Many incidents of abuse reported at Boys & Girls Clubs across country
GREENWICH — The alleged sexual abuse that five men say went unchecked for years at the Greenwich Boys’ Club would not be an isolated case.
A survey of court documents and media reports revealed more than 20 cases involving similar claims of child sexual abuse at chapters of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America across the nation in recent years. Many of the cases have involved civil litigation, and some have seen criminal convictions.
In some cases, chapters apparently ignored alleged abuse or failed to report it to law enforcement. In one case, a club is accused of lying to the public about its prior knowledge of allegations against an employee.
Attorneys who represent alleged victims of abuse at Boys & Girls Clubs say the national organization has shown a tendency to distance itself from local chapters when alleged abuse comes to light. This happens, attorneys say, even though Boys & Girls Clubs of America advertises its local clubs as having access to all the resources of the national organization, which serves 4 million children a year at 4,300 facilities.
“They make statements about all their efforts to protect kids, but also try to take the position that the local clubs are independent entities and they don’t have the ability to control everyone that happens to be at those clubs,” Oregon-based attorney Peter Janci said this week. “My view is that if Boys & Girls Club of America wants to present (local) clubs as (being a part of the national organization), they need to do everything within reason to protect kids in all of their clubs.”
Reports of abuse
Reports of sexual abuse have recently surfaced at Boys & Girls Clubs in Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, Virginia, Illinois, Oregon, Nevada, California and Hawaii.
One lawsuit claims a string of sexual abuse has occurred at Boys & Girls Clubs across the nation since 2000 and accuses the national organization of failing to uniformly implement safeguards against abuse at all of its facilities.
Among the cases alleging flagrant disregard for protecting children is pending litigation against the Boys & Girls Club of Sonoma Valley in California.
“It’s one of the most egregious cases I’ve seen and I’ve handled a lot of them over the past 25 years,” said Dave Ring, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. “The Boys & Girls Club had an incredible number of complaints over many years and did nothing about it.”
The lawsuit alleges a former coach at the club, Paul Dwayne Kilgore, sexually abused at least four boys, including some as young as 6, for a decade. Officials at the club allowed Kilgore to keep working despite indications of problems, did not intervene when he began working at another club, and lied to the public that there were no indications of abuse after the coach eventually was arrested, according to the lawsuit.
“It’s disturbing and it needs to come to an end soon because there’s been a lot of victims as a result of their cover-up,” said Ring. “One day I hope they will finally learn they need to protect children instead of their organization and the organization’s reputation.”
Among the “red flags” the complaint says the club ignored was Kilgore’s failure to answer correctly any questions on a sexual harassment test in 2006.
In 2007, a fifth-grade boy told club employees Kilgore forced him and several other boys to undress in front of him and made inappropriate comments about their genitalia, the lawsuit alleges. Nothing was done in response to the complaint, court records say, and the same boy reported the incident again in 2010. When the boy was asked why he didn’t report it earlier, he said “[I] did but no one believed me,” according to the complaint.
From 2007 to 2010, employees saw Kilgore take his victims off club premises during program hours, court documents say, and some began to complain. During that same time period, the lawsuit says Kilgore was assigned to teach a sexual health class to boys, which he allegedly used to groom his victims for abuse.
In 2010, Boys & Girls Club of Sonoma Valley CEO Dave Pier discussed Kilgore’s conduct with board members, saying that they needed to “set boundaries” around his relationships with kids, the complaint says. “The discussions never materialized, and Pier did not enact any parameters or boundaries,” the lawsuit reads.
The club opened an internal investigation into Kilgore in November 2012 after it learned he took boys on an overnight trip, court records say, which lasted a month and revealed the coach slept naked in the same bed with children. The club did not contact law enforcement.
Pier wrote letters of reprimand for himself and other administrators for their failure to “set boundaries” for Kilgore, the lawsuit says, and he filed the letters with the national nonprofit.
Kilgore quit after he was told he couldn’t take boys off-site in September 2013, court documents say. A few months later, he was hired at Boys & Girls Club of Petaluma, just a few miles away.
It wasn’t until August 2016, when a teacher reportedly saw Kilgore inappropriately talking to and touching young boys at a health club, that the man was arrested. He eventually was convicted of six counts of sexual abuse of a minor and sentenced to 150 years in prison.
After Kilgore’s arrest, Boys & Girls Club of Sonoma Valley issued statements to the media claiming it had no prior incidents or complaints regarding Kilgore, according to the lawsuit.
The Sonoma case might stand out as flagrant, but it is not alone.
A $5 million lawsuit, settled in October 2018, claims the rape of a 7-year-old girl with severe disabilities by a teen at a Boys & Girls Club in Oregon was part of a string of sexual assaults at Boys & Girls Clubs across the nation since 2000 that happened because of the national organization’s failure to safeguard against abuse.
The club was aware the teen had sexually assaulted at least one minor before the rape of the 7-year-old, the lawsuit states. Her abuse came to light after she disclosed it to her parents, according to court documents.
