Big Brothers Try Harder to Screen Out Molesters

Times Staff Writer

A 12-year-old boy sat in a San Fernando courtroom a month ago as his “Big Brother,” an accountant who volunteered to be his special friend, pleaded guilty to molesting him and four other boys.

In a Van Nuys courtroom two weeks ago, another Big Brother, a noted UCLA psychology professor, pleaded no contest to similar charges. And a third Big Brother faces a preliminary hearing this week in San Fernando on allegations that he had sexual contact with his teen-age charge.

The molesters had taken advantage of an organization devoted to helping boys from broken homes by matching them with adult males who volunteer to serve as role models. Big Brothers can be especially attractive to potential molesters because it encourages volunteers to develop close, private relationships with boys.


Across the country, at least 22 Big Brothers were convicted of sex crimes from 1982 to 1987 after taking sexual liberties with their charges, according to Big Brothers of America records. Records kept by Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles show that, since 1982, at least five of its volunteers have been convicted. A sixth case is pending.

In interviews last week, Big Brothers officials conceded that child molesters occasionally infiltrate their ranks. It is no surprise to them, given the nature of the program.

They say the organization goes to extraordinary lengths to screen out molesters and is tightening the net each year with more rigorous requirements, including fingerprinting and highly personal interviews. Insurance companies that cover Big Brothers, however, are demanding further precautions. They want psychological testing of potential Big Brothers.

Task Force of Child Sexual Abuse

“Everyone here is extremely concerned” about child abuse, said Terry Correlio, director of program development and research for the Philadelphia-based Big Brothers of America, which placed more than 60,000 Big Brothers nationwide this year. Even though molestation by Big Brothers is infrequent, it was enough for the organization to form a task force on child sexual abuse last February.

Sexual molestation was not a concern when Big Brothers of America formed in 1903 when a Cincinnati businessman took a fatherless boy under his wing and encouraged his friends to do the same. In 1955, Walt Disney helped found Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles.

The aim wasn’t to provide parental substitutes, but rather a special friend in whom the boy could confide, a male figure for the boy to emulate. The relationship would bolster the youths’ self-image and confidence, founders believed.


But some Big Brothers took advantage of the relationship. No one really knows when it started. Public awareness of sexual abuse peaked during the early 1980s, about the time the McMartin preschool child-abuse case surfaced, officials say.

Today, Big Brothers is operating with screening methods its officials believe may be so tight that suitable men are discouraged from applying.

“It’s not easy to become a Big Brother,” said Nancy Rose, director of public relations for Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles, which has 420 Big Brothers and another 300 boys on a waiting list.

Big Brothers is doing about as much as anyone can to keep out child molesters, according to George Salazar, a Los Angeles Police Department detective in Van Nuys who investigates child-abuse cases. He praised the group for dropping volunteers at the first sign of improper conduct.

“A child molester is very sophisticated in his approach to molesting kids,” Salazar said. “It’s so difficult to interview someone and figure out if that person is a child molester. A full investigation is too costly--talking to neighbors, all the kids on his baseball team. And then, maybe he didn’t do anything to a kid this season.”

3-Hour Interview

Since 1982, Big Brothers applicants have been fingerprinted at their own expense to disclose any criminal record or motor-vehicle violations. References, including the applicant’s employer, are checked.

The most critical phase, said Rose, is the applicant’s three-hour interview with a staff social worker. The man must disclose his complete sexual history--his first sexual experience, dating patterns, marital relationship and any abuse as a child.

A screening committee that includes a mental-health expert and a member of the Los Angeles Police Department’s sexual exploitation division reviews questionable or unacceptable applicants and another 10% of applicants as a quality-control measure.

Social workers are trained to look for “red flags”--aspects of a man’s personality that suggest a child molester, said Mark Wild, director of services for Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles.

If he is single, does he date women? Is he shy, withdrawn? Does he have friends, or is he a loner? Is he interested in sports?

Does he have an inordinate interest in children? Does he hang out at Disneyland or other places designed for children? Does he have a strong interest in cameras and video equipment, possibly for pornographic reasons?

“We ask them to name five good things about themselves,” said Wild. “The true child molester can’t do it,” because of extremely low self-esteem.

Records don’t show the number of possible child molesters who have been turned away because applicants are rejected for many reasons and separate figures are not kept.

The records do show that only 10% of applicants are accepted. These are usually single men in their late 20s or early 30s, partly because older married men with children do not have the time to spend with a boy.

Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles won’t match homosexual or bisexual men with boys. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California sued the agency on behalf of a Los Angeles car salesman, a bisexual, who applied unsuccessfully to become a Big Brother. The case is pending.

