Child trauma, including child abuse and neglect, is one of the most significant public health issues we face in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Social workers, educators, law enforcement, courts and nonprofits all work on a daily basis to prevent child abuse -- but there’s another organization that takes a very unique approach to addressing the problem and filling in the gaps. It happens to be on the of the largest motorcycle organizations in the world.
Bikers Against Child Abuse, or BACA for short, is a nonprofit organization that helps to "empower children of abuse not to be afraid of the world they’re living in," according to Hoss, the vice president of the Silicon Valley chapter of BACA. Hoss isn't his real name; BACA members all go by nicknames for anonymity. Their work involves building supportive relationships with kids who have suffered abuse -- and, in some cases, standing guard outside their houses to protect them from their perpetrators.
"We’ll take them for rides, and hey, if they’re scared in the middle of the night and they can’t sleep, they give us a call, we’ll be there," Hoss says. "We’ll sit in front of that house 24 hours a day until they feel safe."
BACA works within strict guidelines to protect the identities of the kids with whom they work. They never post photos or share any specifics about the families they’re connecting with, and don’t allow recording of their encounters with kids. There’s an exception that Hoss will talk about, though, because the case made national headlines last year.
Last March, an inmate named Johnell Carter escaped custody while being transferred from the Santa Clara county jail to a medical center. BACA’s Silicon Valley chapter had already been working with Carter’s nine-year-old victim for a year. But with Carter’s escape, and the massive manhunt that followed, BACA got more involved. BACA members stood guard outside the family’s house for four weeks, until Carter was re-arrested in Mississippi.
Besides standing guard outside a child’s home, BACA also accompanies kids to court when they testify against their abusers.
BACA works within the law. They get referrals from social workers and government agencies, and only take on cases where the abuse has been reported to authorities. They will not show up at a kid’s house unless the kid’s guardian has asked them to be there, which means they can only intervene in situations where the perpetrator doesn’t live in the same house as the child.
"We’re not vigilantes," Hoss says. "That’s a problem that people have, is if they think they can just join this and go beat up people. That’s not what we’re about."
Every member of BACA is screened through a federal background check, then goes through a training process that lasts more than a year. And there are always at least two bikers with a child at any time. That’s been the case since 1996, when BACA was formed by John Paul "Chief" Lilly, a Utah-based child therapist who had his own positive experience with bikers as a child. Now BACA has chapters all over the world.
At the end of the day, BACA members' job is to let kids paint their fingernails, not to fight abusers. But Hoss says he’d do anything for a child he’s protecting.
"If I had to stand in front of that child and take a bullet, I’m gonna do it, that’s just the way it’s gonna be," Hoss says. "There’s no doubt in my mind that most of my brothers and sisters would do that. And I know I would."
Hoss says this work is life-changing. But it's not meant to be a permanent relationship.
"We like this to be a process where, when we get done and when court’s done and [the kid feels] empowered, we need to break away," Hoss says. "We don’t want them to feel that they need us forever."
Kind of like superheroes, they come. And when the job is done, they go.