Chattanooga YMCA ensuring child safety from sexual predators

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Reported by: Erik Avanier
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Updated: 4/17/2014 6:57 pm
CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee(WDEF) -  The recent arrest of a Hamilton County man charged with statutory rape by an authority figure is raising many questions about child programs that involve adult caregivers.

On Wednesday, Michael Little, 33, of Hamilton County made news headlines when it was revealed that he was accused of having sex with a 16-year old exchange student. Little just happened to also be the teen's host father. Child experts say this is an example of what is happing more often in our society.

"These kind of things are more common than the general public would tend to believe. But that doesn't make it right," said Shelly McGraw.

McGraw is the Executive Director of Children's Advocacy Center of Hamilton County. She said her office has seen many cases similar to the one involving Little.

We always say child abuse is a grownup problem. It is not fully on a child or even a teen to protect themselves because they are not always mentally developed or able to understand the consequences of their actions," McGraw said.

When alleged sexual misconduct between an adult and a child makes headlines, it has rippling effects on organizations that offer child programs. The YMCA of Chattanooga is already starting registration for kids summer camp. The organization's CEO, Janet Dunn, said she takes this subject matter very serious.

"Our jobs is to protect our children. They are the most vulnerable people in our society. They look upon adults to be a safe person for them so it's our obligation to make sure that we're doing everything to protect them," Dunn said.

The first line of defense is making sure potential camp staff and volunteers are not convicted sex offenders.

"Every staff person in the YMCA gets a background screening including volunteers when they're working in our youth sports programs," Dunn said.

That screening includes local, state and national criminal background checks. It also includes checking the sex-offender registry.

Each adult staff member is also forced to go through training on how to recognize and accurately report problems to authorities.

"They're probably getting about 40-hours of training before they're even working with the children,"Dunn said.

But child experts say offenders who have never been caught are likely to slip past a background check. Experts say that's when predators get opportunities to gain your childs trust.

"90-percent of cases, kids are preyed upon by someone they know and the parent often trust,"McGraw said.

Parents are encouraged to have an open line of communication with their child because predators are skilled at encouraging children to hide sexual misconduct.

"It's often that children are threatened or coerced so it's important to parents to tell their children it's ok to let them know if something has happened,"McGraw said.

In the case of Little, an alleged sexual misconduct occurred with a a teen who is 13-years younger than him. Experts say that's an example of why it's important for adults to keep a watchful eye over other adults who are authority figures to teens,especially a teen who is receiving suspicion attention.

"That certainly can be a red flag that they may want to find out why this adult has attached themselves so closely to this child," McGraw said.

YMCA officials urge parents to not be afraid to ask question about camps they're considering for their child. Also, the Children's Advocacy Center of Hamilton County offers help on how to recognize signs of sexual abuse in children.

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