Wild said that, since screening procedures have been tightened in the last four years, Big Brothers has accepted no candidate who was later arrested for molestation. All Big Brothers who have been charged or convicted were accepted before the improved screening, Wild said.

As a preventive measure, the organization offers a program about molestation to the boys and their mothers.

After a match is made, staff social workers watch for warning signals during frequent talks with the Big Brother, the boy and his mother. Are they spending too much time together? Are they only going to the man’s home rather than public places? Is the boy moody?

Another tip-off is the Big Brother who showers the boy with gifts or frequent trips to Disneyland. “It’s like any courting situation,” Wild said of the child molester out to win the affection of a boy.

Insurance companies, looking to cut losses from possible lawsuits, want more than intuitive social workers trained to keep an eye out for child molesters. They want psychological testing of potential Big Brothers.

Big Brothers-Big Sisters of Orange County already gives applicants three personality tests that are later interpreted by a psychologist looking for positive qualities as well as disturbing traits.

One is the Minnesota Multiphasic Inventory, a standard personality test. Another calls for the applicant to draw a person, house and a tree--similar to a Rorschach test. The third is a sentence-completion test.

But most Big Brother officials are skeptical of such tests. They say there is no test that accurately predicts whether a man will molest a boy. Child molesters fit no rigid profile, they say. And they reject the polygraph test as unreliable.

“We could screen and screen and screen and never end up matching anyone,” said Wild. He said budget constraints prevent hiring detectives to do further checking. “Where do you draw the line? How many girlfriends do you talk to? Are we going to have everyone tested for AIDS?”

Wild said that even, after cases arise in which Big Brothers have been identified as child molesters, he has gone back over the men’s records and found nothing that would have tipped off the organization.

In one 1984 case, the Big Brother was a former Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority executive. Another case that year involved a former Bible-class instructor from Burbank. In that case, as well as others, it was Big Brothers personnel who alerted police to a possible molestation.

Craig Mathias, who in August pleaded guilty in San Fernando to five counts of lewd conduct, is a certified public accountant who served as a Boy Scout leader besides being a Big Brother. Four of his victims were Scouts, illustrating that the problem of molestation affects all youth organizations.

Ed Kern, Los Angeles spokesman for Boy Scouts of America, acknowledged it is a concern. The organization now requires two adults to be present on overnight trips, partly as a precaution against molestation. However, Kern said, Boy Scouts have less of a problem because activities usually are in a group setting and Scout leaders are solicited from within the group sponsoring the troop.

“It’s more localized,” Kern said, rather than a broad-based recruiting campaign that considers anyone who walks in as a potential volunteer.

Despite the care Big Brothers takes to protect its boys from molestation, some say the screening and monitoring are not sufficient.

The mother of a 14-year-old boy filed a $15-million lawsuit in Van Nuys Superior Court against Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles and her son’s Big Brother, Mark D. Yerkes. She claims in the lawsuit that Yerkes was improperly screened and negligently monitored during their 20-month relationship.

Yerkes, a professional stunt man from Granada Hills, was sentenced by a San Fernando judge to 18 years in prison last year after a jury found him guilty of three counts each of sodomy, oral copulation and lewd conduct with a child. Yerkes contends that the troubled boy fabricated the molestation, and Yerkes has filed an appeal.

During the trial, the boy testified that Yerkes would show him pornographic magazines and molest him during weekend outings. Police found pornographic magazines at Yerkes’ home after his arrest in 1983. Until a few weeks ago, the boy lived in a psychiatric hospital because of emotional problems caused by the molestation, the lawsuit alleges.

Another mother said a lawsuit will not repair the emotional damage her 10-year-old boy suffered because of his relationship with Darrell Dean Richards, an assistant professor of psychology at UCLA. Richards pleaded no contest to sexual battery and lewd conduct stemming from his contact with two boys, one of whom he met through Big Brothers.

The professor, who teaches adolescent psychology, contends that he did nothing wrong and was merely teaching the boys about sexuality and hygiene during showers together and on overnight stays. He will be sentenced Nov. 17.

“The organization is necessary for boys living in a home where there are no males,” said the mother. “But it’s hard when you feel like you are putting your son out there to be hurt.”

Her boy was later assigned to a Big Brother only to see that man also dropped from the program because of allegations that he molested another boy. Police are investigating that case.

The mother has learned a lot, she said, about child molesters.

“They come on so nice,” she said, tears welling up. “They are pros, making the mother feel comfortable. But the love they put out is to sucker kids in.”