It was a month fraught with revelation, dissension, resignation, and policy reversal for the California Lions Camp (Pacifica) Board of Directors, based in Merced.
Most non-profits working with children require volunteers to have a Livescan - a criminal background check. Surprisingly, not so with the Lions Club, and therein lies the problem.
“That means that no Lions Clubs in California, or in the entire United States, have any regulations for adults volunteering with children ... not in club situations, not in youth exchange programs, not at Camp Pacifica,” Diane Peterson explained.
The board oversees the operation of Camp Pacifica, which is open to boys and girls 7-15 years of age with hearing impairments, and is located in Nipinnawasee off Highway 49.
Peterson served on the camp board for five years, writing three grants totaling about $100,000 for camp improvements. She is numbed by what has been going on - so much so that she recently resigned at the Feb. 15 board meeting. Her decision came after months of growing frustration.
“We were trying to institute a policy for Camp Pacifica similar to other non-profits,” Peterson said, “No drugs. No alcohol. Monitoring of children, and volunteers must have a Livescan. The board actually voted and approved this policy, but we were told by at least five other clubs in the Merced area that if we pursued it, they would withdraw financial support.”
Financial support is crucial to the success of the Lions Clubs’ many humanitarian projects, including the monetary support that covers repairs and running expenses for Camp Pacifica.
According to Peterson, to avoid losing this monetary support, the board did an about-face, considering an alternate plan proposed by Gary Eno with the Merced Breakfast Club - to offer a hold-harmless document, which once signed, would protect board members from any future lawsuits that might occur. No Livescan required, and no supervision of camp cabins at night. For added protection, each board member would have a $1 million insurance policy to cover possible lawsuits “in case any unlawful activity was to take place at the camp.”
When this proposal came up for vote at the February board meeting, Peterson and Jill Loving were the only two holding out for Livescans. Four other board members voted for the hold-harmless documentation, with Board President Dee Heller abstaining because she only votes to break a tie.
“After the vote, I just sat there,” Peterson said. “I was stunned. I wrote out my resignation, didn’t say a word, and handed it to Dee. As I was leaving, Ken Harrison, one of the other board members hollered, ‘see you next week,’ and Dee responded, ‘she resigned.’ So Ken claps, leaps up, thanks me for my service, and comes over to shake my hand. I was speechless. It was obvious the board was glad I resigned.”
Then, just a few days after the board voted for the plan, another reversal.
“We want adults working with children to be fingerprinted to ensure there are no child molesters volunteering,” Heller explained, “and we want two adults in each cabin overnight. But even though it’s what we require, some groups want to do their own thing ... we can’t make other clubs enforce this policy.”
Peterson said the excuse against Livescanning used to be the high cost. However, with free fingerprinting offered in Madera for service clubs, that rationalization no longer holds water.
“Any volunteer for a non-profit organization can come to Madera County and get a Livescan for free from the Sheriff’s Department, and Merced isn’t that far from Madera,” Peterson added. “So, now what’s the excuse? I guess, in the end, it comes down to money over our children’s safety.”
Merced Breakfast Club
One group Peterson referred to as adamantly opposed to Livescan is the Merced Breakfast Club, with President Tamela Adkins at the helm.
“It’s odd that she is letting her club refuse to follow the Youth Protection Policy,” Peterson said, “since she works for the UC Merced Police Department in Support Services as building safety coordinator and emergency manager.”
“We aren’t against Livescan,” Adkins countered. “We’re against the way it’s being handled, with personal confidential information sent to an individual’s home computer.”
While Heller conceded this was indeed the case, she added that the information would be stored in the home computer of a retired sheriff, “who did this for a living. We really don’t care where they get fingerprinted. We just want the information.”
When asked to further comment on the thinking behind the breakfast club’s stance regarding Livescans, Adkins said that a collective statement from the board would be issued following a Feb. 18 meeting. That statement follows: “The Merced Breakfast Club Lions Club does not have an issue with Livescan. We are dedicated to the safety and well-being of our youth. The Livescan process is an ongoing discussion with our board and the California Lions Camp (Camp Pacifica) board. This is a discussion we are handling internally.”
“This is such a closed society,” Peterson reflected. “I really didn’t realize it in the beginning. I enjoyed what they do, but when it comes to real issues, they won’t talk about it. The current district governor of District 4A1, Ron Raines, said he understands the problem, but won’t tackle it under his term.”
Despite attempts to contact Raines, and Merced Breakfast Club board member Gary Eno, who Peterson called the most vocal in his opposition to Livescanning, there was no response to messages.
Pushing for children’s safety
Although Peterson has left the board, dropping the issue is simply not an option. Actually, just the opposite. Her passion to protect the children is now fueled by her resolve. As a past educator, protecting children has been a life-long mission.
“For 18 months, I gathered information on organizations who require Livescans,” Peterson said, “and when Norm Clarke, one of the board members said it wasn’t the board’s responsibility to protect the children, I realized these just weren’t my people.
“I really don’t understand the logic,” she continued. “When you bring youth to camp, the adult volunteers who spend the night there should have criminal background checks to protect the children. You have students in cabins up there, and you put two adults in every cabin every night ... same sex adults to monitor the goings-on in that cabin. Now, that makes sense.”
Peterson was at the Jan. 18 board meeting when things came to a head. “At that meeting, board members learned of risky behaviors that had occurred at Camp Pacifica six years earlier,” she said.
“There were allegations of drug sales and sexual misconduct between minors,” Peterson added, expressing concern over what else has taken place, but has yet to be revealed. “Rotary, Kiwanis, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts all require Livescans. I just don’t see why there are those who don’t understand child protection.” (The Oakhurst Boys & Girls Club, as well as the Children’s Museum of the Sierras and Fellowship of Christian Athletes also require Livescans).
“I want to assure parents who have Leos in the Yosemite High School Leo Club that all six advisors have undergone and passed Livescans,” Peterson said. “This is a requirement of YUSD for all volunteers on campus.
“But this is not a requirement of Merced Unified School District,” Peterson added. “I was told in that district all off-campus volunteers are to be under the direct supervision of the classroom teacher. The Livescan requirement from district-to-district may be why none of the other Leo Clubs have asked advisors to be Livescanned prior to starting clubs on campuses. The problem arises when these clubs have activities away from school.”
“As a parent and a Lion, I am very disappointed,” Bass Lake Lions Club President Chris Baker emphasized. “I have been following Diane’s battle for children’s safety and don’t believe it is something that should be handled ‘internally’ or behind closed doors. It’s something everyone, especially parents and Lions leadership, needs to be watching and involved in.
“My son and I have been Livescanned twice, once for Lions Camp Pacifica and once as Leo advisors for Yosemite High School. It’s an easy and quick procedure,” Baker continued. “... I welcome and encourage the input of other Lions in this matter, and I hope this leads to a national Lions policy for child safety.”
Heller couldn’t agree more.
“The Lions clubs should have some sort of policy and they don’t,” Heller explained. “We really have nothing to stand on ... nothing except ourselves. I called Lions Club International and left a message telling them this story would be in the newspaper ... hopefully, this will force a change.”
Heller was contacted to learn if there had been a reply from the international office, however she did not respond to either email or phone messages.