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

About Bryan Wendell 3281 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.