Hockomock Area YMCA in North Attleboro, Mass.

Over the next decade, Darkness to Light wants 12 million adults to take its "Stewards of Children" training. Nearly 400,000 people in 49 states already have. The training alerts adults to behaviors and improper interactions with children that could indicate child sex abuse. Participants also learn how to respond properly to those signs and how to report suspected abuse.

After reaching out to schools, churches and recreation programs, Calcia said his Y has helped more than 300 people take the training, which features a DVD presentation, an interactive workbook session and a group discussion.

Like the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church and other organizations that serve young people, YMCAs across the country have faced many instances of child sex abuse involving adult staff and volunteers.

But Trapani said tougher screening, supervision and rules for YMCA employees have made it harder for staffers to "groom" or gain the trust of the estimated nine million youths who take part in YMCA activities nationwide.

Classic grooming behavior, such as gift-giving, special personal attention and driving youngsters to and from YMCA activities, now raise red flags with "Y" administrators and result in dismissals for the first violation, Trapani said.

"So, teachers, policemen, grocery store clerks and all kinds of people in the community are now the ones that are going to see those red flags that the youth sports supervisor or the YMCA day camp director doesn't see anymore," Trapani said. "If we teach the community what those red flags are so they know how to recognize and react to them, we abuse-proof the whole community."

Details in the Pennsylvania state grand jury presentment accuse Sandusky of befriending boys and offering gifts and special trips before growing increasingly sexual in his interactions with them. He faces a preliminary hearing in Centre County, Pa., on Tuesday, where alleged victims are expected to testify about "grooming" and molestations that, prosecutors say, took place over several years through Sandusky's charity.

Despite greater awareness of child sex abuse in youth organizations, such groups still attract predators because that's where the kids are.

"So most insurers won't insure organizations like YMCAs for just this reason," Trapani said. "They don't want the exposure because it's a difficult exposure to manage."

The problem is even harder to manage because, experts say, many child predators have no criminal background, which makes law enforcement screening inadequate to protect children.

Darkness to Light's "Stewards of Children" training is open to all adults, but parents are specifically targeted along with staff and volunteers of places that serve youngsters, such as schools, churches, sports organizations — and charities.

"In the State College community, if they had known that Jerry Sandusky was (allegedly) traveling with children, bringing them to hotel rooms, taking showers with them, giving them gifts and having special relationships — all classic signs of predators — they would have walled him off from those kids a long time ago. But the community didn't understand," Trapani said.

In North Carolina, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro YMCA has trained more than 500 people and should top 600 by year's end.

In Delaware, the YMCA-led effort has gone statewide. With buy-in from state officials, leaders there set a goal to train 35,000 people, or five percent of the state's adult population, by 2015.

Since March, more than 800 people have completed the training in Delaware, including teachers, nurses and staff from the state family court system. Thirty-four others, including staff from the state attorney general's office, have been trained to teach the course.

Studies have found that people change their attitudes, awareness and behavior after taking the course, McElhinney said.

"They put new policies in place, they talk to their kids and other adults" (about child sex abuse) and they're more mindful of one-adult, one-child situations where the bulk of abuses occur, McElhinney said.

"If you can't observe the interaction taking place between an adult and a child or you can't interrupt it, it shouldn't be happening," she added.

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