10/17/2013 04:05 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Big Brothers defends screening process after sex charges

Big Brothers Big Sisters is defending its screening process after one of its volunteers — a man with a prior fraud conviction — was recently charged with sex-related offences against the preteen boy he mentored for years.

“For Big Brothers Big Sisters, child safety is paramount, it’s our number one priority for children,” said Kelly Leach, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Newfoundland.

Leach says there are multiple safeguards in place in what she calls a “rigorous and thorough screening process.”

While that process includes a criminal background check, a conviction does not necessarily rule someone out from becoming a Big Brother volunteer.

“What our policy states is that anyone who has any charges or convictions — pending, or charges have been laid — regarding assault, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, child pornography, trafficking in a prohibited substance, murder or any other serious offence such as that, they would not be permitted to volunteer in any capacity with the organization,” Leach said.

Last month, a Big Brother mentor was charged with five sex-related offences, including sexual assault and touching a person under the age of 16 with a sexual purpose.

There are two alleged victims, according to a document outlining the charges filed at provincial court by the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.

Police believe three of the five offences occurred over a lengthy period, from late 2010 to the summer of 2013.

The man charged has a prior 2006 conviction for fraud under $5,000.

But fraud is not on the list of crimes that bar someone from becoming a Big Brother.

“That was not listed in our policy as someone who could not volunteer,” Leach said.

Leach says she cannot comment on specific cases, for confidentiality reasons.

She declined to say whether the local organization was aware that one of its volunteers had a fraud conviction.

After an initial criminal background check, she notes, Big Brothers mentors are required to fill out a form every year advising whether there have been any changes in their legal status — charges or convictions.

The organization itself does not go back to police.

“We would take volunteers at their word,” Leach said.

Nightmare started in 2009, mother says

But the family of the alleged victim does not think that is not good enough.

“Cam” — not her real name — is the mother of the boy who was allegedly assaulted by his Big Brother over a period of nearly three years.

Neither the boy, nor his mother, can be named because of a court-ordered publication ban.

CBC News is also not identifying the Big Brother mentor who has been charged, because doing so could potentially reveal the identity of his alleged victim.

Cam says her nightmare started back in 2009, when her then nine-year-old son was matched with that experienced volunteer.

“The organization and the case worker at that time spoke extremely highly of him,” Cam told CBC News.

“It was a match made in heaven.”

Cam says the man entered their lives at a vulnerable time. She and her husband had recently split. Shortly after, he fell ill and died.

Mentor moved in even closer

Cam says it wasn't long until the Big Brother mentor moved in even closer.

“He couldn’t find anywhere to live, he was looking for apartments, so I said you know what, you can go in the basement,” the mother said. “I'm not going to have you on the street. So he did, he stayed there.”

Cam says she notified the agency's case worker about the situation and no red flags were raised until three years later. 

Family friends came from out of town for a visit, and stayed in the home.

“The last night they were here, he attempted something with my friend’s son,” she said.

That led Cam to question her own son.

“I said how long has this been happening, and he said a long time,” the mom said.

The police stepped in. But Cam had questions for Big Brothers. 

“We trusted him. We trusted him completely. And knowing that he came from such a reputable place, I would never in my wildest dreams have thought that this was happening.”

Cam says if she knew about that prior conviction, she never would have let him into her home.

The man is due back in court next month on the five sex-related charges.