Preventing Abuse in a Mentoring Program: What Went Wrong in Pennsylvania

IStopping‘m outraged, saddened, and distressed about the alleged child abuse events that happened in Pennsylvania. I’m not referring to who was fired or for what reasons, or to the grand jury investigation report (available online) that found so many people complicit in the pedophile crimes, or that it took way too long to discover this criminal behaviour.

Although I find these things disturbing and disgusting, I’m also concerned about what role mentoring or “alleged” mentoring played in this series of criminal acts, and what impact this might have on the future of recruiting mentors, as well as encouraging children and youth to have mentors in their lives.

Let’s be clear. What the accused man, who had a lengthy career as an assistant coach at the University of Pennsylvania, allegedly did to his multiple victims can in no way be considered mentoring. But he was the founder of a non-profit, youth-serving foundation that enabled him be a mentor and have unlimited access to children.

Through this youth-serving foundation, the accused child abuser was able to connect with dozens of youth who, along with their parents, expected, but did not receive, mentoring. Instead, they were connected with an unsafe individual whose primary aim was to find vulnerable children and youth to meet his pedophilia needs.

According to a statement from the Board of Directors of this foundation that is on their website, a period of six years elapsed from the time at which the CEO of foundation was informed of this pedophile’s inappropriate behaviour by Penn State authorities, and when the accused was banned from involvement in the foundations programs involving children. Six years!

The foundation’s statement also claims that “all the alleged incidents (of abuse) occurred outside our programs and events.” What isn’t said in their statement is how many children and youth he procured through the foundation to fuel his alleged criminal activities even if they occurred ‘outside’ of their program. (Editor’s note: After this article went to press the statement on the foundation’s website has been revised to indicate that the CEO of the foundation has resigned; the foundation intends to conduct its own internal investigation, and has admitted to complicity in providing children for the suspected pedophile.)

The reason this terrible connection concerns me as a mentor, grandparent and mentoring professional, is that mentoring youth has become and continues to be one of the most powerful ways of assisting young people to be successful in life. Virtually all youth-serving agencies today include a mentoring program that connects safe, caring and responsible adult volunteers with children or youth in a learning-oriented relationship.

As one of the pioneers of creating these relationships, and the co-architect of Canada’s most successful national mentoring program, we know what it takes to ensure that such programs are credible, trustworthy, and effective. If a few simple principles are not included in mentoring program policies and they fail to be closely monitored by program leaders, then it is likely that predators, abusers, and bullies will become involved and take advantage of some of our most vulnerable youth.

Such was the case in Pennsylvania. A youth-serving agency enabled an alleged serial pedophile to engage in authorized mentoring relationships with dozens of children and youth. The consequences of his actions have not only violated and traumatized many young people and their families, but have also led to the firings of others who had knowledge of his acts yet apparently failed to take the necessary steps to apprehend and stop further assaults.

Further disciplinary action, prosecution, and legal challenges involving others will depend on a more comprehensive investigation.

The Failure of Screening Techniques

How did the mentoring agency in Pennsylvania fail to prevent these criminal acts? Like many other mentoring agencies their intention is to screen out anyone who could possibly do harm to their clients. The primary way most mentoring agencies accomplish this is by having every applicant submit to a criminal record check requirement and provide a number of personal references.

But neither of these two methods is foolproof. For example, only someone who has been arrested in a jurisdiction covered by the police check will be flagged when the check is conducted. In addition, persons who have been questioned during an investigation which may have turned out to be inconclusive or resulted in too little evidence to bring to court will not be flagged. Even convicted pedophiles who change their names and move to different locations, states, provinces or countries can also defeat the intention of a criminal record check.

There is also some controversy about the cost of conducting criminal record check investigations. Who should pay for them? The already overworked police agencies often will not charge a non-profit agency for this additional work, but in other cases there is a fee associated with conducting the check. The cost factor often trumps the thoroughness, follow-through, follow-up, or continuation of scrutiny. Thus a person who passed the check the first time, but who is subsequently convicted unbeknownst to the agency, may have continued access to youth to victimize.

Most importantly the lack of coordination between local, provincial, national, and international policing units limits accessibility to complete records. Consequently the record of a pedophile convicted and imprisoned in one jurisdiction may not appear in another. What’s even more frightening is that it is likely that most pedophiles are not apprehended, and continue to engage in their criminal activity for long periods of time. The pedophile in Pennsylvania would have very easily been successful in defeating the standard criminal record check system used in that state.

