Youth Protection: It really does begin with YOU

youth-protectionYou might not enjoy reading this.

But it could be the most important thing you’ll read today.

As stated in The Boy Scout Handbook, “Child abuse is a serious problem in our society, and unfortunately, it can occur anywhere, even in Scouting.  Youth safety is Scouting’s No. 1 concern.”

Child abusers are out there. They come in all shapes and sizes.

That’s not meant as a tabloid-style scare tactic. It’s just the truth.

The good news is that you’re not alone in your efforts to help identify, report, and, thus, prevent offenders from harming your kids.

The BSA has the tools and information you need. That’s why even though you only take the training once every two years, Youth Protection is a 24-7, 365-day-a-year operation. That’s as true for Scouters and Scout parents as it is for all of us who work for the Boy Scouts of America.

As a youth organization, the BSA isn’t alone in its efforts to help prevent abuse. Did you know that the Boy Scouts of America hosted the first-of-its-kind National Youth Protection Symposium in early November? I did, and I wanted to know more about what took place at this event.

So this week, I sat down with Michael Johnson, the BSA’s Youth Protection director, to talk about the symposium, discuss current and emerging threats to children, and learn what parents and Scouters can do to make the movement safe.

Johnson, hired by the BSA in 2010, is an internationally recognized expert on child abuse detection and prevention. He worked in law enforcement for nearly 30 years, the majority of that time in the criminal investigations division devoted to investigating child abuse cases. He’s been face-to-face with these predators, questioning them and learning from the painful truth.

About the Symposium

Michael Johnson joined the BSA after a nearly 30-year career in law enforcement.

Michael Johnson joined the BSA after a nearly 30-year career in law enforcement.

If you examined the agenda of the inaugural National Youth Protection Symposium, held in Atlanta, you’d notice no one from the BSA was scheduled to make a presentation.

That was intentional, Johnson said.

“We just hosted. The BSA was there to listen,” he explained. “We ID’d real experts to put this situation in context about what really needs to be done to protect kids.”

Experts in attendance included Dr. Michael Haney, an Eagle Scout and executive director of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children; Amy Russell, deputy director of the National Child Protection Training Center; and Dr. David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center.

And other youth-serving organizations were there to listen and share their perspectives, too, including The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, YMCA, USA Swimming, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and five others.

Johnson explained that he heard no startling revelations at the symposium. A good thing, when you consider it means that Johnson and others in the BSA are plugged in to the evolving issues of Youth Protection in the modern world.

But Johnson said there was plenty of healthy discussion among the experts and youth-serving organizations about solutions. “We discussed the multitude of emerging threats for kids, other places where abuse can happen, and barriers to abuse. And we shared ideas on how to share information between agencies.”

Think of Youth Protection like the virus-protection software on your computer. The software is updated regularly with the newest definitions of ways your computer could be threatened. The software company—McAfee, Norton, etc.—blocks known malicious sites and software, and it warns you when a link could be harmful. But it’s still up to you to use common sense and not click those links. And reporting suspicious Web sites is your job, too.

While mandatory background checks help keep convicted predators out of Scouting, the BSA’s process of mandatory training defines the current and emerging threats. Just like those virus definitions on your computer update daily, the definition of a child predator changes often. Facebook and Twitter, for example, didn’t exist when I first took Youth Protection training in 2002.

The BSA has stepped up its efforts regarding online predation. It has affirmed multiple times that there’s no real profile of an offender. And it has extensively investigated “grooming,” the process of an adult working to increase the acceptance and comfort of a youth in being alone with an adult.

These and other emerging threats explain why the organizations left the symposium in agreement that this shouldn’t be a one-time event. The BSA already has plans for the next one, scheduled for mid-October 2013.

What Can You Do?

yp-patchJohnson explained it to me as a two-tiered approach to Youth Protection. The BSA requires criminal background checks of all its registered adult volunteers. This keeps anyone with a criminal record from becoming a Scouter. That’s an important — though obvious — barrier to abuse.

The uncomfortable truth, though, is that often predators have no criminal record and don’t show up in those searches. That’s why the BSA’s Youth Protection Training shouldn’t be glossed over by you or other Scouters in your unit. Don’t just breeze through the training — pay attention.

The BSA’s job is to empower you with the latest, expert-approved information on continuing and emerging threats to Scouts. But it’s your job to use that information to identify and report abuse, or potential abuse, when you see it. That explains why Johnson hands a round “Youth Protection Begins With YOU” patch to almost everyone he meets — including me when we met two years ago.

