Jailhouse tattoos. Cold stares. Outlaw gangs.
These are images to come to mind for many when they hear the word "bikers."
But there’s an international organization of bikers that puts that tough reputation to good use: to help children.
Bikers Against Child Abuse, or BACA, is an international organization of motorcycle riders that works to create a safer environment for abused kids. Their goal is to empower children not to live in fear of the world in which they live, said Chops, president of the BACA Seven Bridges Chapter in Jacksonville.
"We give them the empowerment to say, ‘This is who did this to me,'" Chops said. "We’re not speakers for the children, and we’re not counselors. We’re more like rocks of emotion for them. And we let them know that, while we’re around, nobody’s going to mess with them.”
And there is no shortage of kids to help. In 2010, there were nearly 52,000 cases of child abuse or neglect in the state of Florida. In the past four years, the Seven Bridges Chapter has helped around a hundred.
After police or social workers refer a child to BACA, the group “adopts” them - the entire chapter rides up, gives them a vest and a road name, just like all of the bikers. The group becomes an extended family the child can call on at any time. And when it’s time for the child to go to court, everyone shows up.
“We’ll escort the family in - bikes in the front, family in the middle, bikes behind,” Chops said. “While that child is there, we surround that child.”
BACA’s presence gives the kids a boost when they are in the very difficult situation of having to answer questions about their abuse.
“If the abuser is in the courtroom, it’s scary,” said Irene Toto, CEO of Clay Behavioral Health System.
“Having BACA with them makes a big difference. Sometimes their perceived as big bad bikers, but to know that they’re on your side and fighting for you - that’s an awesome feeling for a kid.”
BACA members are quick to point out that they are not vigilantes. They are a worldwide nonprofit organization with meetings open to the public. All of the members volunteer their time and pay for their expenses. And that support makes a real difference, according to Michelle Reddinger, a victim advocate with the State Attorney’s office in Clay County.
"Just that physical presence of seeing them in that moment gathers up their strength,” said Reddinger. “Or knowing that, ‘Hey, you know what? I just left them. They’re right there cheering for me. They gave me their vest to wear. I have their BACA badge.’”
And that bond goes beyond the court system. As far as the group is concerned, once a child is a BACA kid, they're always a BACA kid.
“If you call a counseling agency, their hours are usually nine to five, Monday through Friday,” Chops said. “If you call at two o’clock on a Saturday night, you’re not going to get an answer. If you call a BACA chapter, we’ll ride and sit in front of that house until that child feels safe again. We’re there 24/7 for our kids - no matter what.”
You can follow Peter Haden on Twitter @HadenMedia.