The Michael Johnson letter is a letter from the former Director of Youth Protection at the Boy Scouts of America explaining why no child is safe with the Scouts. It is an open letter to Congress, urging Congress to investigate
the past, present, and continuing high risk of child sexual abuse that exists within Scouts BSA.
To set the letter in context, a note just after the signature reads:
All inquiries and responses to this letter should be directed to Jeff Anderson; Jeff Anderson & Associates 366 Jackson Street, Suite 100 St. Paul, MN 55101
For those who don’t know him, Jeff Anderson is a plaintiff attorney who specializes in child sexual abuse litigation. Ignoring the evidently tactical nature of the letter, it is what my grandfather, an English clergyman and sportsman would have called a “letter of parts”; some parts of the letter are better than others.
The Less Good Parts
The core premise of the letter is that children are not safe from sexual abuse and misconduct (SAM) with the Scouts. This is both true and misleading because no child is safe from sexual abuse anywhere.
Organizations can make children more or less safe from sexual abuse but, unless they lock the children away, they cannot make them absolutely safe. The accusation the Scouts would have to respond to would be that they were doing less to try to keep children safe than is reasonable given their ability to keep children safe. But that accusation isn’t made.
If it had been, you would only have to visit this page of the Scouts website, to see the Scouts use the same four-pillar framework every other youth-serving organization across the country is using to protect children from SAM. Other website pages suggest the Scouts go beyond the four pillars, which is unusual in our experience, though they don’t go as far as the letter suggests they should or our research indicates they could.
But singling out the Scouts when they are using the same child safety practices as everyone else, and maybe more, seems unreasonable.
The Better Parts
Because what the letter says about the Scouts is also true of almost every other youth-serving organization, the most helpful aspect of the letter is how it describes some of the things any organization can do, to improve on or complement the four pillars.
The letter lists 12 “Necessary Action Steps” that would make children safer. Some are Scout specific or directly supportive of the current and prospective Scout-related abuse litigation; others apply across all child protection sectors and environments. If you are involved in child protection, it is a short read we commend to you.
The call for accurate measurement (buried in Action Step No. 3) is the action step BOKRIM most wholeheartedly agrees with. BOKRIM’s core contention is that “you cannot manage what you cannot measure” and SAM, SAM risk, and the performance of SAM protection practices have never been measured. As a result, the most effective child protection practices have yet to be identified.
This in turn means you cannot ask people to use the most effective child protection practices because no one knows for certain what they are. When people say they are using the best practices, what they generally mean is they are using the practices that seem like the best practices.
Action Step 4 calls for further research into peer to peer abuse, an aspect of SAM we find many organizations underestimate and overlook.
Action Step 5 calls for background checks to be refreshed every two years. In our research, many organizations refresh background checks annually, and some even quarterly, so this suggestion would be a backwards step.
Action Step 6 calls for the sharing of information on banned individuals across youth-serving organizations. Ignoring whether banned individual information can be shared as proposed, information sharing generally is foundational to improving SAM protection and there is far more valuable and easier to share information than information on banned individuals.
Action Step 8 calls for a full-time appointee to have responsibility and authority for protecting children from abuse who should report to the CEO. The full-time appointee is unarguable but there are more important stakeholders beyond the CEO to whom reports should also be made if trust is to be restored.
You can see an outline of the other practices we have found important here.
Sadly, the letter will be mostly ignored
The first reason most people may ignore the letter is that Jeff Anderson is involved and the intent of the letter is so overtly tactical. Discounting the letter just because Jeff Anderson is involved would be a huge mistake though because, regardless of intent, the letter contains some helpful ideas.
The second reason the letter may be discounted is that it supposes the need for significant change. Change is necessary but none of us likes change if we can avoid it. So the real question is, can we continue avoiding change?
We don’t think so because the current approaches to preventing SAM – the four pillars – aren’t working well enough. There are various reasons but, very briefly, they are too basic (or as the letter puts it, suitable only for low-risk organizations), incomplete, and out of date.
Further, the consequences of these deficiencies are that children and vulnerable adults are not as safe as they should and could be. This in turn explains why SAM settlement values have continued to rise, trust in organizations looking after children has continued to fall, SAM statutes of limitation are disappearing, and SAM insurance availability is falling and its cost rising.
If we continue doing the same things, these consequences will just continue to develop. If we can change, however, organizations may be able to become confident they are protecting children as well as possible and earn back the trust they have lost.
The two most helpful contributions from the letter are its support for the development of better measurement and collaboration. By supporting the idea that measurement and collaboration need to be done, it is also supporting the argument that change is needed.
And when arguably the leading plaintiff attorney in a space says “this is what needs to change”, shouldn’t we listen? Isn’t the full version of that sentence, “this is what needs to change if you don’t want me paying much closer attention to you”?
We have previously written about the four pillars; we have argued compliance is not risk management, which also partly explains why we think it is time to move beyond the four pillars approach.
Where is your organization in relation to the Four Pillars?
For another perspective on the four pillars, if you would like to learn where your organization may be on the SAM Risk Journey from the four pillars to risk management best practice (which has been measured as such), take this 2-minute quiz.
In addition to providing an indication of where you may be on the Journey, we will send you a free, detailed report on the stages of the Journey.