New safeguards help protect Scouts
STAMFORD — Lisa Rankin has been involved with Troop 11 of the Boy Scouts since her oldest son joined about 12 years ago. During that time, she’s seen two of her sons make Eagle Scout and a third who is on his way to achieving top rank. She also became chairwoman of the troop committee about five years ago.
Rankin said she has never worried about her children’s safety while Scouting with the Stamford troop because she trusts the safeguards that have been implemented to protect young members.
“I’ve always had complete confidence in the management and leadership of the organization,” she said. “It’s really just an amazing program and all of the adults take everything very seriously.”
But this has not always been the case for the Boy Scouts of America and its young members.
A new lawsuit against the Boy Scouts and local Stamford councils has been filed by four men who accuse their former scoutmaster, Waldron Ackerman, of sexual abuse during the 1970s. The suit argues BSA knew Ackerman was a pedophile and that Scouts across the country were being abused by volunteers.
Under a court order in 2012, the Boy Scouts released “the perversion files” — more than 20,000 pages with records of about 1,200 molesters found within Boy Scout ranks between 1965 and 1985. The files were released on the website of Crew Janci Attorneys, the firm that represented the plaintiff in Kerry Lewis v. Boy Scouts of America, the 2010 case that brought the documents to light.
According to the law firm’s website, the files reveal between 6,000 to 24,000 youths were abused and even that number was conservative. The BSA admitted to destroying files from earlier years.
The released documents show 25 reports on Scout leaders in Connecticut, including five from Fairfield County.
Brooke Goff, the West Hartford attorney representing the plaintiffs in the Stamford suit, said there was an outpouring of cases against BSA claiming abuse following the release of the files.
Goff also represented 17 former Boy Scouts from Ridgefield who sued the organization for alleged abuse by a scoutmaster.
Goff says open-door policies, a reporting system, educational materials for volunteers and better background checks in the organization in the 1970s would have helped protect her clients from abuse.
“Those are the things I’d say would have made the difference in my case,” she said. “These institutions really need to be mandated and regulated no different than a school. Until that happens, people are going to keep bringing suits and kids are going to keep being victims.”
In response to the recent Stamford suit, BSA released a statement decrying Ackerman’s behavior and pointing to policy changes made since the alleged abuse occurred.
While BSA remains under its own regulation, Scout leaders now say the organization has changed since their days as youth members.
“It was like applying for a government position — forms to fill out, sent to national for review, send to local and national law enforcement to check records,” said Bill Janocha, assistant scoutmaster for Troop 11 and a former Eagle Scout.
Janocha also served as an adult leader when he finished college and wanted to accompany his former troop on a canoe trip. He said he doesn’t recall any specific training to sign up during that time.
Now, in addition to screenings and background checks when they apply, volunteers must complete yearly online training focused on youth protection, according to Rankin. Troop leaders are required to keep their training certification up to date to register each year to volunteer.
Since Troop 11 is also sponsored by a church, the adult leaders must also complete Virtus training required by the institution to prevent child abuse.
According to the BSA website, background information is screened by each unit committee for all leadership applications. The site also touts a new reporting procedure for violations, outlining situations when the leader must alert authorities or local council members if they see abuse.
“Is it more training? Is it more bureaucracy? Sure,” Janocha said. “But what is the most important thing? To ensure the safety of everyone in the program. That is paramount. That is not negotiable.”
The new guidelines align with the best practices recommended by local law enforcement. Sgt. Joseph Kennedy, supervisor for the Stamford Police Department’s Youth Bureau, said it’s important for all private organizations dealing with children to have policies like this since they don’t have the same legal obligations — like background checks and mandatory reporting — as adults working in the public sector.
“We run into some problems where caregivers — those coaches, troop leaders — fall into an area of responsibility,” Kennedy said. “The law might not apply to them as strictly for being a mandatory reporter, but that mindset should be in place. Even though they might not be a mandated reporter, if you’re going to be involved with kids, you want to be sure you’re putting them as the top priority. Not the organization, not the reputation. If you’re promoting a healthy environment for kids, your reputation will always go to the top if you have mandatory reporting.”
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