It was a 13-hour round trip, but Shawn "Coach" Haussmann didn't care. He'd promised to be there for the girl so he made the trip again and again.

In the end, it paid off.

The girl was a high school student who had been sexually abused by two boys she went to school with. After the boys were arrested and charged, she was ostracized at school, vandals struck her home and she dropped out of school.

"She was a scared little kid, didn’t want to talk, didn’t want to trust anybody ever again," Haussmann recalled.

Then she found out about Bikers Against Child Abuse.

Twenty-four years ago, Utah play therapist John Paul "Chief" Lilly invited a group of bikers to a client's house for a barbecue. As a child he always felt safe with bikers and he knew a lot of his patients struggled with fear and anxiety. He wanted to see if his patient would benefit from their presence. He did. That very afternoon the child was riding around his neighborhood on his bicycle again.

Lilly's experiment turned into Bikers Against Child Abuse, a nonprofit devoted to creating a safe environment for abused children by offering them physical and emotional support.

If a child has a nightmare at 3 a.m., a member of BACA calls to brush away their fears. If a teenager is terrified of taking the stand in court, BACA members will go with them; if they are convinced someone is going to hurt them, BACA members will stand guard outside the home.

BACA is now active in 22 countries and 49 states, including Arizona.

Haussmann, an auto shop manager, became a member of the Pima County chapter about six years ago. Members go where they are needed though; they've helped children throughout Southern Arizona, including Green Valley and Sahuarita. They've also traveled as far as New Mexico. The girl sexually abused by the two boys lived in New Mexico.

For months he and other BACA members got on their bikes and made trips to spend time with the girl at home and at court. Over time, the girl began to come out of her shell.

Both boys were convicted and during the last sentencing hearing, Haussmann was blown away: The girl announced she was returning to school the following Monday; she wanted to stand up for a friend who was being bullied.

Even more impressive, the girl no longer felt the need for her BACA brothers and sisters to escort her to and from the courtroom's bathroom. She also stopped taking a detour around the defendants' table.

"She insisted she be seen and be able to see," Haussmann said. "At that point I was like, 'Man, this little girl is one of the toughest.' She went from this scared, withdrawn, 'I don’t want to see the world' little girl to this person who was 'You will see me, You will hear me.'”

Joining up

Megan "Gem" Mycek-Gilbert is another member of the Pima County chapter of BACA. She has a bachelor's degree in sociology, works as a clinician and joined the group five years ago at the urging of an acquaintance.

To become a member, interested parties must attend consecutive meetings and submit to a criminal background check. After five months, they officially become a BACA "supporter" and earn a patch for their denim vest or "cuts."

Over the next 18 months or so, supporters must prove their commitment to children by attending trainings, showing up for court and standing security. At the end of that time frame, an executive board votes whether they can join the group. They must obtain all five votes to become a member and receive a BACA patch for the back of their cuts, Mycek-Gilbert said.

"To get my vote, to get a back patch, I need to see you’re going to answer that kid’s phone call, that you’re going to show up, that you’re going to put yourself and your sleep aside to go help that child," Haussmann said.

In order to be helped by BACA, the abuse victims must be under 18, they have to be living in fear, and they have to have reported their abuse to law enforcement, she said.

The children they help are referred to BACA by family members, community members, behavioral health agencies, therapists, hospitals and the Southern Arizona Children's Advocacy Center.

Sometimes BACA gets hooked up with children at the beginning of a criminal case, other times it could be years after the fact and the perpetrator is in prison or left the state.

After being referred, Mycek-Gilbert said three BACA members will meet with the child and their parents to talk about what the group is about and what services they provide. 

If the child is interested, a Level 1 gathering is held. It's at this point the child meets the entire BACA chapter. 

“It’s a ceremony we conduct and it’s the biggest piece of the BACA experience," Mycek-Gilbert said. "They get to meet their primaries, they get the visual cue of, 'Everyone here is going to protect me.' They get to go on a motorcycle ride if appropriate and that’s where that sense of relief starts."

Just how involved a BACA member becomes involved with a child is up to the child, she said. Sometimes, the child will call his or her primary routinely, other times they might only reach out in the days before a big court date.

Haussmann said 97 percent of the children they meet have never met a biker before. The remaining percentage might have a dad or an uncle with a motorcycle, but have never been around a big group of bikers.

“They’re scared of us at first, but then they realize we’re only here for them and they start to realize, 'Hmmm, the thing I was scared about is behind my back, scaring everything else away from me that may harm me,'” he said.

In the early days of the Pima County chapter, BACA members received a chilly reception from law enforcement and prosecutors but things have gotten better, Haussmann said. They've realized that BACA members aren't vigilantes, nor do they want to investigate cases.

"We’ve opened eyes, we’ve really gone through the steps to expose who we really are, what we really are," Haussmann said.

The group has held trainings for Court Appointed Special Advocates and Pima County Juvenile Court staff so they can become familiar with the group, he said.

Deputy Pima County Attorney Alan Goodwin said his office will work with whomever the victims want them to work with if it's in the best interest of the child. 

The Pima County Attorney's Office has its own victim advocates unit, but prosecutors will ask judges to allow BACA members to remain in the courtroom when defense attorneys object – as long as it's what the victims want, he said.

Judges typically allow BACA to remain, but will sometimes have them remove their cuts or limit their numbers, he said.

When children become fearful, oftentimes just a phone call will calm them, but there are times when BACA members will drive to the child's house and just sit in the driveway, Haussmann said. It doesn't matter whether there's an actual threat or not, he said.

“His perception is his reality and we work off that child’s reality, so if that child is, in fact, afraid and it’s keeping him from functioning as a child, that’s what we go take care of,” Haussmann said.

Just recently, Haussmann and another BACA member spent a few hours in the lobby of the Southern Arizona Child Advocacy Center as one of their "little sisters" gave a forensic interview.

"We played doll houses. I rocked dolls, who knew? We played dolls until it was time for her to talk and when she went into talk she went in there knowing we were out there and in her mind, physically, nothing could ever possibly hurt her because we’re that barrier," he said.

Sometimes the threat is real, though.

All-hands alert

In January 2018, for the first time ever, an "all-hands" alert went out to all BACA members.

A child abuse victim’s mother and the woman’s boyfriend were stabbed in the neck at their home in Nogales, Sonora, by two men on what was supposed to be the first day of the suspect's trial in Santa Cruz County Superior Court. Authorities believe the attack was orchestrated by the suspect.

Within two days, 160 BACA members were stationed at the victim's house, the courthouse and various other places around Nogales, Arizona, hoping to reassure the victim, Haussmann said.

In another case, an alleged perpetrator tried to run over a child who claimed he'd abused her. BACA members again went on guard duty.

“Just to send the message, one, she’s safe and protected, and two, anybody driving by will know now’s not the time, you’re not going to make it, this kid is ours,” Haussmann said.

BACA members often use their sick and vacation time to fulfill their commitment, but sometimes they'll even go without pay if needed, Mycek-Gilbert said.

It's all worth it, she said.

She'll never forget the day one of her "little sisters" allowed a BACA member to put his arm around her for a photograph. Up until that moment she thought all men were the devil, Mycek-Gilbert said.

“Before that it was, 'If you touch me I’m going to swing. If you touch me I’m going to scream,'” she said. "I cried for longer than I’m happy to admit.”

Kim Smith | 520-547-9740

Assistant Editor Kim Smith moved to Arizona from Michigan when she was 16. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in journalism in 1989. She has worked at seven newspapers of varying size in Arizona, Texas and Nevada.

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