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StarBulletin.com

YMCA abuse case raises questions


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POSTED: Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The YMCA owes parents a fuller explanation in the wake of a criminal case against a teenager accused of sexually abusing a young child while both were participants in YMCA programs.

The suspect, now 18, has been charged as an adult and faces 20 years in prison if convicted of the most serious counts, which allege that he repeatedly sexually assaulted a 7-year-old girl during the summer of 2007.

After James D. Rouse was indicted by a grand jury last week, the president of the YMCA of Honolulu issued a statement stressing that Rouse was neither a YMCA employee nor a volunteer at the time of the alleged crimes, but paid to participate in the Mililani branch's Junior Leader summer program.

But by the YMCA's own description on its Web site, paying participants in the Junior Leader program work with children, assist adult leaders and undergo mandatory training.

The fact that a teenager in this program is accused of assaulting a child several times over the course of the summer raises serious questions about the screening, training and supervision of these paying participants. Do most parents even realize that some of the teenagers helping to take care of their kids are essentially paying for the privilege?

The YMCA's limited statement in the wake of Rouse's indictment does little to reassure parents, just as school lets out and thousands of Hawaii kids begin to flock to their area YMCAs.

For working parents, the Y's summertime programs provide essential daycare, while stay-at-home parents appreciate the Y for the opportunities it provides kids to play together and learn new skills. The vast majority of YMCA leaders, junior and otherwise, are devoted to the health and welfare of the children they serve, and abuse allegations like these remain a rare aberration.

But the YMCA could better protect the children in its care, as well as the reputation of the entire organization, by explaining just how the Junior Leader program works, as well as any improvements made to the program in the wake of the allegations.

Rouse turned himself in to police in 2008, and a Family Court judge waived jurisdiction last month, meaning that the case now proceeds in open court. Rouse is only accused, not convicted, but the fact that prosecutors sought to try him as an adult in the first place conveys the seriousness of the charges.

In its initial statement, the YMCA missed an opportunity to reassure parents that their children should be safe this summer, no matter who is in charge. By focusing on the fact that Rouse was not a YMCA employee or volunteer, it downplayed that as a “;paying participant”; he had authority over vulnerable children. Let's hope this trusted organization moves quickly to more fully answer the troubling questions raised by this case.