The process of educating Scouters and Scouts on this issue gets Johnson out of bed in the morning.  “If you ask whether I’d rather have an army of vigilant parents and leaders or all those background checks,” he said. “I’ll take the army.”

With that in mind, Johnson gave me a preview of an upcoming program called Youth Protection Champions, a BSA-designed effort to appoint volunteers in each council to serve as local advocates for Youth Protection training.

If someone has a specific concern—perhaps they aren’t comfortable calling Johnson directly—they might be more comfortable speaking with a volunteer from their council. That’s where a Youth Protection Champion would step in and use BSA-approved methods to resolve the problem.

I’ll share more with you about this project next year.

Why This Matters to Johnson

“[The BSA’s] fate is inextricably attached to society’s knowledge of this issue,” Johnson said. “The better-educated parents are, the more youth will be protected.”

Keeping the BSA strong and safe is why Johnson won’t stop consulting leading experts and fighting to keep Youth Protection at the top of everyone’s mind. To understand his passion, all you have to do is look around his office. Among mementos from his time as a police officer, you’ll find a bookshelf filled with the work of the world’s leading child-protection experts.

The symposium represented a personal triumph for Johnson, who served in law enforcement in Texas for nearly 30 years before joining the BSA.

During a networking lunch there, Johnson noticed BSA Chief Scout Executive Wayne Brock engaged in deep conversation with Anna Salter, Ph.D., whose book Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, And Other Sex Offenders sits on one of Johnson’s shelves. That’s when it hit home, he said, that his goal of opening a meaningful dialog among organizations was realized.

“Seeing Wayne Brock sit down and have an in-depth conversation with her was one of the highlights of my career,” Johnson said.

Photo from Summit Shakedown by W. Garth Dowling/Photo Director

13 thoughts on “Youth Protection: It really does begin with YOU

  1. My concern with Youth Protection policies is that they treat volunteers as wrongdoers when the volunteer has not done anything wrong. This has the potential to destroy an adult’s reputation based on an unfounded accusation — including those accusations later found absolutely and completely false. Society as a whole thinks it is appropriate to accuse and punish first and to investigate later. The accusation is accepted as Godly truth until an investigation proves otherwise. Schools, sports teams, and other organizations like Scouting all do the same thing: If there is an accusation, the accused is immediately kicked out of the job — and everyone quickly finds out why and starts gossiping and spreading rumors — and he or she is only let back in if proven innocent. It’s disgusting. In America, people are innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around.

    The worst part is that this is a topic that you cannot speak out against. It is the preverbal “think of the children!” argument. Whenever someone says “think of the children!” you’ve lost. The minute you oppose policies like this, everyone yells “think of the children!” and accuses you of not caring about the kids, and you’ve lost. My objection has nothing to do with the kids. My objection is to the process and the exceedingly damaging impact a false accusation can have on the accused’s life.

    The stigma of a false accusation is something that will follow a person forever. No one will trust you again even though you are proven unequivocally innocent. Behind your back, people will always say, “did you hear about that guy.” Anyone that works regularly with children fears this will happen to them. One lie, and your life is toast. You will always be known as “that one guy” even when proven absolutely and unequivocally innocent after and investigation takes place.

    • Concerned Scouter, your concern seems to be mostly about yourself.

      I’m 45yrs old and I’ve been involved with scouting since I was 8. Along the way, I had an assistant scoutmaster that molested two of my friends. Everybody gave him the benefit of the doubt long after he should have been in prison, which is where he ultimately ended up.

      I’ve spent the last 23 years of my life as a police officer in Sacramento, Ca. During that time, I figured something out. Youth sports attract pedophiles. I’ve arrested teachers and coaches. Most youth sports don’t feature camping with the kids as a premier element of their program. That makes scouts even more attractive to pedophiles. I would even say it’s irresistably attractive. I’ve even been involved in some bad cases involving scouts. Policies MUST be set to prevent any opportunities for victimization.

      The present youth protection policies adopted by the BSA are the best I have seen. You need to explain far more than you have in order for me to come close to agreeing with you. Two deep leadership overwhelms any opportunity for false accusations. If you can’t get over the sense that you are being accused, stand down and don’t interact with the kids.

      • What difference does it make if it IS mostly about himself! As far as how I spent my time, I am a retired New York State Trooper. He did not say anything about any kind of sexual abuse! One thing I do agree with you on is “Policies MUST be set to prevent any opportunities for victimization”. What CS is speaking is a kind of VICTIMIZATION of one of the WORST kind. Malicious Accusation of a Person, and guess what, I got my fill or THAT kind of accusation on the Job! Policy the way it is makes it way to easy to ABUSE the process, and use it for petty and personal gain or retaliation. There has to be a agreeable compromise.

