With more than 4,000 local chapters spread across the country, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America are among the largest after-school programs in the nation. Founded to provide opportunities for developing active, engaged, and socially healthy children, every BGCA chapter is locally run in affiliation with the national organization. With so many children attending these locations, there are always concerns about the potential for abuse.
Media reports and civil lawsuits that alleged a pattern of sexual abuse against children in Boys & Girls Clubs in the 1970s and 80s stirred the national organization to action. Though the body had developed stricter procedures and created more anti-abuse resources for local clubs, troubling reports continued to emerge from various locations. In 2020, BGCA commissioned the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, also known as RAINN, to conduct a complete review of their efforts and those of local chapters.
RAINN's investigation found troubling information. Although it acknowledged a consistent effort to make improvements and provide appropriate training, the organization found that many Boys & Girls Club chapters failed to properly follow the rules. Some staffers did not understand the resources or how to use them appropriately; in other cases, local chapters simply failed to enforce the guidelines. Inconsistent availability of training for staffers led to an environment, RAINN said, in which the potential for abuse was high.
To reduce the risk, RAINN issued multiple suggestions to BGCA. These included standardizing resource availability across all clubs, providing more rigorous training, and developing stricter background check requirements. One of the primary complaints levied against BGCA in ongoing litigation is a failure to execute thorough background vetting, which could allow sexual predators or violent offenders to work with vulnerable populations.
The issues facing BGCA and the problems that RAINN uncovered within local organizations are not unique. Any organization, youth programs and child care, can operate in a "safety theater": developing procedures on paper allows a business to point to an effort to make improvements, but if the business never enforces them, their usefulness evaporates.
A strong focus on enforcement and vigilance against abuse is necessary to create a child care culture that adheres to the concept of "see something, say something." Empowering youth programs to lay the groundwork for safety is essential.
As BGCA looks to make its screening criteria more strict, remember the value of thorough pre-employment background screenings, such as the US OneSEARCH. Though background checks cannot predict future behavior, they are a critical method for filtering out high-risk individuals.
In the fight against the abuse of children, every effort can make a difference—but only when actions, and policies, back up words.