BACA’s Bear Hug
In 1995 John Paul Lilly, or “Chief,” a Native American child therapist in Utah, realized that physically and sexually abused children could use a friend like BACA. An avid motorcyclist, Chief gathered some 20 bikers to go visit one of his patients, an 8-year-old boy who’d been subjected to extreme abuse and was not responding to traditional therapy.
When the bikers arrived, the boy came out to meet them — the first time he’d left his house in several weeks. By the time the visit was over, the boy was actually interacting with the outlaw-looking men and admiring their huge bikes.
Perhaps other children who’d been abused by adults would benefit from the friendship of even more intimidating adults who were on the kids’ side, Chief thought. So he replicated the biker visits with other young victims of abuse, and soon BACA was formed.
Word of the Utah chapter’s work soon spread to Tulsa, then Oklahoma City. In 1998 Danno found out about the organization when his friend, Sheriff, brought him a BACA brochure. “Why don’t we do this here?” his friend asked.
Danno liked the idea, so Sheriff asked his Kawasaki Riders Club if they’d be willing to help start BACA in Texas. The club agreed and committed to a year. They created a back patch and bylaws and began recruiting members.
The Dallas BACA chapter usually handles a caseload of 12 to 25 cases at a time, on referral from the Children’s Advocacy Center of Denton County and Children’s Advocacy Center of Dallas County, the Irving Police Department’s Family Victims Unit, the Dallas district attorney’s office, state child protective services, and other entities.
BACA’s Fort Worth chapter has 37 ongoing cases, and the numbers have stayed steady year after year. Since the chapter’s formation in the late ’90s, members have helped hundreds of kids in North Texas. They’ve received referrals from the Children’s Advocacy Center of Denton County, Cook Children’s Hospital, and law enforcement agencies across Johnson and Tarrant counties.
And these children have been through hell, Danno said. Most have been sexually molested and beaten by family members. Some of the stories are so heartbreaking that they haunt members long after the trial is over.
“What I teach people,” he said, “is when they put on that vest, it’s like wearing a shield — nothing will accumulate on it. It’s a little easier that way to go sit in court and listen to the kids.”
Still, said Sandtrap, president of the Fort Worth chapter, “I think there are more than 37 kids in Tarrant County who could use a friend like BACA. I’m just saying … .”
Last year in Tarrant County, more than 2,200 cases of child abuse were processed at Tarrant County’s Alliance For Children center alone. Nearly 63 percent of those cases involved sexual abuse. More than a third of the victims were younger than 5. Another 42 percent were between ages 6 and 12.
The state Child Protective Services Division reported that Tarrant County had 5,689 confirmed cases of child abuse last year.
The Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office handled about 600 cases involving physical or sexual abuse of children, said Melody McDonald, the DA’s public information officer. Not all those cases were prosecuted: The figure includes those that were dismissed or on which the grand jury did not return an indictment.
BACA members estimated that only 25 percent of child abuse cases are even reported, and they would like to change this statistic. In addition to working with individual children, they distribute brochures and participate in benefit rides and back-to-school festivals.
“The Hollywood stereotype works to our advantage,” said Oddball, “and kids gain some strength from that.”
That image can be a little too convincing for bureaucracies, however. Some child advocacy agencies in North Texas decline to refer children to BACA.
“Why they won’t directly refer to us, we don’t know,” said Sandtrap. “For whatever reason, they don’t feel like they want to work with us.” Tarrant County’s Alliance For Children center recently turned down the group’s offer of help; the Collin County Children’s Advocacy Center isn’t interested either.
“Sometimes it’s like we’re beating our head against the wall,” said Nips, a public relations officer of BACA Internaional.
BACA has run up against similar resistance in several states. The central Oklahoma City chapter works with the Mary Abbott Children’s House, an independent advocacy center, and the Department of Human Services in Oklahoma is working with a few chapters, but the biker clubs rarely receive referrals from the Children’s Advocacy Center of Oklahoma.
“More and more are getting on board,” said Kicker, the president of the Central Oklahoma chapter. “Some of them just don’t understand that we’re a nonprofit organization — not just a bike club. We’re just a bunch of bikers trying to help children.”
In North Texas, Danno said, some agencies “just kind of looked at us and said, ‘Are you serious? You get around our kids?’ They bought into the stereotype pretty hard.”
It took eight years for BACA to get the Children’s Advocacy Center of Dallas County on board, but now BACA receives referrals from the agency on a continual basis.
“I think it’s their presence,” said Kineta Holsworth, a therapist at the center. “They look scruffy and mean, but they’re on the child’s side. Following abuse, children are fearful that this will happen again or that the perpetrator will retaliate. But BACA is able to step in and say, ‘We are here for you.’ ”
The Dallas chapter of BACA still sends a representative to board meetings of the Collin County Children’s Advocacy Center each quarter, seeking permission to work with the children.
“We love what BACA is doing,” said Katy Seitzler, a community relations manager for that agency. “We have their brochures with the rest of our pamphlets.” But the center doesn’t refer cases to BACA.
In March, Tarrant County’s Alliance For Children, which got about 2,000 requests for service last year, denied BACA’s request to be allowed to help the agency’s clients. Executive director Julie Evans didn’t want to speak for her board of directors but said that the alliance has four full-time employees who accompany children to court. She said that those employees offer a service similar to BACA’s without the tough biker image.
“We basically didn’t want to replicate the services we already provide,” she said.