Pam Iorio, above, heads an organisation called Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. It was established to team youngsters up with adult role models and says on its website:
When children and teens have the influence of a caring adult, they are more likely to avoid risky behaviors and to focus on academics. Today’s youth face a variety of challenges, and being matched with a Big Brother or Big Sister can help them navigate these challenges and reach their potential.
There is no indication on its site that it has a religious ethos, but the Cleveland branch of BBBSA has become the subject of a lawsuit instigated by American Atheists which claims that a child with autistic tendencies enrolled in one of its programmes underwent a forced baptism that left him traumatised.
Identified only as “V”, the son of April and Gregg DeFibaugh was taken to a church picnic in August 2016 by the child’s mentor. During the picnic, the mentor and the church’s pastor subjected him to a full-immersion baptism, against the wishes of his parents.
The forced baptism was the culmination of more than a year of religious harassment by the boy’s guardian ad litem and mentor, Margaret Vaughan who repeatedly proselytised to the boy’s parents, telling them and their children that:
Families need God to raise children.
Despite complaining multiple times to Vaughan’s supervisors, no corrective action was taken by the agency. In 2015, Vaughan recruited David Guarnera, a member of her church, to act as a mentor for the boy through the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Northeast Ohio.
According to the suit, despite explicit instructions from the DeFibaughs to refrain from religious activities with the boy, Guarnero would frequently discuss religion with him.
On August 28, 2016, Guarnero took the boy to a picnic at his church, the Morning Star Friends Church in Chardon, and, along with the church pastor, Matthew Chesnes, forcibly baptised him, pushing him under the water. Since the incident, he has suffered anxiety and extreme emotional distress.
April DeFibaugh reported the incident to the local police and to BBBSA. She said:
They held my son under water. It wasn’t like they sprinkled water on his head, it was like full immersion. He kicked, he screamed and told them beforehand that he was afraid. Every day since then he’s had nightmares, the same recurring dream, about being baptised over and over like he’s drowning.
The officer filing the police report wrote:
I advised her, since her son did not suffer from any physical injury and that there was no criminal intent to harm her son, that this most likely was a civil issue.
Said Amanda Knief, American Atheists’ National Legal Director.
We are horrified by Pastor Chesnes’ and Mr Guanera’s actions. The people that the DeFibaughs relied on to protect their child violated their trust and their constitutional rights.
American Atheists has retained attorney Kenneth D Myers of Cleveland to serve as local counsel.
No family should have to go through what the DeFibaughs did. Families have the right to determine their own religious practices and choose what religion, if any, to teach their children, without government employees interfering or, as in this case, literally forcing religion on them.
The family is seeking declaratory judgment that the conduct of the named defendants was unconstitutional, compensatory and punitive damages, and counsel fees and costs.
Back in 2002, BBBSA came under fire from Focus on the Family because of its anti-discrimination policies regarding homosexual volunteers.