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Screening of volunteers expensive but keeps boys safe

Rigorous screening of volunteers expensive but keeps boys safe: that’s priceless

Press release 30.10.2018

As an Auckland junior rugby coach and teacher aide was found guilty of close-on one hundred sexual abuse charges against boys last week, the team at a North Island male-mentoring programme for fatherless boys is deeply saddened, yet assured. Despite past suggestions that their rigorous volunteer screening process is too expensive to be used nationally, they are reminded that it is well worth the time and money.

Big Buddy are reputed to own and deliver New Zealand’s most intensive screening programme that recruits men from the community to be positive male role models to fatherless boys between 7 and 14 years. Big Buddy staff, police, doctors, long and short-term friends (including at least one woman) and psych specialists look into or vouch for the character of applicants. The group decision on suitability is made over about 8 weeks.

Years ago, Big Buddy’s then CEO, Richard Aston, pitched the high-level ‘safest –yet’ model to some of New Zealand’s most well-known community and government organisations with a duty of care to children, but they all said that, per unit, it was too costly .

“We accept plenty of men onto the programme, but we turn men down for a lot of reasons too– it might be because their work-life may interrupt the process, perhaps we’ve picked up they only want to mentor a boy for a short time,” says CEO Paul Burns. “Very occasionally, we come across someone whose character analysis suggests we cannot safely put a boy in their care, and it’s on these and other occasions we are deeply thankful that we’ve been able to continually secure enough funding to cover the screening costs.

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“If we added up everything it costs to run our programme and average it by the number of boys each year, we’re looking at in the region of $8000. Other organisations are only willing to pay a fraction of that cost. So yes, some say $8000 is a lot of money; we say you can’t put a price on the wellbeing of a boy without a dad, a boy who is already in a very vulnerable position.”

Big Buddy began as a service to prevent boys from following a path that led to social problems, or worse still, prison. The latter environment is heavily populated with men who had received little or none of the fathering they deserved. Over a life-time the full costs of keeping them incarcerated exceed $3 million; a preventative $8000 pales in comparison.

As a preventative service, the team at Big Buddy see the screening process as a large part of the ‘fence at the top of the cliff’ they have built since the seeds of this agency were sown in 1997. It’s a fence that reassures ‘new recruits’ that they are joining a group of men who they can be proud to be associated with.

Wellington Big Buddy and ex-frontline police officer Ken Turner was recently interviewed by Heather du Plessis Allan on Newstalk ZB as well as quoted in Police Association magazine, Police News. He claimed that he was “pleased not just anyone can join” Big Buddy. He wants to be part of something that is tightly managed; the same sentiment was shared in videos by Big Buddies, as part of the current #3lifelessons billsticker and social media campaign.

One respondent to a recent public Big Buddy Facebook post on what a ‘good man’ is, no doubt wishes that someone he trusted a long time ago had been privy to a screening process like Big Buddy’s. Gwydion Skinner’s comments can be seen at

Steve Sobota is Programme Manager at Big Buddy and in his 13-year tenure he’s helped shape the growth of the screening process, but watched with disappointment when other agencies didn’t take up the same challenge. He hopes this week’s news will encourage agencies to look again at their safety measures.

“We know that police checks have been introduced to cover all people who work or volunteer with children. That’s a positive step. But in many cases it doesn’t go far enough to mitigating risk and ensuring an organisation is providing a safe and suitable volunteer.”


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