$10K grant fuels fight against sexual abuse of children

Excerpt from The Newport Daily News

The Newport County YMCA in Rhode Island is providing training for its staff and members of the community.

“The image of a bogeyman driving a white van with no windows can be a reality, but in many cases, it’s someone that you know and trust who is doing this.” – Sara Meirowitz, Newport County YMCA development director

“Statistics show that in the United States, one out of every 10 children will be the victim of sexual abuse by the time they turn 18.” – Peter Milinazzo, Newport County YMCA executive director

The Newport County YMCArecently received a $10,000 grant from the Newport County Fund to spearhead a campaign to raise awareness about the sexual abuse of children and strengthen efforts to combat it.

“Statistics show that in the United States, one out of every 10 children will be the victim of sexual abuse by the time they turn 18,” said Peter Milinazzo, executive director of the YMCA. “When you truly think about those numbers and the impact it has on so many lives, it’s a sobering number and one we have to, have to, reduce.”

“It’s something people don’t want to talk about,” said Sara Meirowitz, development director at the YMCA. “The image of the bogeyman driving a white van with no windows can be a reality, but in many cases, it’s someone that you know and trust who is doing this.”

In the early 2000s, the YMCA was rocked by allegations that a male gymnastics coach had sexually molested several girls there.  James Bell was arrested and charged with multiple counts of molesting three girls enrolled in the Y’s gymnastics program.

Bell was released on bail and removed from the YMCA’s staff.  He failed to show up for a pre-trial hearing in Newport County Superior Court in July 2004 and has eluded a national search since then.  Bell remains on the FBI “Most Wanted” list, and the Middletown Police Department maintains an open case file on him.

Some believe he may fled to Thailand, Milinazzo said.

After Bell’s arrest, the Newport County YMCA immediately instituted sweeping changes to its personnel and conduct policies, including adding several new layers of background checks and interviews for potential employees, Milinazzo said. Those on staff were required to go through intense training to recognize the signs of sexual abuse and how to prevent it, he said.

The YMCA is using the $10,000 grant from the Newport County Fund of the Rhode Island Foundation to train its staff in a nationally recognized program offered by Darkness to Light, an organization located in Charleston, S.C.  The training will take place at Child & Family headquarters on Valley Road.

“I think the way it was presented, it was really powerful,” said Michelle McCombe, a clinical social worker for Child & Family. “When you think of 10 kids that you know and statistically, one of them is being sexually abused, that’s pretty eye opening.  It helps you realize this is something that can happen to anyone, anywhere.”

YMCA officials said the goal is to partner with other local organizations and individuals that have contact with children and teens, such as athletic coaches, teachers, police officers and firefighters, to promote awareness and prevention.

The YMCA will offer a free two-hour course for anyone interested in learning more about how to spot the warning signs of sexual abuse on Wednesday, Aug. 20, from 6-8 p.m. at the YMCA, 792 Valley Road.

There also are opportunities to become a certified trainer to teach others in the Stewards of Children method, including a free session on Friday, Aug. 8, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the YMCA.

“As adults, it’s our responsibility to protect children,” Meirowitz said.

“This is all because of what happened in 2003,” Milinazzo said, referring to Bell’s arrest. “We’ve tried to make a difference ever since then and want to get the message out any way we can, because if we’re able to help one youngster, this is worth it.”

Contact the Newport County YMCA:
792 Valley Road
Middletown, RI, 02842
t: 401.847.9200
e: info@newportymca.org

For more information on preventing child sexual abuse in your community, visit The 5 Steps to Protecting Our ChildrenTM, or take D2L’s award-winning Stewards of Children® prevention training.

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