Anne Stanton 3/9/09
Last week, Northern Express reported on how a respite worker for the Northwest Child Guidance Center had sexually assaulted a number of boys before he was finally caught and convicted. Yet this guy was troublethe police knew, the courts knew, and Child Protective Services knew. So how did he get hired? This article explores the answer.
What are the chances that another serial pedophile like Robert Becker could get a job with the local school district or a nonprofit in town?
Actually, pretty good.
Thats because a lot of schools and nonprofits still rely on the same kind of background check that failed in the case of Robert Becker, a serial pedophile who is now in prison for sexually assaulting a young teen boy six years ago and nearly killing a police officer. [See the complete story in last weeks issue: www.northernexpress.com.]
As reported last week, Becker had been hired as a respite worker by Northwest Michigan Child Protective Services. Over a period of one year to 18 months, he sexually assaulted a 13-year-old boy, while threatening to do the same to his two younger brothers if he ever told anyone. The victim finally confided in a counselor, leading to Beckers conviction. The victim sued the successor to the Child Guidance Center alleging that Child Guidance failed to do an adequate background check. The case was settled out of court last fall for an undisclosed sum.
But it wasnt only the Child Guidance Center that thought Beckers record was clean. So did the Traverse City Area Public Schools and the Traverse Bay Area ISD, which had also employed Becker.
Thats because the standard background check isnt fail-proof. Heres what many schools and nonprofits do and why its not enough:
Require that a volunteer self-report any arrests or convictions. Problem: People can and do lie.
Consult the state and national sex offender registries. Problem: If a pedophile has only been accused of a sex crime, but never convicted, he wont appear on the registry.
Obtain an ICHAT report from the Michigan State Police. Problem: The report reflects convictions only. It does not contain any arrest reports that do not culminate with a conviction (unless its a current and open investigation).
Check with the FBI for fingerprints to determine if there have been any arrests. Problem: Anyone whose arrest did not result in a conviction can file a petition with the court to have his or her fingerprint records or DNA information expunged from the public record.
The victims attorney, Blake Ringsmuth, contended that the Child Guidance Center should have also made the extra effort to check Beckers record with local police and courts.
We argued that this guy, Becker, had lived in Grand Traverse County all of his life, and all of his bad acts occurred right here. Even a passing inquiry to local agencies would have revealed a number of criminal activities, not the least of which was inappropriate contact with children, he said.
When we got involved in this case, all we did was file a FOIA with the Michigan State Police just like anyone else could. And we got reams of information, reams of criminal activity that the local police had on Becker. It was as simple as that. Boom! When the officials at Child Guidance were asked about it, they kind of shrugged as if to say, Why would we do that?
PATTERN OF ASSAULTS
A police report, of course, is not necessarily true as it may include unfounded allegations. And a person who is deemed innocentor has never been chargedshould not be treated in the same way as a convicted criminal, said Carol Stocking, the 86th District Court administrator, who oversees hundreds of cases a year.
In this country, you are still innocent until proven guilty. Just because someone is charged, doesnt make him a criminal. Theres a real danger in assuming that. I think we all know someone whos been unfairly charged with a crime, but was later cleared, she said.
Ringsmith countered that a pattern of sexual assault accusations against a child needs to be taken seriously even if there never has been a conviction. Thats because pedophiles typically target troubled youth, whose testimony is dubious to juries and police. In Beckers case, it always came down to his word against the word of his victimskids who had a history of lying or stealing or just plain getting into trouble.
Were not talking about the legal presumption of innocence to put someone in jail. Were talking about whether to give someone like Becker a job that involves children. There is no way that should happen. Handing Becker a job as a respite worker is like giving him a seat at the buffet table.
TIME AND MONEY
Getting a background check from Child Protective Services is freethe person whose background is getting checked must ask for it. Obtaining a police report is also easy and cheap and requires filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Michigan State Police. Anyone can do it. It might help to first contact the local police department to help with the wording or to provide case numbers.
Beyond filing an FOIA, its also easy and inexpensive to call the district court and circuit court to determine if charges have ever been filed against a particular person. The 13th Circuit Court records are online and free to access; the 86th District Court has a public terminal. Detailed records and transcripts, however, are expensive.
All this takes time and money, but the Becker case reflects the cost of not going the extra mile. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwestern Michigan routinely checks with local police and courts, believing that it must do everything it can to protect children.
If a nonprofit is truly ambitious about screening for pedophilia, there are also tests available. Previous screening tests were banned in Michigan because of civil rights challenges, but a new testthe Diana screenis now available and can detect individuals with a sexual penchant for children. The screen is not perfect with a 50 percent false positive and the test can be beaten. But its still useful, said John Ulrich, a therapist who administers the test.
Say you have 100 people who take it and 10 score as a potential pedophile. Lets say, upon further investigation five were okay and five of them werent. If you didnt do the Diana screen, you wouldnt have caught any of them, he said.
Each screening test would cost about $300 to administer and scorea big expense for small agencies with tight budgets, said Susan McQuaid, volunteer director for United Way.
Susan McQuaid, director of volunteers for the United Way, said her agency currently does not file FOIA requests with the local police or call the local courts. Instead it relies on the standard background check described above.
But cases like this are frightening enough, we have to consider how to best protect our clientsnot only children, but the elderly as well, she said. The United Way is here to recruit and connect to support volunteerism in Northern Michigan. Unfortunately, its easier said than done when you have to deal with judgment calls and background checks of sexual offenders.
The family of the victim believes we need the muscle of law to protect children. The Garcia family of Traverse City is lobbying legislators for a new lawMichaels Lawto require an arrest history be done on anyone who works closely with children.