Interview with John Ryan, CEO of NCMEC

Larry Magid and John Ryan, CEO, Center for Exploited and Missing Children
March 13, 2013

Click here to listen to podcast of interview

For more, see Making it Safe to Complete for Child Athletes.

LARRY: Let’s start with how did you get involved in this?

JOHN: Larry, as you know, one of the main missions we have here at the National Center is dealing with the exploitations of children. So in the aftermath of the Jerry Sundusky case, although that was a wake-up call forAmerica about the nature and scope of the problem we here at the Center deal with these issues every day. In fact, since 1998 through our Cyber Tipline we’ve received over 1.8 million mainly from the public and the majority of them deal with the sexual abuse of children.

LARRY: Now the title of the conference is Safe to Compete, so I want to cut right to the chase. Is it safe to compete, I mean we’ve heard about the awful things that happened at Penn State, but in general are children at high risk when they’re out in Little League or — Warner or all the many, many programs that are out there?

JOHN: The safest assessment is there is a true risk and it varies in terms of the organizations, in terms of what policies and programs that they have put in place to ensure the safety of their children and that runs the gamut. Some large organizations are not doing enough, some small organizations despite limited resources are doing more than one should expect. But the problem and challenge Larry is there is no uniform code of behavior so to speak. So one of the deliverables of the summit will be to bring these leading national youth organizations to the Center and develop what we are calling sound practices so that parents can ask the right questions and that they can be assured that these organizations have the appropriate policies in place.

LARRY: I’m glad you raised that issue about parents because obviously parents are the main group that protect their own children. And give me some example, if you had a kid that was out there participating in some kind of an activity, what would you be looking for?

JOHN: The first thing I want to know is do they have a policy in place and is it available for the parents to review? When I say policy what do I mean? I mean what is the protocol for that organization to know who they are retaining. Who they are putting into contact with children? Whether it be a coach, whether it be a volunteer or a teacher or a counselor? Are they doing any pre-screening to ensure that these individuals don’t have backgrounds that could put children at risk.

LARRY: Let’s talk about some of the risk factors that parents and others need to be aware of when they’re sending their kids out to participate, and not just sports but any youth activity.

JOHN:  That’s right. Well the first thing is know who they are being put in the care and custody of. If they are doing background checks then what policies are in place to report if there is potential instance of abuse. Do they report it? To whom and within what time frame? Also does this organization have any training for their counselors or coaches to look for potential signs of abuse. Many times these children are being abused in environments outside of the organization’s environment but they have the opportunity to identify it and then take appropriate action to make sure that child is getting the resources that they need.

LARRY: And what about individual children? We know that some children are at a higher risk than others. Can you talk a little bit about the risk factors of particular children in terms of their personality, their emotional state?

JOHN: Yes, that’s a great question Larry. One category of at-risk children are those who are already in an abusive environment. They are the silent victims. They typically do not alert authorities or trusted officials that they are being subjected to abuse, or they are not asking for the help that they need. So when they go to these organizations and they’re exposed to individuals of authority they are put at risk because they have already been subjected to, well I’m a victim and if something happens it’s expected. Not all children report abuse. We have cases that we hear about 40, 50 years later of an adult who goes back and says “yes, I was abused as a child.”

LARRY: Why the children do not report and what we can do to get kids to be more forthcoming?

JOHN: One of the reasons that more children don’t report these challenges involving abuse is the fact that the predator, the offender is threatening them. They are either threatening them to do further harm to them or either do harm to their families or loved ones. Or to make a counter report saying that they were the ones responsible for the behavior. As crazy as that sounds it could be very intimidating to a child.

LARRY: Speaking of predator, help us understand the mythology about predators. We have a stereotype of what they look like, what they do for a living but I know we found over time that these stereotypes don’t mean much.

JOHN: Yes. What we’ve found, based on the reports we received over the last ten years Larry is that those instances identified appears over 70% of the offender profile or what we refer to as individuals who had some legitimate access to the child, whether it be his family member, coach, counselor, teacher or someone who has legitimate reasons to have them under their care and control for a period of time over 70% of the time.

LARRY: And I understand you can’t really tell about what they look like, or how they might behave in your presence. They could be the nicest people you’ve ever met.

JOHN: Absolutely. And predators tend to use that to their advantage. Part of the grooming process is to engage the trust of the child prior to the abuse. And one of the ways that they do that is to have all the appearances of so-called normalcy – a responsible job, respected in their community. So by all appearances to all those except the child they are so-called normal.

LARRY: Let’s talk a little bit about the summit. Who is going to be attending and what are the goals?

JOHN: We are fortunate to have many of the leading youth sports organizations committed to attending. Some of them are the U.S. Olympic Committee, the YMCA, Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America, Special Olympics, USA Gymnastics and a host of others. We actually have over 50 organizations lined up to participate. One of the goals Larry is we want to examine what programs and policies currently are being implemented to address the issues that the Sundusky case highlighted, what are the challenges, where are the gaps in those programs and policies, how can those gaps be addressed? Is it a question of additional resources or partnership with organizations that are willing to support initiatives and then as a result of this to put together what we would call a sound practice guide which would be available to all participating organizations and most importantly families as a reference to point out what is the benchmark to what are the appropriate measures that should be taken to safeguard our children?

LARRY: And finally, John, you are a pretty tech savvy guy. Before you were at the National Center you were at AOL and you’ve been involved in the technology world for a long time, you certainly understand social media. Talk a little bit about how social media could be used as part of the solution to educate people and to also provide for resources to teach them about these issues.

JOHN: That’s a great question Larry. In fact, the National Center has just entered into the 21st Century. We recently launched our new Website Missingkids.com and the chief component of that website is the social media platform. If you want to capture the audience that you need to address and in our case that’s children, parents and law enforcement, you need to be able to communicate in the space that they are communicating in and that’s Facebook, Twitter and all the other interactive applications. We are now engaged with those interactions. We’re providing content in terms of safety and awareness programs. We are also providing content for parents in terms of materials, in terms of safety measures they can be taking and also for law enforcement. What tools and resources can we provide for them if they are involved in a missing child case or even a sexual abuse case? We’ve come a long way since since John Walsh founded the Center after the tragic death of his child and after Ronald Reagan signed it into to law. I mean what does it take to make sure we keep up with 21st Century threats by using 21st Century tools. That is, I think, the 64 thousand dollar question, Larry. And I think the solution is connected to the source of the problem. Those predators who are leveraging the newest applications and technology advances are abusing the good uses that they are designed for. We are partners with some of the leading technology companies, the community that you are intimately familiar with and part of to give us access to their best minds and help us customize and address the challenges in a way that we can not only stop and disrupt the predators but be one step ahead of them.

LARRY: John Ryan, the CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, thank you very much.

JOHN: Thank you Larry.

Thanks to Carol Magid for transcribing this interview

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