- Associated Press - Monday, October 31, 2016

LOGANSPORT, Ind. (AP) - A group of motorcycles zoom by, their riders clad in leather and revving the engines.

They’ve got nicknames like Python, Cyclone, Diva and Biscuit.

At first, you’d think twice about messing with any of them. And that’s just what the Bikers Against Child Abuse are counting on.

Sporting patches on their leather vests reading, “No child deserves to live in fear,” the northwest Indiana club aims to harness the cultural perception of bikers as big, scary dudes to empower children who’ve suffered at the hands of abusers.

“I saw for myself the need, the gap that needs filled,” local member Darren “Python” Williams said.

Statewide, dozens of children die each year from abuse or neglect, according to the Indiana Department of Child Services. Many more are injured, physically or emotionally - the state’s child abuse and neglect hotline fielded more than 17,800 calls in September alone, DCS statistics indicate.

As foster parents, Williams and his wife have met children trying to escape abusive situations, including one child the couple fostered a few years ago.

“I was at a point with the foster care system, and what goes on with kids in general … I was so frustrated,” Williams said. Helping abused children heal takes time, he said, and if they cross paths with their abuser, they can experience a huge setback. So that’s where the Bikers Against Child Abuse come in.

A horse farmer just outside Logansport’s north edge, Williams and his wife, Tonya “Cyclone” Williams, have been part of the international club’s local chapter for about the last three years. Like all BACA members, they had to go through background checks and training and be in for at least a year before getting further involved.

Now, he’s the local chapter’s child liaison, which means he puts more than 10,000 miles a year on his 1994 Harley Heritage traveling to initial meetings and other gatherings with all the families hoping their child can be “adopted” into the biker brotherhood.

Williams estimates he’s handled at least a hundred cases over the last few years. Once leaders have decided to take on the child’s case, they gather as many members as possible for a meetup with the child and the rest of the family.

That’s the “adoption,” as Williams called it. “That’s when the big group shows up at their house and we make a lot of noise.”

Literally - “you can hear us coming from miles away,” another chapter member, Natalie “Diva” Brouwer, said.

The child and any siblings get a leather vest with special patches designed just for kids involved in the biker club. They also get a backpack and a teddy bear.

Before presenting the teddy bear, bikers tell the child they’ve each hugged it to fill it with love. They encourage the child to hang on tight to their teddy bear if they feel afraid, at least until one of the bikers can stop by, explained Brouwer, of Rensselaer.

After the big get-together, the child is assigned to two bikers who cooperate with the child’s therapy team. Mainly they’re there just to provide a sense of safety. The bikers tell the child to call anytime, day or night, if they feel they need to.

“It can be ‘I passed a test,’ it can be ‘I was bullied today,’ or it can be, ‘I thought I saw my perpetrator at Wal-Mart and now I’m having a nightmare,’” Brouwer said. ” … Some of our kids hardly call us and others call us every day. Whatever it takes for them to not be afraid.”

And as a woman, she’s an important member, if you ask Williams. Some abused children are much more comfortable around women than men.

But, Brouwer added, “the guys have their place, too.”

“We have some big and scary guys, and ugly too, they tell everybody,” she said. “That’s kind of one of the things they lean on with certain children. I’m bigger, I’m uglier, I’m scarier than anything that’s going to come after you. Try have them come after me.”

However, Brouwer emphasized, the bikers “are not vigilantes.”

“We do empower the children … to speak up and report, and we’re happy with that,” she said.

They do so in part by attending court appearances if the child wants them to come along. They recently showed up in Cass County Circuit Court to sit with the first Cass County child they’ve assisted.

A court date can be traumatizing for a child who’s been abused, Cass County Deputy Prosecutor Noah Schafer said.

“For a child to face down their attacker and abuser in the courtroom … comes close to reliving the entire experience for them,” he said. “So to have big strong, friendly faces around them is a great thing.”

That’s why he supports letting members of the public attend hearings to comfort victims. But at first, that wasn’t what he thought the bikers meant to do.

“Not to stereotype a group of people, but when a group of bikers dressed up to ride… my first reaction was a little worried, ‘uh oh, what’s about to happen here?’” Schafer said.

“But when I realized what they were here for - especially when I saw the victim’s face, when she felt safe and secure … I was happy to have them there.”

He said as prosecutor, he can’t invite groups like BACA because he can’t be seen as trying to strong-arm a defendant. But he praised the bikers for taking extra steps to show respect and deference to authorities.

“When one of them stood up,” he recalled, “and really it was just to leave the courtroom to go to the bathroom or something, they said ‘No. Don’t do anything disruptive.’”

And while the bikers hope to empower the children, sometimes it works the other way around, Brouwer said.

“We’re not sure who’s empowering who,” she said. “This little bitty 8-year-old marching up to the stand … and that 8-year-old will stand up and say, ‘he did that to me and it’s not right.’ And I feel so much joy and empowerment in that, watching that small child get that much bravery and gumption.”

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Source: https://bit.ly/2dJ5pLF

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Information from: Pharos-Tribune, https://www.pharostribune.com


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