Girl Scout flap brings up questions of policy

The poor turnout at last week's parents meeting held by local Girl Scout officials to discuss changes to policies and procedures to better protect children from sexual abuse was disappointing, but not surprising, experts say.

"I'm very disappointed. I'd like to say that it is a shock to me. But, unfortunately, it isn't," said Marlene Mish, executive director of the Children's Advocacy Center.

The recent discovery that a convicted child molester had been living with a troop leader and had regularly attended Scout events resulted in a media storm — and safeguard demands from parents. Scout officials sent more than 500 letters inviting parents to be part of a brainstorming policy session on April 9. Only three parents showed up. One of the three mothers attending the 6 p.m. meeting announced new information about potential exposure to another sex offender during Scout events. Another expressed frustration at the lack of parent involvement.

"The tragedy is that there is this misconception out in the world that children should be able to take care of themselves. That we adults can give our children a few hints and turn them loose," said Mish.

The reality, Mish said, is that it is always up to parents or guardians to make sure adequate policies, specifically designed to protect children from sex abuse, are in place. Imagine how difficult it is for a child to say "no" to authority figures like teachers, coaches or clergy, she said.

Many parents find it difficult to discuss sex with their children, or even with other adults.

Discussing a topic as traumatic as child sex abuse only increases their anxiety. Parents wonder how to provide enough information without instilling fear in their children. Many worry being proactive with other adults regarding procedural safeguards may make them seem paranoid, or open their child to ridicule. But parental denial, ignorance or failure to openly discuss the facts of sexual abuse with their children, and with adults who have regular contact with their children, helps create a target-rich environment for pedophiles, Mish said.

Parents need to be aware of who is spending time with their children, agreed Medford police Lt. Tim Doney.

"You can't always assume because your child is in some kind of organized activity, that it's all OK," said Doney.

The statistics are alarming. Studies show 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday. In 90 percent of the cases, the child and the child's family know and trust the abuser.

There are 430 known registered sex offenders currently residing within the city of Medford. Eight of them are considered to be predators. A recent compliance check on the offenders resulted in 80 warrants. But many communities lack the resources to monitor offenders for potential violations, especially once they are off parole or probation, Doney said.

"There is no mold for what a sex abuser looks like. Many can be charming, engaging or friendly. Make sure your children know their body is theirs. And that they can talk to you," said Doney.

One-on-one mentoring relationships between children and adults are important for developing a child's self esteem and ability to create trusting relationships, said Roxann Jones, project coordinator for the county's Commission on Children and Families.

"This is certainly not about being paranoid," she said.

But how to do that safely is a matter of education and commitment to change. Parents should not assume that protecting children is a Girl Scout problem. Or relax their guard because one highly-publicized abuser is arrested. Realities, not trust, should influence parents' decisions regarding children, she said.

"Parents need to step up," Jones said.

Eleven members from organizations like the Girl Scouts, the Children's Advocacy Center, Community Works, and the Job Council have received training through the nonprofit organization Darkness to Light to become "Stewards of Children," said Jones. They will work with organizations provide community outreach by performing community training sessions, Jones said.

"People can request the training. And it doesn't have to be an official organization. It can be a neighborhood watch or a moms' group. Even if there are five moms, dads and grandparents," Jones said. At Wednesday's meeting, Candace Bartow, chief executive officer of the Girl Scouts of the Winema Council, said they rely heavily upon parent volunteers. Two staff members have been calling 72 Jackson County Girl Scout troop leaders asking them to ensure that all volunteers have their backgrounds' checked, Bartow said. The Girl Scouts' checks have required fingerprinting of up to 500 known volunteers.

Bartow also expressed dismay that only three parents showed up at the highly-publicized meeting. But added some volunteers have stated they already feel overwhelmed at the current level of security policies within the organization, she said.

Parents should be grateful for current policies, and demand even better ones, for the safety of their children, Mish said.

"It's a matter of what you want. Do you want to see your children safe? If you don't, then bad things happen," she said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail

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