Manitoba

Scouts Canada policy on child abuse checks 'makes absolutely no sense,' says mom who pulled kids from program

Scouts Canada requires volunteers do background checks that show any criminal convictions, outstanding charges, warrants, probation orders or pardons for sexual offences — but the organization doesn't check whether applicants in Manitoba are on the province's child abuse registry.

Police record search required, but organization doesn't check whether applicants are on child abuse registry

A spokesperson for Scouts Canada said the group's safety protocols include a code of conduct, Respect in Sport training, a central safety team that will report issues to authorities and a rule that requires two volunteers be with youth at all times. (Eric Foss/CBC)

Scouts Canada isn't doing everything it can to screen potential volunteers in Manitoba, child protection experts say — and that means people known to have abused a child might be allowed to work with kids.

It's a big enough issue for one Winnipeg mom that she pulled her kids from Beaver Scouts.

"These people are in a position of trust, where they're developing relationships with children, and standard screening is pretty important in a situation like that," said Mira Oberman, a mother of five-year-old twins.  

She said when she applied to be a volunteer with Scouts Canada in September, she was shocked to learn the national youth organization doesn't ask for child abuse registry checks.

It does currently ask volunteers to complete a police record check (which shows criminal convictions and outstanding charges, warrants and probation orders) and a vulnerable sector check (which shows if a person has been pardoned for a sexual offence), a spokesperson said.

But Scouts Canada doesn't require potential volunteers show that they're not on Manitoba's child abuse registry.

"As a mom, it makes me feel extremely uncomfortable," said Oberman. Her kids had just started their first year of the Beavers program when she decided to withdraw them earlier this month, saying concerns she voiced to Scouts Canada over several months weren't addressed.

"It makes absolutely no sense to me that an organization which says that it's devoted to children would not use an easily accessible, standard tool to protect those kids."  

A spokesperson for Scouts Canada said the group is looking into whether it would be feasible to do child abuse registry checks for people applying to volunteer in Manitoba.

Noni Classen, the director of education at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, said background checks are important for groups that work with kids — but they're just one element to consider. (CBC)

Those checks are important, said Noni Classen of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, because the threshold for adding people to that registry is lower than the threshold for laying criminal charges. That means a child abuse registry check might uncover things that wouldn't come up otherwise.

"There are times when somebody may have engaged in behaviour where they posed a risk to a child and harmed a child, where it didn't go through to a conviction or a criminal proceeding," said Classen, the director of education at the Winnipeg-based charity.

"You could still be put on a child abuse registry as a risk to children without actually ever having been found guilty of a sexual offence against a child, because those are two completely different systems."

Who falls through the cracks?

A Winnipeg child protection lawyer agrees.

"There's lots of reasons why police may not proceed with charges. There could be problems with the evidence, with the age of the child, with what they think they can prove," said Monique St. Germain, general counsel for the child protection centre.

She gives the example of the case of a 48-year-old Manitoba man whose name was added to the registry in 2016 after he exchanged sexual text messages with a 13-year-old girl. 

It's the kind of case that, if criminal charges aren't pursued, could go unnoticed by organizations like Scouts Canada without a child abuse registry check, she said.

St. Germain said if someone on the child abuse registry reoffended after an organization hired them without checking their status, it could present a liability issue — but groups that work with kids should consider more than just that.

Monique St. Germain, general counsel for the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, said groups like Scouts Canada should be continually updating their policies to keep kids safe. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

"What's expected legally of organizations is to take reasonable steps, and it may well be that the steps that are being taken now would be considered reasonable," she said.

"The issue is not so much whether or not an organization would be liable or not.… It's more about, as an organization, do we want to do what we are able to do to keep the children who are in our care safe?"

Classen said it's worth getting the checks done when organizations can, though not all provinces and territories have a child abuse registry to check. She said because the provinces have jurisdiction over child welfare, it would be impossible to have a national child abuse registry, which means it's up to provincial governments to decide whether they want one.

But even in a province like Manitoba, where there is a registry, Classen said the checks are only one piece of the puzzle. Protocols like interviews with applicants, training on child sexual abuse, and policies for transporting kids and communicating with them outside of volunteer work are equally important to make sure children are safe.

Safety protocols in place: Scouts

A spokesperson for Scouts Canada said the group has several safety protocols in place, including a code of conduct for volunteers and a rule that requires two trained, screened volunteers be with youth at all times.

Scouts Canada also has a requirement that volunteers complete Respect in Sport training, and has a central safety team responsible for managing safety issues and reporting them to the authorities.

The spokesperson said Scouts Canada has had discussions with Manitoba's Department of Families about how to include the child abuse registry check for its volunteers, and said the group was told the department will not send registry checks directly to Scouts Canada's central team in Ottawa because it's outside of Manitoba.

"We will continue discussions with the department in the hopes of reaching a solution that provides us with direct delivery of registry reports," the spokesperson said in an email to CBC News on Sunday.

"While we are confident that our current policies are serving Scouting youth well, we also keep an eye out for new opportunities that have the potential to add greater rigor to our process."

A provincial spokesperson said any agency can require its volunteers to supply their own child abuse registry checks, or do the checks on behalf of a sub-organization in the province (like the Scouts Canada Manitoba Council). 

The provincial spokesperson said the Department of Families will contact Scouts Canada to "clarify the process and identify opportunities to accommodate them."

Lawyer St. Germain said as people start to understand the different ways children are victimized, and the safety considerations necessary to prevent abuse, groups like Scouts Canada should be continually updating their policies to keep kids safe.

"It's not really good enough to sort of come up with a plan and then not revisit that plan or look at things from a new perspective," she said.

"Maybe an organization has been doing something a certain way for a long time and nothing has ever happened. That doesn't mean that whatever the organization is doing is actually a best practice."

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