        • I think you guys need to explain exactly what policy it is that you feel is so personally harassing.

  2. As a long-time BSA leader, and former GSUSA leader I wonder if there were any Girl Scout representatives present at the event. YPT seems to be a non-issue for them, except for the fact that most prefer not to have men at camp – and never male siblings.

  3. Concerned Scouter: 2 deep leadership is THE tool to protect both volunteers and youth. The world we live in is the world we live in, and I submit to you that BSA’s YPT policies are the best ones to protect everyone in our programs.

  4. I applaud BSA’s efforts in youth protection, but I am often a little frustrated that the focus is solely on sexual abuse. Child abuse is more than sexual, it includes physical and emotional abuse, and neglect.
    When I first registered as an ASM with my old unit, I was young, 20 yrs old. I took youth protection at summer camp that year, and the focus was all sexual (like this blog’s focus, and YPT’s). The day after the training session, some knucklehead troop volunteered to retire the colors at dinner formation, and they made the mistake we’ve all seen: They sent up a bunch of 11-yr-olds who had no idea what they were doing (in front of 500-1,000 people is NOT the time for your new scouts’ flag ceremony sign-off). The boys froze, the camp director had to dive to keep the flag off the ground, they took 5 times to get the fold right. It was a mistake that rested squarely on the LEADERS’ shoulders.
    A few minutes later, while we were lined up to get our food, I witnessed one of these tiny scouts being berated by an angry and humiliated adult–maybe he was the scout’s dad, maybe he was just some SM, I don’t know. The man ended up grabbing the boy’s collar and giving him a good shake.
    I was infuriated and shaking, but I was half this guy’s age (and size), had no idea who he was, so I looked to an older Scouter who had been in the YPT session with me the day before. I told him what I had seen, asked for advice, and he said, “I wouldn’t rock the boat, maybe he’s the boy’s dad. Besides, youth protection is about sex stuff.” I (stupidly) took the older scouter’s advice, and there isn’t a year I’m at that camp that I don’t regret it.

    It would be easy to blame the man I looked to for advice or even me for failing in our youth protection duty, and I do blame myself. There’s no excuse for that failure, but at the same time, that decision came out of a youth protection framework that over-emphasizes sexual abuse and doesn’t address physical abuse or neglect.

    I took a job doing background searches for Child Protective Services soon after that incident, and while the sexual abuse was the most sickening, physical abuse and neglect (inadequate food/shelter/clothing/sanitation etc) were just as prevalent (maybe moreso). BSA’s youth protection training needs to take a more balanced approach.

  5. Pingback: Today’s Links December 7, 2012 | New York OA Trader

  6. This couldn’t be more timely. As a trained scouter, I was somewhat disturbed to see two-deep leadership guidelines not being followed when I picked up my son from his den meeting this week. Two days later, I was told my son’s den leader served 3 years in prison for circumstances involving minors while she was a high school teacher.

    I hate to be in this situation, but after what I’ve been told, I can’t believe this person is eligible to volunteer in scouting. I don’t have details, so I’m hesitant to take action without more information. This week I hope to talk privately with individuals who should know more. As this is a church sponsored pack, I don’t know whether to go to the council or my COR. I’m afraid that at the unit level, there will be a sweep it under the rug attitude. I’d sure welcome any suggestions on how to approach my situation.

    • I find it hard to believe that someone with a criminal conviction was able to register. Are you sure she’s actually registered? Since your unit has apparently already decided to ignore it, contact the District Exec, and keep going up the chain from there.

  7. The ease with which a trusted Scouter can victimize a young scout is truly frightening. And THAT’s why we need to follow ALL of the policies.

    My very first Eagle Scout, in 1993, was casting about for his project. I was speaking to a local service organization about supporting Scouting at a luncheon, and the other lunch speaker was the Director of Community Relations at the local Blood Bank. I left lunch that day with a new contact for potential projects — I suggested it to the boy the next Monday night. I hadn’t even got home when his mother called and left an angry message on my machine: “How dare you suggest a project involving blood! He’s in the bathroom throwing up at the thought of this project.” I called her back and lamely objected that he had seemed very pleased at the idea of this for his project . . . and she crushed me with one sentence. “He agreed to something that made him sick to his stomach, because he thought it would make YOU happy”

    It’s a story that gets taught in EVERY youth protection class and every fast start training and every discussion with new leaders that I have.

  8. Pingback: BSA hosts 23 other organizations at National Youth Protection Symposium « Bryan on Scouting

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