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September 15, 2013

City child sex abuse prevention policy debated

GREENVILLE — Proposed changes to City of Greenville personnel policy, designed to help prevent child sexual abuse, sparked a spirited debate before the city council last week.

“At the end of the day, the goal of this policy is to protect children from sexual abuse,” said Hunt County Court at Law No. 1 Judge Andrew Bench, who helped draft the new policy.

But some city employees said the proposed changes would at best be difficult to implement and at worst could endanger successful programs.

Mayor Steve Reid asked that the issue be tabled to see if a compromise can be worked out.

“I think it is crucial that we find some kind of happy medium” Reid said.

The council was recognized September 10 for the City of Greenville’s participation in the “Darkness to Light” program.

Bench made the presentation, recognizing the city achieving a “Partner in Prevention” designation, for training more than 90 percent of city employees under the Darkness to Light program, which seeks to protect children from sexual abuse by encouraging awareness and providing training; and by urging adults to prevent, recognize and react responsibly.

During the same meeting, the council was scheduled to formally adopt a new Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Policy, calling for the adoption of revisions to the city’s personnel manual. The new rules would apply to city employees as well as volunteers involved with City of Greenville programs or activities where the city has primary responsibility for the supervision and care of minor children.

Bench told the council that the regulations would not apply for events such as the upcoming Halloween On The Square, but would cover city employees who have direct contact with minors. He noted the proposed policy was the ninth draft which had he had pared down from the original seven pages to three. Even so, he understood some city employees were concerned about the measure.

“I think that some easy changes would eliminate those issues,” Bench said. “I think if we are going to be passionate about something, this is what we need to be passionate about.”

One of the more controversial regulations would mandate that a city employee or volunteer escort any child under 17 years of age who needs to go the restroom, wait outside the facility, then accompany the child back.

“You can’t let kids go to the bathroom on their own,” Bench said. “This is a danger that we know. This is a danger that we are aware of.”

Some of the arguments against the rule dealt with a lack of available personnel at the library to make sure a child arrives and departs a bathroom safely, or questions over whether youth athletic practices would need to be interrupted.

Library Director Paul Phelan also asked about the proposal to prevent any personal contact via electronic media between city employees and minors. Phelan said the policy as written would prevent him from “liking” the Facebook page of a teenage library patron. Phelan said he also uses phone calls and e-mail to send warnings of overdue books, notices that a requested book had arrived at the library or to provide homework assistance, and was worried he would be in violation of the policy if he continued the practice.

Bench explained almost all of his concerns could be handled by making sure the communications are only handled through a city account and that at least one other city employee is notified each time a contact is made.

Acting Parks and Recreation Director Kimber Patterson said her staff is stretched as it is.

“Right now we are working under a policy of doing more with less,” Patterson said, adding her office usually oversees several programs at once. “I try to have at least one staff member at all activities.”

If there were no other option, Patterson said the proposed policy would require lifeguards at Ja-Lu Pool to escort children to the bathroom.

Police Chief Daniel J. Busken said his department offers a wide variety of youth programs throughout the year, through the Summer of Safety to the Police Explorers Post, opportunities which would not be possible without the support of a large group of volunteers.

“Even with those volunteers, escorting teenagers to the bathroom is going to be a problem for us,” Busken said.

Sgt. C. J. Crawford has been the Explorer’s adviser for 17 years and objected to regulations under the policy which would prevent her from having direct physical contact with a minor.

Crawford explained the Explorers are teens who have expressed a desire to pursue a career in law enforcement and part of the program involves teaching how to apply handcuffs and take down a suspect.

“That requires hands on training,” Crawford said. “It’s very hard to train from a distance.”

Bench said he understood Crawford’s concerns.

“I personally don’t think the hands on training is a good idea,” Bench said.

Other concerns raised by the employees dealt with a rule which would prevent any city employee from being in a place with a minor to where they could not be seen or interrupted by someone else, which Crawford argued could eliminate the police department’s ride-along program.

Bench said that issue could be addressed by having another officer or minor in the Explorer Post or Teen Police Academy go along.

“Having a policy where an adult can be alone with a child for a certain amount of time is a bad policy,” Bench said.

Council member Renee Francey also suggested Bench and the employees come to some sort of compromise.

“Nobody’s on the same page and I’m more worried about that than I am about not having a policy,” Francey said.

Bench said he had been working on the policy for months, to where it included only those regulations which were absolutely necessary.

“I don’t think waiting until a child has been molested and then presenting the case for prosecution is the answer,” Bench said. “If you have a policy that allows them to have their hands on a minor in any way, that is a mistake.”

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