class="byline">By Colleen Quinn, State House News Service
From Penn State to closer to home in Wakefield and Newton, horrifying stories of child sexual abuse have lawmakers contemplating the creation of a state task force charged with developing policies and training requirements for organizations that serve children.
All places that serve children, from youth centers to child care facilities, should be required to have training and protection policies in place, said Sen. Katherine Clark, a Melrose Democrat who is pushing for the task force.
“It is difficult, it is uncomfortable, and it is hard to believe it can exist to the levels it exists in our own communities,” Clark told lawmakers on the Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities Committee Tuesday.
Clark, along with Rep. John Keenan, filed legislation (S 47/ H113) that establishes a task force whose goal would be to look at requiring organizations to develop training and protection policies if they are licensed by the state, receive state funds, or employ one or more mandated reporters of child abuse.
Keenan, a Salem Democrat, said no other issue makes “my blood boil” like child sexual abuse.
Some organizations, like the YMCA and Boys & Girls Clubs, have already done the work the task force would be charged with getting organizations to do, according to Clark.
“We need an approach that requires all child-serving programs to adopt these policies,” Clark said.
Mary McGeown, president and chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said the high-profile cases that the public becomes aware of are a tiny fraction of the number of sex abuse cases each year in the state.
From 2008 to 2009, there were 1,400 confirmed cases of H1N1 flu virus, in “what was considered a pandemic year,” McGeown said. During the same time, the Pediatric Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program performed forensic examinations on 1,626 children.
“Consider the level of coordination that went into the H1N1 prevention and response effort that year and then consider the impact that a similarly focused effort would have on the scourge of child sexual abuse,” she said.
Lauren Browning, vice president of youth development at the South Shore YMCA, said too many people are uncomfortable talking about child sexual abuse, and that is part of the problem.
Four years ago, the South Shore Y created a task force to develop policies to protect children from pedophiles, according to Browning. The Y does extensive background checks on all employees, including interviewing family members of prospective employees and asking them blunt questions about the candidate in order to detect any potential threats, she said.
They also developed education and training for staff on how to respond to and recognize child sexual abuse, Browning said. The training program, known as “Darkness to Light,” has evolved into training other organizations such as police departments and teachers, she said.
If passed by the Legislature, the task force would also develop a five-year plan to increase public awareness about child sexual abuse with a focus on teaching adults to recognize signs, minimize risk and act on suspicions.
Sen. Michael Barrett, who co-chairs the committee with Rep. Kay Khan (D-Newton), expressed concerns that the task force’s umbrella would not cover organizations that do not receive licenses or funds from the state.
Advocates said the task force would create incentives for organizations that fall outside the perimeters to create policies, adding they would like to tweak the legislation to encompass more organizations.
Late last year, John Burbine, a 49-year-old from Wakefield who worked in his wife’s child-care service, was accused of assaulting 13 infants and young children who were in his care, many of them repeatedly, over a two-year span beginning in August 2010. Law enforcement officials said he videotaped the attacks, compiling hundreds of hours of footage. The alleged victims, both boys and girls, ranged from 8 days to 3 years old.
Two Newton teachers have been charged with child pornography in unrelated cases since 2012.
The task force would be chaired by a state representative picked by the House speaker, a senator picked by the Senate president, along with the commissioner of the Department of Public Health, commissioner of Department of Early Education and Care, commissioner of Department of Children and Families; the executive director of the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance, the executive director of the Children’s Trust Fund; the executive director of the Mass. District Attorneys Association, and representatives from law enforcement, religious organizations and from several youth-serving providers and advocacy organizations including the Alliance of Massachusetts YMCAs, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Mass. Children’s Alliance, Mass. Citizens for Children, the Children’s League of Mass.