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Mentor with care: with same-sex child abuse much in the news, gay adults may hesitate to work with youth. But most agencies have effective policies to protect their charges and avoid even the appearance of impropriety. (Young & Gay in the USA).

Knowing the difficulties that today's gay and lesbian youth still face inspires many gay adults to want to get involved. At the same time, would-be mentors may fear working one-on-one with troubled young people--especially now that accusations of same-sex abuse are at an all-time high. Yet unlike the Catholic Church, most youth agencies have long ago implemented safeguards to protect their charges from child abuse as well as their volunteers--including gay people--from situations in which suspicions could develop.

These safeguards include FBI background checks, rigorous training, and careful supervision of adult volunteers. Though the standards vary according to local law, the service groups--including such diverse organizations as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, a gay youth service group in Washington, D.C.--say they are united by the commitment to putting the safety of vulnerable young clients first.

According to a 1994 University of Colorado study, self-identified gay men and lesbians are among the least likely groups to behave inappropriately with young people. So it should come as no surprise that gay service agencies that work with youth have had very few problems with sex abuse.

Still, the myth of homosexual pedophilia has held great sway in the tough policies these groups have implemented. Gay and lesbian youth service groups such as the Hetrick-Martin Institute in New York City developed some of the first uniform policies governing the relationships between adult staffers or volunteers and young clients between the ages of 12 and 21.

"Without question, LGBT programs have from the beginning worked hard to define appropriate relationships and to avoid even the possibility of abuse, because they received a tremendous amount of scrutiny," says Craig Bowman, executive director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition in Washington, D.C. "There are a whole bunch of folks out there who believe LGBT youth groups are a threat to the moral fabric of the country, so [these groups] have worked to make themselves unassailable by putting the needs of kids first."

Most nongay groups have been just as vigilant. In 1977, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America adopted a nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation but allows parents the ultimate choice about mentors for their children. Today, hundreds of gay men and lesbians serve without incident in one-to-one mentoring relationships with children, who are primarily from single-parent families, for the organization's 500 chapters nationwide.

"We try to make it very straightforward, commonsense, and doable to be a big brother or big sister," says Clay Brewer, Big Brothers Big Sisters executive vice president and chief operating officer. "We treat sexual orientation like any other attribute--along the lines of race, religion, profession, or anything else someone brings to the experience. Frankly, our program is about individuals and individual judgments. We believe that people should not be afraid of people or of labels. No screening process can be 100% effective, but we remain very cognizant of not enrolling someone who is going to be harmful to a child."

Gay youth support groups, however, have largely eliminated one-on-one adult-minor mentoring programs. "Big Brothers Big Sisters has really demonstrated the benefits of mentoring, but stigma has made it very difficult for the gay groups to allow adults to be alone with young people," Bowman says. "In this case the hard data doesn't matter, and we are finding it difficult to offer mentoring that's not in a group setting. It's something I hope we can revisit in the future."

The gay groups have also worked hard to educate young people about abuse of all kinds. The Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, for instance, collaborates with the District of Columbia Rape Crisis Center to provide seminars to its clients. "We find that young people are given such sensational examples of abuse, including rape, that they don't usually understand the much more common forms," says Tracee Ford, program director at the league. "Abuse can be verbal, and it can be about eliminating choices for young people. These things are about abuses of power, and educating young people about them allows them to stick up for themselves in the outside world."

The absence of sexual abuse reports isn't the only way to tell that these groups' policies are working: Another positive sign is that current news about abuse in the Catholic Church is not a concern for many SMYAL kids. "I really haven't heard them talking very much about the situation," Ford says. "They were really much more affected by the death of [pop group TLC's] Lisa Lopes."
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Article Details
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Author:Bull, Chris
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 25, 2002
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