Boy Scouts of American examines its past, looks to its future

Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2012, 6:00 am
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By Mike Johnson
Nearly 100 years ago -- decades before electronic record-keeping or FBI criminal background checks -- the Boy Scouts of America devised its own system of files to keep out those who might try to harm children.

Later, in 1935, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (President Theodore Roosevelt's son), in discussing this system, declared that leadership was a "sacred trust" and noted that Scouting protected children by ensuring that "every applicant is checked with care against this confidential file. Every man seeking certification must meet these conditions and any other safeguards that we can devise for surer protection." This system eventually became known as the Ineligible Volunteer Files. The content of some of the files has recently become the focus of considerable media attention, particularly in the Los Angeles Times.

These files were and are essentially a list designed to bar inappropriate individuals from Scouting. A complete analysis shows that many dangerous men who applied were in fact kept out and that individuals who joined and were later suspected of abuse or committed abuse were removed as a result of the files.

But some of the files also show circumstances in which adults abused their position in Scouting to hurt children, and that Scouting did not always act appropriately when it became aware of abuse. Some abusive leaders were even allowed to return to Scouting after "treatment" because, at the time, the medical community believed pedophiles could be cured. Once scientists determined such treatment was ineffective, Scouting changed its practices. Once suspected of abuse, individuals are permanently banned from the organization.

To be clear, we make no excuses for where our organization fell short. The abuse of even one child is unacceptable. The fact is there are things Scouting wishes we had done differently, particularly given what we know about youth protection and abuse prevention today. There are times when our efforts to protect Scouts were plainly insufficient, inappropriate or wrong. For that we are deeply sorry, and Scouting sincerely apologizes to victims and their families.

Yet well over 100 million kids have been part of the Scouting movement over the last 100 years, and overwhelmingly, they have been safe, and they have been kept safe by the great work of our millions of dedicated volunteers. In addition, the existence of the files is proof that Scouting was a pioneer in the area of youth protection. These facts have been lost in the flurry of coverage now that the files have been released.

It's not just our opinion that the files help keep kids safe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2007 suggested that all youth-serving organizations keep such files as a best practice for protecting kids. In fact, every parent should ask youth-serving organizations their children may be involved with if they keep files.

Just as Roosevelt suggested, Scouting has always been committed to continually strengthening and enhancing our youth protection measures as new techniques and technologies become available. Today, when comparing the BSA to other youth-serving organizations, independent experts such as Victor Vieth, who heads the National Child Protection Training Center, said, "The Boy Scouts have the most advanced policies and training."

These include:

-- All volunteers must complete a rigorous application and screening process before joining Scouting, including a national criminal background check.

-- All prospective volunteers are checked against our ineligible volunteer list.

-- Scouting's mandatory reporting policy requires members to report even suspicions of abuse directly to local law enforcement, and those individuals are immediately removed from Scouting permanently.

-- All adults who lead youth are required to complete what we call Youth Protection training program and must renew the training every two years. We also encourage all parents to take this training, which provides important information about detecting and preventing abuse, no matter where it may occur.

-- Scouting's two-deep leadership policy requires at least two adults to be present for all its activities. No youth should ever be alone with a Scout leader for any reason. All activities are open to parents, and we strongly encourage families to enjoy Scouting together.

-- Every Boy Scout and Cub Scout handbook includes a pamphlet to help parents teach their children how to recognize, resist and report abuse.

Additionally, in 2010 the Boy Scouts of America hired me as its first full-time Youth Protection director. I was asked to apply my law enforcement and child abuse prevention background to a review of Scouting's Youth Protection program to ensure we remain at the forefront of this important issue.

We say in Scouting, "Youth Protection Begins with You" because we believe everyone throughout our organization -- from adult leaders to volunteers to Scouts themselves -- has a responsibility to help ensure one another's safety.

Our work with youth demands nothing less.
Mike Johnson is a 28-year veteran police detective specializing in child sexual abuse prevention and is the Boy Scouts of America’s Youth Protection director. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.


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