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Don't 'be alone with other people's children'

Sex abuse allegations raise discussion

Boykin, Sharahn D.-, December 7, 2008

Few events in a person's life have the ability to completely destroy them. But an accusation of child sex abuse, true or not, can ruin careers, families and reputations.

In the past two years, an estimated 270 accusations of child sex abuse have occurred in the county [Salisbury, Wicomico]. Of the 92 felony child abuse cases that went to trial during that time, only two ended in not guilty verdicts -- verdicts that won't wipe the slate clean.

Recent accusations of teachers having sex with students have rippled the region within the last two months, leaving shocked parents and concerned youth workers in the wake.

The most recent case involving the arrest of Carole Leigh Mayers, a Salisbury Christian School music teacher, had some parents protesting her innocence and denying allegations the 41-year-old teacher had a consensual sexual relationship with a 17-year-old student.

While Mayer's guilt or innocence has yet to be decided, the situation has left some wondering how to avoid being accused of child sex abuse in the first place.

In 2007, the Wicomico County Child Advocacy Center, one of the agencies that handle reports of child abuse, handled an estimated 43 reports of child sexual abuse.

Since January 2007, the Wicomico County State's Attorney's Office has prosecuted an estimated 92 felony cases involving child abuse, and there has only been two cases in which defendants charged with child sex abuse were found not guilty.

"It's rare that a child makes up a a story about sexual abuse," said Wicomico State's Attorney Davis Ruark.

When allegations happens, it's typically due to outside influence, such as another adult, he said. False sex abuse allegations have occurred in divorce and custody cases.

"These allegations are serious," said Assistant State's Attorney Jamie Dykes, who primarily prosecutes child abuse cases. "We do not take them lightly. It is not our practice to file charges from bald allegations."

When someone reports an incident of child abuse, the allegations are screened and investigated by a number of agencies, including law enforcement, the State's Attorney's Office and Department of Social Services, Dykes said.

Protect yourself

Many youth-based organizations have taken preventative measures to avoid situations in which sex abuse could occur, requiring youth workers to attend mandatory training sessions and submit to criminal background checks. 

Boy Scouts of America requires adult leaders to have a
background check and to go through an hour-long course that reviews policies and practices, such as adults not sleeping in the same tent as a boy and how to handle a situation when a child tells you another adult has made him feel uncomfortable.

The Salvation Army requires a background check, and all coaches and volunteers are required to watch a video on working with children, said Mark Thompson, a Salisbury Salvation Army director who serves as school board vice president.

Generally, many organizations and youth leaders have instituted a buddy system when it comes to working with minors.

"You shouldn't be alone with other people's children," said Michelle Hughes, the Life Crisis Center executive director. "It's not like years ago when teachers could identify a kid that needed a little extra and take him home for dinner. It's not like that anymore."

Life Crisis provides assistance to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse and suicide.

"Part of the problem for those who work with children is that individuals who may meet with a child alone frequently, such as a youth pastor, teacher or mentor, for long periods of time could draw suspicion from people who see them meeting alone frequently," Ruark said. "In the vast majority of cases, there's no reason to shut the door and be alone."

As a protective measure for both adults and youths, the Boy Scouts has turned such precautions into mandatory policies, said Jennifer Wright, marketing director for the Delmar chapter of the organization. 

"No adult can be alone with boys," Wright said. "It must be two." 

In addition to avoiding being alone with a child, individuals who work with children should be careful not to cross the boundaries of the working relationship, said Thompson.

"Be sure that you understand that you are the adult and they are the children," Thompson said.

He cautioned adults who work with children to be careful of how you touch them, and to watch out for signs and sharing personal information.

"It's not illegal to show genuine affection for a child," Ruark said. "But if it goes beyond that ... adults need to be cognizant of that. When you get to the point where you are touching inappropriately, even unintentional, that creates concern. Just make sure you understand where the lines are concerning friendship or expressions of love for a child."

Thompson also cautioned workers who interact with children to keep close tabs on their emotions. Don't get caught up in the feeling that someone needs you or someone loves you. 

"You always have to have it in the back of your mind that they are the child," Thompson said. "You must always keep boundaries clear in the back of your mind. No matter how much interest that child shows in you. 
You can't let yourself get carried away in the moment. So if you are an adult who lacks attention and craves attention, don't work with children. It's like an alcoholic working in a bar. Adults have to make sure they are stable enough in their own mind  that what they're doing -- working with children -- is not out of some need for attention."

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