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A Chilling effect

Wed., April 18, 2007, midnight

Changing times and a growing awareness of child abuse have led to greater distrust of adults who work with children, prompting stricter rules in churches, Boy Scouts and other organizations.

That means less one-on-one contact between children and adult mentors, so relationships that could steer at-risk kids away from trouble take longer to build.

“Our trust has been eroded,” said the Rev. Chuck Wilkes, associate pastor of Spokane Valley Nazarene Church.

No longer is it acceptable for an adult to initiate contact with a child, he said. Children, from an early age, are taught to be wary of people they don’t know.

“It’s an unraveling of the community contract, which says we are responsible for the children,” said Wilkes.

It’s affected even our willingness to commit simple acts of compassion.

Wilkes recalls being in his car and seeing a boy shivering in the cold, walking in a snowstorm. He considered pulling over and offering the boy a ride home.

“But I drove on by,” he said, his voice tinged with sadness.

The boy would have been too scared to get in the car. And Wilkes, a stranger, would have automatically been suspect for stopping to talk.

“And that little first-grader paid the cost – he walked home without a coat on and he had nothing to do with this,” Wilkes said.

Today, would-be volunteers at various organizations undergo heavy scrutiny, including criminal background checks and interviews with references. They must undergo training and comply with strict codes of conduct.

Here’s how some organizations have dealt with the changes:

“ Mentors paired with youth through Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Inland Northwest can meet one-on-one with children. But mentors who have second thoughts about those meetings are provided with another option. About 60 percent of the matches made through the national organization involve “site-based” programs, where an adult mentor meets with a child in a school or high-visibility site, said Darin Christensen, CEO of the Inland Northwest office.

“Sometimes that kind of mentoring isn’t quite as effective,” Christensen said. “I guess the positive thing is that it allows that person who is concerned to still be involved in a way that feels comfortable.”

“ The Boy Scouts of America also has new rules for how Scout leaders interact with boys. “We don’t allow one-on-one contact with youth and adults in this day and age,” said Tim McCandless, executive director of the Inland Northwest chapter. “If there is a campout, there must be at least two adults present.”

The Inland Northwest chapter of the Scouts – which has about 5,000 volunteers and serves about 13,000 boys in Idaho and Washington – also requires boys to receive training on how to recognize an abusive adult. Scouts must complete a Youth Protection Program to learn the signs of abuse before earning their first badge. The program also is taught to parents of Scouts, McCandless said.

“If they find themselves in an abusive situation, we know they have the skills to recognize that it’s wrong; they can recognize an adult who may have malicious intent,” he said.

Like schools and other volunteer programs for youth, all Boy Scout volunteers and staff must undergo extensive background checks. The cost typically is paid by the organization.

“ At the Boys and Girls Club of Spokane County, an after-school program, “we definitely do not let anyone in the building unless they went through our extensive background program; they do this before they have any contacts with kids,” said Ryan Davenport, executive director of the chapter.

But background checks don’t always catch those who might harm children. Most abusers don’t have a criminal background and are in positions of trust in a child’s life.

“ As a result of the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, the Diocese of Spokane has adopted policies to ensure the protection of children and vulnerable adults.

Many of the regulations – which include outside audits, extensive training and a code of conduct that explicitly defines inappropriate behavior to include wrestling, piggy-back rides and massages – are also being emphasized by other churches in the area, particularly in Spokane Valley.

About a year ago, Wilkes and Ian Robertson, pastors of Spokane Valley Nazarene Church, decided they needed to offer support to their Catholic brothers and sisters and learn from past mistakes.

“It’s been so traumatic,” said Robertson, reflecting on the experience of the diocese. “What can we learn from this? How can we bring healing to the whole community?”

The victims of abuse, after all, aren’t the only ones who have been affected, said Wilkes. The crisis also has hurt the victims’ families, clergy, church members and society as a whole.

The legal system, however, isn’t always set up for healing, said Wilkes, an attorney who practiced law for nearly 30 years. “The legal system is about retributive justice, not restorative,” he said.

He and others believe it’s up to the faith community to bring about that healing and restore trust, the essential element that “holds us together as a community.”

“The sexual abuse problems are bigger than the Catholic Church,” said Robertson, who meets regularly with Catholic Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane. “It’s time for us, as the entire faith community, to work on a combined solution.”

In recent months, the roughly 33 pastors who belong to the Spokane Valley Ministerial Association have been discussing an initiative known as “Healing to Our Community.”

Based on lessons learned from the diocese and using its “Safe Net for Children and Youth” as a template, members of the ministerial association are establishing an official code of conduct and policies to prevent abuse.

Part of their efforts includes an informational brochure with local resources and a list of common signs and symptoms that could indicate sexual abuse. On the cover of the brochure is a photograph of two little boys and the words: “Please listen to me, please believe me.”

Wilkes, Robertson and others hope the work pastors are doing in Spokane Valley can become a model for healing in other places.

“We have to reweave that tapestry of trust,” Wilkes said.


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