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Peer-to-peer sex abuse a concern in Manatee

MANATEE -- In early November, former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky gave child sex abuse an indelible face when myriad accusations rolled in against him.

But the president and chief executive officer of the YMCAs in Manatee County warned Friday that the rising form of child sex abuse is not adult on child, but rather child on child.

“I know that the Penn State situation is getting a lot of traction, but peer-to-peer abuse is rising,” Sean Allison said.

“This is not something that we were looking at five or six years ago,” Allison added.

Children can and are crossing boundaries with each other in ways that adult leaders could never have imagined, Allison said.

“Child sex abuse has teamed with bullying,” Allison added.

It is now no longer enough that the roughly 250 staff and volunteers in Manatee County make sure that no adults are ever left alone with one of the 8,000 children in the county’s program. Now, no two children can be left alone, Allison said.

“We don’t allow children to use the rest room together unattended,” said Dan Yonko, senior executive director for Manatee County’s YMCAs. “We always have supervisors with them.”

No matter the form, Manatee YMCAs are taking action against child sex abuse.

“It’s very dark, very evil,” Allison said. “It’s a devastating thing that is happening. And, when we find it, we have to act decisively.”

Recently in Manatee’s Parrish Y branch, a staff member saw a man in his 30s having inappropriate conversations with teenagers on Facebook.

“He was using a ‘Y’ computer and somehow was able to get onto Facebook,” Allison said. “We were able to print out the conversation he was having and called law enforcement. The people he was contacting were out of our county, in Lakeland or Ocala. The parents of the children in those cities were contacted. The staff was vigilant. I believe he ended up being arrested. We were also able to banish him from the Parrish branch.”

The Redwood Group

Allison said his awareness of the present state of child sex abuse not only comes from his 23 years working for YMCAs, including six years as leader in Manatee, but also from being part of The Redwood Group, which insures 500 YMCAs across the nation.

Manatee joined The Redwood Group in 2007 and local YMCAs are now receiving its training resources to combat child sex abuse, including two hour-long video training sessions for every staff and volunteer, Allison said.

“All of our staff and volunteers have had the training,” Allison said.

In 2012, Manatee YMCAs will also recruit area adults to get the training, which is a new program called “Shine the Light,” Allison said.

“We train our staff that there is nothing more important than to shine as bright a light as possible on any situation you find involving children,” Allison said. “You don’t ignore it, brush it under the rug or discard it because you think a child might be acting out of hysterics. If there are any questions, we err in defense of the child.”

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 6686.