A U.S. federal court has sentenced a former missionary from Oklahoma to 40 years in prison for sexually abusing children at a Kenyan orphanage. His arrest and conviction – one case among several recent instances of overseas abuse – highlights the need for more vetting procedures in international volunteering, experts say.
Prosecutors accused Matthew Lane Durham, 21, of sexual misconduct with children in Nairobi’s Upendo Children’s Home between April and June 2014. Durham had volunteered at the orphanage since 2012. A jury initially found Durham guilty on seven counts, but U.S. District Judge David Russell acquitted him in January of three of those charges. He also ordered Durham to pay restitution of $15,863.
“These were heinous crimes committed on the most vulnerable victims,” Russell said. “He was their worst nightmare come true.”
The orphanage’s founder, Eunice Menja, read a statement in court in which she said Durham’s actions were a betrayal of the trust the orphanage placed in him.
“Matthew Durham defiled the children,” Menja said, as she fought back tears.
In a sentencing memorandum, prosecutors said Durham’s misconduct will affect how other foreign volunteers are viewed in Kenya and elsewhere. His case follows a string of others. Last year, a U.K. court sentenced British national Simon Harris to more than 17 years in prison for abusing street children in Kenya between 1996 and 2013. Harris headed a charity that placed volunteers in Kenyan schools.
While some mission organizations don’t have plans to change their volunteer vetting processes, others say tighter controls are necessary. Shannon O’Donnell, author of The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, said she has seen her share of ethical and legal loopholes in vetting volunteers.
“I don’t run orphanage volunteering specifically because so few of them actually run background checks on volunteers or require they have a history of social work,” O’Donnell said. “Anyone with money can volunteer on any trip they want with a lot of these organizations.”
Impact Nations International Ministries, an Albuquerque, N.M.-based Christian group that runs short-term missions and other sustainability projects, only requires volunteers to fill out lengthy applications and provide their pastors’ contact information. Often times, the nonprofit leaves the responsibility of background checks to the groups that send volunteers.
“Sometimes churches would send a whole group with us and they’ll vet the people on their team,” said Christina Stewart, director of Impact Nation’s journey teams.
Other organizations put the onus on volunteers, encouraging them to take responsibility for vetting the organizations they work with.
“Make sure your programs screen their volunteers and conduct background checks,” international travel organization Go Overseas recommends on its orphanage volunteer programs page. “Very rarely should you actually be allowed to interact directly with the children.”
But Better Care Network (BCN), an interagency research organization that focuses on global childcare policies, believes volunteers should have no contact with children in orphanages and other care homes. In 2013, BCN began the Better Volunteering, Better Care Initiative with Save the Children UK. The initiative conducts research and collects data to discourage international volunteering in residential care homes – a trend BCN director Florence Martin said would be unheard of in the United States.
“We feel as a global working group that no amount of vetting stops the harm of volunteering in residential care,” Martin said. “Not having a criminal record doesn’t mean there might not be safety issues.”
Beyond the possibility of sexual offenses, Martin said focusing only on orphan care encourages care homes to lie about the status of the children who live there. Ghana’s department of social welfare recently revealed up to 80 percent of children in local orphanages have one or both parents still living, and only 10 of the 148 orphanages in the country are licensed by the department.
BCN advocates volunteers go beyond orphanages and one-on-one contact with children to work with existing local groups that focus on building up families.
“What you’re doing is that you’re volunteering with community organizations that are really working with vulnerable families and children to enable them to care for their kids,” Martin said. “That, we think, is positive engagement.”