The Failure of References

Letters of recommendation from associates are equally limited in their value as a safety assurance method. Prior to being discovered for his actions, the man apprehended in Pennsylvania, who was also a well-known college football coach, would have been able to obtain letters of recommendation from many of the people who eventually reported him for disturbing behaviour with children. These letters from very well-known and respected individuals would have carried great weight and clearly been influential in selecting him as a mentor.

Most pedophiles are highly skilled at hiding and conducting their criminal activities in private so that their immediate family, friends, neighbours and co-workers would be shocked, stunned, and in disbelief to learn of these horrible acts. Prior to being discovered, pedophiles, particularly those already involved as sports coaches or other youth-oriented activities, would have no problem asking others to provide letters of recommendation.

While hopefully rare, there is one other problem with letters of recommendation. When asked to write such a letter, some people agree to do so even if they have reservations about the person. The letter writer, like others in society, may even have some observation or evidence of inappropriate or questionable action of the letter requester, but the letter writer doesn’t want to make trouble, get someone else in trouble, or cause themselves some additional difficulty because of their suspicions or gut feelings. There are many instances where letter writers are not honest in their letters for fear of retribution, threats or violence. Few people are willing to take on the responsibility or consequences of being a whistleblower.

This not an uncommon circumstance and it often contributes to pedophiles employed as teachers or coaches being transferred to other schools, agencies or jurisdictions with decent letters of recommendation from previous employers or co-workers. This unwillingness to take a stand and do what’s right is one of the factors that enabled a teacher/principal in British Columbia to move from school to school prior to being convicted and imprisoned as a pedophile.

Practices to Promote Safety

The inadequacy of criminal record checks and letters of recommendations to screen out pedophiles (as well as other immoral or criminal behaviours) does not mean they should be abandoned. The deficiencies in these screening methods have been addressed by Friends for Youth, a mentoring organization in California, that published a set of comprehensive guidelines for ensuring a stronger screening process that goes beyond simple background checks.

Screening methods need to be combined with at least three other mentoring program practices that are designed to keep children and youth safe from predators: training, boundaries, and monitoring.

In-Person Training. All volunteer mentors must participate fully in face-to-face orientation and training, led by skilled and experienced mentor program personnel. While the potential mentors are learning certain skills associated with being an effective mentor, the program leader has an opportunity to observe directly how the potential mentor responds, interacts with others, and how they perform in role play situations covering a variety of areas essential to mentoring effectiveness.

In addition, orientation and training for potential mentors provides the program with an opportunity to discuss with and gain commitment from the volunteers with regards to child abuse and neglect reporting standards and requirements.

Although this scrutiny that can take place during orientation and training is not foolproof, it provides the training leaders with information about individual candidates, their abilities and attitudes, and assists them to develop a more refined working relationship with each potential mentor which will be essential for the success of the next two necessary program practices.

Clear Boundaries. Probably no other behaviour was a greater signal of trouble in the Pennsylvania pedophile case than the violation of appropriate mentor program boundaries. In no circumstances should gifts, money, un-escorted trips, sleeping in the same room, or dozens of other transgressions be allowed or tolerated in a mentoring relationship. These are immediate red flags, and the prohibition of such acts must be communicated fully not only to the mentors, but also to all those involved, including parents, guardians, the children and youth being mentored, and other personnel responsible for making mentoring successful.

Every mentoring program must include such boundary discussions in publicity, recruiting, and training. This boundary element appeared to be completely missing in the Pennsylvania mentoring organization that enabled a pedophile to connect with children and youth, as the pedophile provided extensive gifting, trips, game tickets, showering together, and sleep-overs in his home.

All of these boundary violations, while on the surface appearing to be an indication of caring, opportunity and generosity, have, in reality, great potential to establish a highly troubling conflict and trauma for youth. The horror that was created for children in the Pennsylvania case was dramatically enabled by these boundary violations.

Monitoring and Supervision. While boundaries are essential, they must also be enforced. All mentoring relationships that connect children and youth with adults must be closely monitored and supervised by qualified personnel until which time the mentoring program leader can express confidence and trust in an un-monitored or less frequently supervised relationship.

Sometimes this progressive trust approach means that mentoring relationships must begin in public places such as school class or activity rooms with a third party present or able to observe from time to time. If the mentoring relationship is activity-based, that is, the mentor and youth attend a game together or play some kind of game together, these activities must be supervised or accompanied by another adult.

