Sussex County-Child abuse has become epidemic worldwide, and local groups are instituting programs, both mandatory and volunteer, to insure the safety of children. The Catholic Church, rocked by abuse scandals, has taken a lead in such programs, requiring all volunteer workers to be fingerprinted and subjected to background checks. But other groups are also taking more precautions, including Little Leagues, scouting groups and at least one municipal summer recreation program. "Protecting God's Children" is the program in which all 15 Catholic Communities of Sussex County, as members of the Diocese of Paterson, are participating. VIRTUS, the brand name identifying the programs, is an outgrowth of a forum conducted by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group, Inc. held in March of 1998 and comprised of prominent experts nationwide in the prevention of child sexual abuse. (Virtus is from the Latin word meaning valor and moral strength). The original consulting team consisted of individuals with expertise in, among other things, sexual trauma, treatment facilities for clergy and religious, and abuse research. The program employs various methods of training including written materials, audio and video tapes, seminars, and continuing education with on-line instruction. As prevention of child abuse is the ultimate goal of the programs, VIRTUS' "continuous improvement model" maintains a regular review, revision, and upgrading to keep expanding and improving prevention methods. All clergy, staff, employees, and volunteers who have regular, consistent contact with children are required to attend training as a condition of continuing employment, ministry, or volunteer service in the diocese and its parishes, schools, and organizations. Fingerprinting is also required and has been conducted with the cooperation of local police departments. Parents and others interested in the program are encouraged to participate. The diocesan Web site notes, "A massive prevention program called "Protecting God's Children"
has been initiated in the diocese. This particular training
aims at making every adult a Preventor/Protector. Feedback on the program has been outstanding. Parents who have trained in various parishes say it was educational and gives them a way to broach the subject with kids and adults." Volunteers and employees hired for summer recreational activities in Byram Township have for the first time been subject to security checks under the supervision of KidSafe, a company which develops safety programs. Director of Recreation, Janet Meisner, said that these assessments include fingerprinting and state and federal level background checks. Future plans will also include training as part of employment requirements. Since 2003, Little League has required background checks on managers, coaches, umpires (age 16 and older) and other volunteers who come into regular contact with players. According to Lori Grant, President of the Hobb Engler Little League, coaches also must attend a three-hour safety clinic, Rutgers Youth Sport Safety Program, conducted by Rutgers University. Little League has joined with Rapsheets.com to provide local Little Leagues with an internet site that allows a search of a national database of more than 120 million criminal records. There are currently more than one million adult Little League volunteers in local Little Leagues nationwide. Vicki Kallok, Marketing Director, Patriots' Path Council, Boy Scouts of America, says that her organization's Youth Protection Program formally began in 1988. It is designed to help prevent child abuse in all of its formswhether verbal, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, or neglect. Youth Protection is a required training for all adult leaders accompanying Scouts on field trips, outings, camping trips, etc. and must be updated every three years. BSA Training, as well as the Diocesan program, is offered free of charge to all leaders, as well as parents, teachers, coaches, social workers, youth development leaders, or anyone in the community who is interested in protecting youth. The Boy Scouts of America also has a variety of resources to help educate and inform Scouts, Scouters, and the community about recognizing, resisting and reporting child abuse. "How to Protect Your Children from Child Abuse: A Parent's Guide" is designed for parents or guardians and young people to use together for youth protection training. There are also separate age-appropriate videos for Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and Venturers. More detailed information about these resources is available on-line at www.ppbsa.org. Because of the prevalence of child sex abuse, Charol Shakeshaft, professor of educational policies at Hofstra University, recommends that public schools develop prevention programs that include educating employees, volunteers, parents and students on how to spot and report problems. Her study, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education and presented to Congress in June, "Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature," reports that almost 10 percent of public school students - about 4.5 million children - have been abused by public school employees and volunteers. Ms. Shakeshaft's report emphasizes the importance of the programs that are in place and encourages other groups to follow. For more information on her report, visit ed.gov/rschstat/research/pubs/misconductreview/report. "Child abuse can be stopped," says the Diocese of Paterson, "if every individual is willing to commit to an environment which limits access, creates awareness of the danger to children and inspires the willingness for each one of us to act."