NEW YORK — Under financial pressure from sex-abuse litigation, the Boy Scouts of America are seeking to bolster their abuse-prevention efforts with a new awareness program featuring cartoon-style videos that will be provided to more than 1.2 million Cub Scouts across the nation.
Targeted at children from kindergarten to sixth grade, the series of six videos aims to teach children how to recognize potentially abusive behavior and what to do if confronted by it.
The initiative, being announced Thursday, comes as the Boy Scouts face a potentially huge wave of abuse-related lawsuits after several states enacted laws this year making it easier for victims of long-ago abuse to file claims. The Boy Scouts acknowledge that the litigation poses a financial threat and have not ruled out seeking bankruptcy protection.
The bulk of the newly surfacing abuse cases date to the 1960s, '70s and '80s; the BSA says there were only five known abuse victims in 2018 out of 2.2 million youth members. The BSA credits the change to an array of prevention policies adopted since the mid-1980s, including mandatory criminal background checks and abuse-prevention training for all staff and volunteers, and a rule that two or more adult leaders be present with youth at all times during scouting activities.
The Boy Scouts' youth protection director, former police investigator Mike Johnson, decided to add the videos to the prevention program after vetting them with parents of Cub Scout-age children and with children themselves.
"Parents told me they're having these conversations with their kids, and they felt the videos would help them have a better, richer conversation," Johnson said. "The kids are engaged. ... There's some heavy topics discussed in a child-specific way."
Previous BSA prevention videos featured real people, not animated characters.
"The power and magic of animation, and its ability to communicate with kids — I underestimated it," Johnson said.
The videos and related learning materials were developed in 2015-16 by psychologists and other experts recruited by the Barbara Sinatra Children's Center , a nonprofit in Rancho Mirage, California, that specializes in helping children affected by abuse.
Jon Conte, a University of Washington professor emeritus who helped develop the videos, summarized their purpose this way: "Providing children with the knowledge and skills to identify risk situations and to avoid, escape or disclose abuse before it happens or after it happens once."
The videos target two age groups: kindergarten through third grade and fourth through sixth grade. Each series features a boy and girl who talk about experiencing abusive situations — for example, with a neighbor or coach — and explain how they used a set of "Protect Yourself Rules" to avoid harm.
One of the rules, in case of abuse: "Shout, run, tell." Another rule is "Safe touch, unsafe touch" — being wary of anyone touching the child on a part of the body that their bathing suit would cover.
"Unsafe touches are scary and confusing, because they can seem playful or gentle," says a character in the video for kindergarteners.
The videos for older children extend beyond sex abuse, addressing bullying, domestic violence and online dangers.
The accompanying lesson materials will be required for all Cub Scout units. For example, second-graders at the rank of Wolf would be asked to identify five trusted adults to whom they could report an abuse incident. They'd also be asked to demonstrate how they would say "No" to someone making them uncomfortable.
John Thoresen, the Sinatra Center's chief executive, said the videos are used in many schools in the U.S. and abroad, and have been viewed by more than 100 million children since 2017.
Thoresen said the videos' boy and girl characters are a good fit for the Cub Scouts, which last year ended a boys-only policy and now have about 78,000 girls in the ranks.
Within the next year, the Sinatra Center plans to complete animated anti-abuse videos for older youths. Johnson said the Boy Scouts might be interested in using them for its program serving boys and girls aged 11-17.
The BSA's current youth participation of 2.2 million is down from more than 4 million in peak years of the past.
In many ways, the BSA's challenges related to sex abuse parallel those facing the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. Both institutions boast of major progress over the past 20 or 30 years in combatting sex abuse — whether by priests or scout leaders — but both face numerous lawsuits alleging negligence and cover-ups, mostly in prior years.
Founded in 1910, the BSA has kept confidential files since the 1920s listing staff and volunteers implicated in sexual abuse, for the avowed purpose of keeping predators away from youth. According to a court deposition, the filers as of January listed 7,819 suspected abusers and 12,254 victims.
Until late May, the BSA had insisted it never knowingly allowed a predator to work with youth.
On May 27, The Associated Press reported that attorneys for abuse survivors had identified multiple cases in which known predators were allowed to return to posts as unit leaders. The next day, BSA chief executive Mike Surbaugh wrote to a U.S. House committee, acknowledging that the group's previous claim was untrue.
"I have reviewed information that now makes clear to me that decades ago BSA did, in at least some instances, allow individuals to return to Scouting even after credible accusations of sexual abuse," Surbaugh wrote. "I am devastated that this ever occurred."