The examples continue:
A Massachusetts district attorney said a club in Arlington, Mass., didn’t notify police after firing swim coach Paul Collins, who fled after being confronted with allegations of raping a child in the 1970s, according to reports in local media. Collins was arrested decades later and pleaded guilty to assault and battery on a child.
Victoria Satoafaiga was criminally charged for allegedly sexually assaulting a preteen girl when she was assistant director of Boys & Girls Clubs of Maui last summer in Hawaii. Before she was arrested and fired from the organization, Satoafaiga won the 2016 Pacific Region Native Spirit Award for her work with Native Hawaiian youth from the Boys & Girls Club of America, Native Services Unit, according to The Maui News.
A lawsuit filed in 2017 in Tacoma, Washington alleges a man named Charles Richard Patrick Urlacher sexually abuse a boy at the Boys & Girls Club of Puget Sound in 1984. According to reporting by the News Tribune, the lawsuit says that when an unnamed “manager” at the local club learned about the abuse, he didn’t stop it — he participated in it.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Portland Metropolitan Area was accused of failing to ban a 15-year-old volunteer from participating in its programs after it knew he allegedly assaulted a 5-year-old girl, The Oregonian reported, and the teen went on to abuse a 10-year-old girl the next year at another club location.
Response to abuse
Boys & Girls Clubs of America administrators said this week the organization has significantly enhanced its safety guidelines and policies in the last two decades and continues to update its practices and procedures.
The nonprofit has a zero-tolerance policy for “inappropriate behavior of any kind,” according to its website.
The national organization’s safety protocols include extensive background checks for all employees and volunteers, including minors, who have contact with children. There also is a 24-hour hotline all clubs can use for “confidential advice, guidance and resources through a partnership with a nationally recognized risk prevention and safety expert,” according to the website. There are national and local club child safety committees and task forces that provide guidance and expertise on safety trends, issues and initiatives.
All local clubs are required to immediately report “critical safety incidents” to law enforcement and to the national organization within 24 hours, according to its policies.
John Miller, senior vice president of field services for Boys & Girls Clubs of America, said mandatory safety inspections of each local club are conducted each year to ensure policy compliance. The national office’s child safety department constantly researches innovation in best practices, he said.
Having clear policies about how an organization handles reports of abuse is key to prevention, said Beth Hamilton, associate director of the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence.
It’s also important that children being served by an organization are aware of the rules and codes of conduct adults should adhere to, said Pam Clasgens, community awareness and prevention director at the National Children’s Advocacy Center in Alabama. If children are aware of the rules, they are more likely to report when they have been broken, she added.
Educating kids about topics such as body autonomy, healthy relationships and maintaining boundaries is part of cultivating safety for youth, said Hamilton. Talking about these things takes the shame and secrecy away from abuse, she added.
“The more kids grow up talking about these things, the more you help set kids up to be successful in being able maintain those boundaries and get adult assistance when they need it,” said Hamilton.
There are educational programs for children that explore those topics available to Boys & Girls Clubs, said Miller. Those programs are offered to all clubs, but are not required, he said, adding local clubs have the ability to select which programs their population will benefit from the most.
Each Boys & Girls Club is independent and autonomous, Miller said. To remain a member of the national organization, each chapter must agree to certain safety requirements. Miller said there have been instances in the past in which clubs lost membership because of noncompliance.
“We want to prevent, to the greatest extent possible, anyone doing harm to kids,” he said. “We know more today than people knew 30 years ago. We now have better technology, better communication can create strong support for young people. We are not perfect, but we recognize how vitally important it is to get to a place where any kid who comes into any of our clubs is safe.”
At the Greenwich club, a former counselor has been accused in a lawsuit filed by five men of molesting and raping them as boys hundreds of times. The lawsuit alleges the counselor, Andrew Atkinson, was allowed to continue to work alone with children in the club’s locker room after a child told an employee there, Jeff Starcher, about the abuse, according to court documents.
Starcher, whose father was director of the club at the time, went on to become assistant director and director. He currently serves as director of organizational development for Boys & Girls Clubs of America. The national organization said this week it investigated and found no evidence that Starcher was aware of abuse.
Atkinson this week denied accusations he ever abused children.
In a separate incident at the Greenwich facility, former Greenwich High School teaching aide Andrew Knapp was convicted in 2014 of attempting to sexually assault a child he was coaching in swimming there in 2010. Prosecutors said this week the abuse came to light after the victim told his parents, who reported it to police.
The now-Girls & Boys Club of Greenwich in recent years has led a “comprehensive effort to ensure children find a ... safe environment,” said its current CEO Bobby Walker Jr. in a letter to the Greenwich Time editor this week.
The club has organized staff training on abuse prevention and mandated reporting from the Greenwich Police Department. It’s also provided training on the signs of child abuse from the state Department of Children and Families. Social workers have trained staff in mental health first aid.
Janci, who’s brought several lawsuits against local Boys & Girls Clubs in Oregon, said the clubs are just as likely to be infiltrated by pedophiles as any other large organization that supervises children, like the Catholic Church or Boy Scouts of America, both of which have seen unprecedented reports of child sexual abuse come to light in recent years.
“I’m not sure we know the full extent of the problem of abuse within the Boys & Girls Club of America yet,” Janci said.