A sign of times
Caution dictates publicity of student exchange programs in The Compass
By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
Call it a sign of the times.
We often get requests to give publicity to student exchange programs. These programs need sponsor families to host students or under-privileged children from around the globe, sometimes in the summer and sometimes during the school year. There was a time when such a request would have elicited the response: "Gee, that's a nice thing. Let's do a story."
Nowadays, we first ask, "Who is this group? What are their references?"
Child abuse is a fact of modern society. As members of a faith community, we are all especially aware of our responsibility to protect our children. According to the National Centers for Disease Control, in 2005, 906,000 children in this country were confirmed as "maltreated." Most were neglected (61 percent), others were physically abused (19 percent) and 10 percent were sexually abused. (These are confirmed cases; there are many more that are never reported.)
What does that have to do with host families?
In most cases, nothing. However, it is known that pedophiles and ephebophiles (those who sexually abuse teenagers) are often skilled at hiding under the cloak of organized groups. This is why the U.S. Catholic Church now requires careful screening of anyone who will be working with children under its auspices.
In the Diocese of Green Bay, any diocesan staff, clerical personnel, parish employee or volunteer who will have any regular contact with children or vulnerable adults must undergo criminal background checks and be trained in how to spot abuse, dangerous situations and other issues that come under the title of "safe environment" skills.
This is because we are in a position of trust. And that is a position that has been abused by all levels of society. The National Catholic Risk Retention Group, Inc., which provides ongoing safe environment training for diocesan employees, notes that "60 percent of child sexual abuse is committed by persons known to and trusted by the child and the child's family."
This is where programs such as host family exchanges come into the picture. They, by their very nature, elicit a sense of trust. Many are affiliated with a church, parish, diocese, an ecumenical group of churches, a school program or regional education group. (For example, see last week's article about exchange students currently attending St. Mary Central High in Neenah-Menasha.) Others are supported by such groups, through parish or school fund-raisers. But some others are not.
Does that mean those groups in the last category harbor child abusers?
Most likely not.
The majority of these groups are grassroots programs developed by well-meaning adults who sincerely want to help children.
Yet, today, we must be cautious. Therefore, The Compass is also careful. When we receive announcements from groups seeking host families or offering summer work camps or student trips, we first check to see who sponsors them, or who supports them. We seek references and some assurance that the group has taken steps to keep our children safe.
Why? Because, if The Compass lists a group in its news or events pages, our readers assume that the group is "safe" for their children and their families. There is a presumption that this has been examined, evaluated and cleared by someone. And we must live up to that trusting perception.
No one can guarantee safety. However, we - and any church organization that lends its name to such solicitations - have a responsibility to dig a little deeper and get the facts.
Our children need us to do so.