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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Unlikely Guardian Angels

Off the Wire News
Bikers Against Child Abuse members use big hearts to make abused kids feel safe

They wear leather, ride loud motorcycles and travel in packs. Many have tattoos, piercings and gruff exteriors. But each member of this motorcycle gang also has a heart of gold.

Bikers Against Child Abuse, aka BACA, is a 15-year-old international volunteer organization started in Utah whose goal is to create a safe environment for abused children.

All potential members must have FBI background checks, attend 80 percent of BACA meetings and events during their first year, and receive unanimous approval from the board of directors before becoming a patched member.

“We’re not swilling down Jack Daniel’s and carrying women off into the woods,” said Chad “Slurpee” McNeill, president of the Western Utah Chapter of BACA. “I used to ride with groups where there wasn’t really a purpose other than raising hell. But in BACA, the focus in on the kids.”

The Western Utah Chapter, which covers all of Tooele County, was founded in 2001 and is one of 12 in Utah. Its 23 members “adopt” children who have been abused to help them no longer feel powerless.

Members of BACA work strictly on a referral basis. They will not approach a victim or their family unless the authorities have been contacted, the case is being processed within the justice system and the family approves.

When they do receive a referral, a BACA liaison contacts the family and an initial ride to the child’s house is organized. Neighboring chapters are invited, which has meant 70 or more riders showing up at the child’s house, according to Bob “Stinky” Canestrini, a member of the chapter.

“Seeing us all ride to their home really puffs their chests up,” he said.

The child is given a vest with a BACA patch sewn on the back, bumper stickers and other gifts. The child is also given the name and number of two nearby BACA members who act as primary contacts. The child is instructed to call anytime they may feel scared or need the presence of their BACA family — always with their parent or guardian’s knowledge.

“At 2 in the morning, when that kid wakes up terrified, they have our phone number and can all 24 hours a day,” McNeill said.

The bikers will go to the child’s house to provide any necessary reassurance to feel safe and protected. They are available for support at court and parole hearings. If asked, they will attend interviews with them or stay with them if they’re alone and frightened. BACA members will also escort children to school or on other errands.

Once a child feels confident and safe again, interaction with BACA usually slows to semiannual parties — one at Christmas and one during the summer — or occasional phone calls.

“We don’t want them to become dependent on us,” Canestrini said.

BACA works with police and the court system, as well as organizations like the Division of Child and Family Services, which do a great job, McNeill said, “But we can fill a niche that none of those places can.”

BACA members are tough guys — and gals — who bring the kids a lot of confidence, McNeill said, but BACA has no intention of confronting or intimidating perpetrators.

“We’re not vigilantes,” he said.

Information about the perpetrators is not even shared with BACA members. BACA liaisons have general information about the child and the case, but even the children are given road names to identify them.

“We’re very careful about who we allow access to these kids,” Canestrini said. “We don’t use their real names and we don’t discuss details of the crime.”

BACA members canvas neighborhoods throughout the county a few times a year, telling neighbors about the organization and handing out flyers. Several BACA members sit in the 3rd District Court room at the Gordon R. Hall Courthouse every week to make their presence felt, whether there is an abuse case or not. They are not compensated for gas or time, nor do they have to pay dues.

“We wish we didn’t have to do what we’re doing,” Canestrini said. “The day we don’t have a job to do anymore, we’ll just ride our motorcycles, and we’ll be happy.”

Any money BACA does receive through donations is used to print flyers, cover the cost of gifts for children, and occasionally to pay for therapy.

“We’ve got one kid right now whose insurance has dried up,” McNeill said. “So we pay for their therapy sessions every week.”

McNeill is optimistic about the future of BACA, but the organization is always looking for more help from the local community.

“Our biggest challenge is getting people to call us,” McNeill said. “We know there are kids here in Tooele we can help. We just need people to let us know.”

BACA was founded in 1995 by John Paul “Chief” Lilly, a licensed clinical social worker and part-time faculty member at Brigham Young University. The group’s first ride included 27 bikes. BACA now has 139 chapters in 31 U.S. states, as well as six chapters in Australia. A new chapter in Italy may soon form, and BACA is looking to start another chapter in South Africa, McNeill said.

BACA is hosting its annual fundraiser on April 24 with a ride down to St. George. All BACA chapters throughout the world will organize rides on that same day in April, which is National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

“If the earth tilts on its axis that day, you’ll know why,” said Canestrini.

The next big project on the horizon for BACA is turning 75 acres of donated land in Utah County into Camp BACA, a place where abused children and their parents can go for recreational activities, educational workshops and general relaxation.

“The money — that’ll come along,” McNeill said. “I’m not worried about that.”

California-based director and screenwriter Angela Shelton is currently working on a film about BACA, with the proceeds going toward building Camp BACA.

Original article...