For the past eight years, David Robison has mentored a boy through a program operated by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound (BBBS of PS), the local affiliate of a century-old national nonprofit that matches adults with children for recreation and nurturing. The group’s nomenclature calls the adults “Bigs” and the kids “Littles.” As for Robison and his Little, they have taken a trip to Canada, they’ve gone on bike rides, and—at the encouragement of an organization case worker—they’ve had overnights together at Robison’s home.
But the overnight visits need to stop.
To Robison’s dismay, BBBS of PS sent a letter to all 1,500 adult-child pairings on January 31 that announced an immediate policy change: “Overnight visits between Bigs and Littles are strictly prohibited except in the event that it is an agency sponsored event.”
Robison, a partner in a Seattle software firm, calls it an “overreaction.” The sleepovers have provided an unparalleled opportunity for Bigs and Littles to bond, he says, and they expose children to the ways other people live. “The only thing I can assume is that there was some sexual activity between a Big and Little during an overnight stay,” Robison posits. “But there's potential for abuse regardless... Sexual activity could take place any time—it’s about the people, not the situation.”
It turns out that Robison is right about reports of sexual abuse.
“We’ve had a recent allegation,” BBBS of PS president Patrick D’Amelio said on the phone today when asked if there were instances of reported sexual abuse between mentors and children in the program. “We are working through those issues with a high regard for the child’s well-being and cooperating with law enforcement.”
Overseeing a five-county region, D’Amelio declined to say where or how recently the event occurred. (Attempts to track down the case in courts today were unsuccessful.) But D’Amelio adds that he doesn’t know whether this recent allegation is linked to an overnight visit or not.
Repeatedly, D’Amelio stressed that the policy change—which elicited three complaints from Bigs and 15 praises from Bigs—results from at least two years of consideration about steps to promote child safety. He says, “There is not a specific event that led to the change in this policy.”
Still, this isn’t the first case they’ve encountered. “We’ve had experiences where we’ve been concerned about a child safety issue, like any organization that serves youth,” D’Amelio acknowledges. “We have had to—and I am pleased to say on extraordinarily rare occasions—deal with allegations of child safety.”
Nationally, Big Brothers Big Sisters has been recognized (along with groups like the Boy Scouts of America) for proactively addressing potential abuse, screening its volunteers, and holding regular check-ins between volunteers and caseworkers. But things do happen. A statement provided by the BBBS to The Stranger says that the number of cases “alleging that anyone within our organization perpetrated child sexual abuse or exploitation on a child associated with our organization amounts to a fraction of a percentage point per year…”
The rules for overnights have been strict: The Little and Big must sleep in separate rooms with a shut door between them, and there’s no changing clothes in front of each other. Volunteers also go through extensive background checks and training.
“Still, we are outraged and saddened by accounts of any child being abused or harmed and in every case we are disturbed by reports of our program being exploited by anyone wanting to do harm to a child,” the BBBS statement continues.
National standards for Big Brother Big Sisters allows the 370 affiliates to facilitate overnights visits with Bigs and Littles, or ban them if they wish. But people familiar with the local program aren't shocked by the strict new rules in Puget Sound.
Tina Podlodowski, the immediate past president of the local Big Brother affiliate, says she is “sad to hear about the policy change, but again, BBBS really does pride itself on no incidents, so I am not surprised.” Podlodowski, who left the organization in 2009, says "there had not been any incidents in the Puget Sound chapter for years and years... I can't recall one.”
As for Robison, he’s had enough.
He sent a resignation letter on February 18. Robison was planning to take his husband, his seven-year-old-son, and his Little on their third annual vacation. But he was hurt that the organization banned overnights without consulting Bigs, creating a grandfather clause for existing matches, or offering additional training.
Informed that there was—as he had speculated—an allegation of abuse, Robison says, "I think [the policy change] is even worse. If they have been planning it for two years, they should have done a much better job of getting information out, and working with Bigs and Littles instead of giving us this letter with no explanations. Bad things do happen, but we can't shut down the world because bad things happen."
“For me, 50 percent of the reason I’m resigning is because of this loss,” he says, “and 50 percent is the way it was handled."