By Landon Reeves, special to HER –
The thunderous roar of motorcycles driven by leather-clad, tattooed bikers complete with beards to their bellies and heavy metal rings on their knuckles may frighten many. But this sterotypical image of a biker is the sound and sight of love and protection for many children.
A worldwide, nonprofit, volunteer-only organization, Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA) advocates for victims of child abuse. Not all members of BACA have beards, not all have tattoos and many members are not men. But all of them love children.
“Advocating sometimes can mean being somebody’s voice or it can mean being somebody’s therapist. It can be a number of different things,” said John “Ratchet” Mattox, president of the Central Missouri BACA chapter.
The first BACA ride was in Utah in 1995, after the founder of the organization, John Paul “Chief” Lilly, included a wounded and scared child in his circle of bikers. The child was so terrified of his abuser that he would not leave home. But soon after 27 bikers showed up and told him he didn’t have to be scared anymore, the child was out and about playing with others.
The first chapter was then formed and the idea spread.
“When we talk about advocating for BACA, what we do is literally empower these kids to not be afraid,” Mattox said. “When we get involved, we help convince the child that they don’t need to be afraid because this guy is not going to mess with you anymore, there is no way he is going to get to you.”
BACA gets its cases from victim advocates such as prosecuting attorneys or officials from the Division of Family Services. It thoroughly investigates each case to determine if it is a legitimate case of abuse. Some of the parameters for determining abuse include documentation of abuse, pending charges for the perpetrator, an ongoing investigation with the police.
“BACA has provided our victims with a safety net and a measure of comfort and friendship beyond what our means allow in my office,” wrote Audrain County Prosecutor Jacob Shellabarger in an email response to questions.
“I have found the BACA kids can find someone who will fight for them, love them for who they are, and be a security blanket against an often cold and impersonal justice system.”
If the guardian and the child accept the help of the organization, members will ride out in a large group and adopt the family. They give the child and his or her siblings an honorary member vest resembling the one worn by members. Then the child picks their “road name,” anything kid friendly. Cinderella, Froggy and Spider-Man are some of the examples of children’s road names.
They also give the child a teddy bear that each member “fills with hugs” and a primary and a secondary contact for the child to call if they are being scared by the perpetrator, having a rough day or just have a bad dream.
If the abuser will not leave the child alone, BACA members will post security around the house and stand guard 24 hours a day, seven days a week until the threat is gone. Abusers have been known to violate restraining orders, drive by at all times honking their horns, send threatening correspondence, and even murder family pets. But this behavior typically stops once a group of bikers hang around the residence.
“We are not thugs. We are not vigilantes. We don’t go hunt these people down,” Ratchet said. “Our goal is to become the obstacle between that perpetrator and the child. We are willing to die for these kids, and if that guy shows up and wants to come through us he is going to have a hell of a fight on his hands.”
The group does not condone the use of violence, but they stand ready to do whatever is necessary to protect their little brothers and sisters, Ratchet said. He also uses masculine for abusers pronouns because the vast majority of abusers are male, especially for sexual crimes, he said.
They also accompany the children to court hearings to empower them to testify against their abusers. Most of this experience involves playing tic-tac-toe in legal libraries with the child as they wait to testify, but it also involves keeping them from being intimidated by the perpetrator or their family members.
“The BACA advocates are fearless, fun and approachable. They know the justice system requires patience and focus,” Shellabarger wrote. “In the courtroom, victims often feel isolated and alone, and the wall of BACA bikers lets those victims know they are not alone, the do not suffer in silence and the community supports them.”
“BACA provides a sense of belonging and unconditional acceptance for victims of sexual and physical abuse,” he added.
The Central Missouri Chapter’s Court Liaison, who goes by the biker name of Chigger, joined the organization in February of 2013 and said they group sees the children through the entire trial process and they work with more than 20 children at a time. She wanted her real name to be kept confidential for her and her clients safety.
“You don’t really know the impact until you get involved with your first child,” Chigger said. “At first they are shy and withdrawn, but when we go to see them again they are happy and outside and waiting for us. They feel protected and it is kind of allowing them to enjoy their childhood once again,” Chigger said. “It is amazing, absolutely amazing. It gives you goose bumps. You could never possibly understand, you have to experience it from the beginning to the end.”
The organization’s funds go solely toward the children they support, Ratchet said. Whether it is to provide therapy for a victim or to pay for a holiday party, the group focuses their time and money on their children. They accept donations, but their tax status does not allow them to host their own fundraisers. They must rely on the kindness of others to host fundraisers for them, and they are not allowed to participate in lobbying.
Though many members contribute the charities such as Toys for Tots, they do so individually. BACA as a group does not contribute or favor any one charity over another. It is not a motorcycle club, or biker gang, and doesn’t endorse any political party.
Joining their group is no easy task. Potential members must have regular access to a motorcycle that can drive the speed limit, be at least 18 years old, and submit fingerprints for a federal background check. They also have to attend meetings and ride with the chapter for at least one year before being presented to the board of directors, and need unanimous votes from the board to enter the group.
“An essential part of being in BACA is you have to be a little bit crazy,” Ratchet said. “You got to be able to let your hair down. About a month ago I was dancing with a little girl at her birthday party, and I am talking about cutting a rug. I am not a dancer and I was hugely embarrassed, but I was doing it for her,”.
Even after they are in the group, the members have strict policies to adhere to, like never leaving one member alone with a child. They also attend an annual international meeting and conference to become more educated on the subjects surrounding their responsibilities as members. Each chapter of BACA has access to a licensed mental health professional who also helps train the members.
The Central Missouri chapter covers 17 counties and is one of 13 in the state, according to the website bacaworld.org. More information about the organization, including contact information for local chapters is also available on the site.