At some point mentor program leaders have to trust the judgment of the mentor as to what is appropriate. However, every mentoring program must have a policy in place that requires the mentor to discuss potential risks with the program supervisor prior to engaging in such behaviour.

Not all potential boundary violations can be determined ahead of time. However, two simple questions a mentor can ask ahead of time can identify almost any action that has potential risk: (1) Will the behaviour be approved, encouraged, and appreciated by the child’s parent/guardian? and (2) If local authorities learned of this behaviour, would it be supported and encouraged?

Continuous Evaluation. Monitoring also includes conducting continuous evaluations of interactions, relationships, and outcomes of the youth-mentor interactions. Typically, these assessments are managed through interviews or phone calls with both the mentor and the youth separately and together.

These reviews are particularly essential at the beginning of the mentoring relationship and must be conducted with skill and sensitivity in order to maintain confidentiality or privacy, while at the same time giving the mentor program leader the confidence that the relationship is progressing appropriately. Where boundaries may have been accidentally or innocently crossed, the program leader can immediately take appropriate action to ensure future compliance.

Fortunately, most youth-based mentoring programs in North America pay strict attention to these few simple and basic principles. Many add other ideas to even further reduce the likelihood that the safety or children in their care will be compromised.

It is not clear from the website of the foundation in Pennsylvania that they have implemented any or all of the basic and essential program practices mentioned here. But it is clear that their public face on the Internet provides too little information to encourage the confidence and trust of parents, the public, or other mentoring professionals. What is available on their website is not sufficient to fully inform and educate parents their children will be safe and benefit from a mentoring relationship.

The Illusion of Safety

The success of at-risk youth mentoring programs and services throughout the 1980s to late 1990s, led to proliferation of extensive government-initiated funding opportunities in the USA. While thousands of agencies took advantage of this financial support to create or add mentoring programs, too few paid attention to implementing all the safety requirements outlined here.

Most of these newcomer agencies used the police record check, letters of reference and personal interviews as their primary method of attending to safety. Shoestring budgets, the hiring of inexperienced but well-meaning staff, timelines that met funding requirements in place of appropriate and known standards, revolving personnel, and policy shortcuts, typically resulted in few of these organizations actually engaging in thorough screening, comprehensive personal training, progressive monitoring and on-going evaluation.

Millions of children currently have or have had safe, responsible, caring mentors that they connect with on a regular basis. Mentoring continues to be one of the most powerful ways we can help each other in improve our lives in society and accomplish great heights. Let’s keep it great by ensuring that all mentoring programs pay attention to these proven principles and practices.

“Even very caring, responsible adults can be lulled into complacency by the ‘Illusion Of Safety.’ The Illusion of Safety happens in settings or situations where people feel so relaxed, sheltered, or distracted that they stop focusing on ensuring that their children have adequate supervision, understanding, and skills to avoid potential dangers.”

          ~ Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Executive Director ~

“Most predators look like you or me and act perfectly normal. They’ve perfected the ‘mask of sanity.’ They do less well trying to respect the boundaries of others. They won’t take ‘no’ for an answer—especially when you’ve already answered a few times. If you feel you are not being heard, you might be dealing with someone who is dangerous, not just annoying. Predators also usually have trouble imitating the most human of traits—empathy.”

~ Dr. Keith Ablow, Psychiatrist and Life Coach ~

“Many [mentoring] programs are struggling with relatively few resources and insufficient personnel to provide mentors with ongoing support and supervision…. These observations underscore the need for careful screening and training of mentors and for the provision of ample resources to support the development and management of mentoring programs.” (Source)

~ Jean Rhodes, Mentor expert, author, and Professor of Psychology, University of Massachusetts ~

“Even though references are commonly used to screen and select employees, they have not been successful in predicting future employee success….If given the chance to choose their own references, even undesirables such as Nazi leader Adolph Hitler, serial killer Ted Bundy, and terrorist Abu Nidal would be able to find three people who would provide them with favorable references.”

~ Michael Aamodt, Devon Bryan, and Alan Whitcomb. (1993). Predicting Performance with Letters of Recommendation. Public Personnel Management,22, 81-90. ~

“It may be that your sole purpose in life is to serve as a warning to others.”

 ~ Grey Owl, Tribal leader and mentor ~