At iconic Boys Town, questions emerge over alleged sexual abuse, fundraising for youth home.
OMAHA, Neb. — Shaelyn Nielsen remembers being required to take tests about Boys Town's rich history and its founder, Father Edward J. Flanagan, before she and other teens were allowed to work at its welcome center on Omaha's west side.
The former Michigan truant, now 25, remembers being handpicked to attend Boys Town's annual Blue Water Bash fundraiser at Lake Okoboji in Iowa, where tickets can sell for thousands of dollars to benefit the nonprofit's summer camp program. Like other wards, she said, she was recruited to tell donors about her Dickensian backstory and her second chance.
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“I sold them on the Boys Town image, how it saves your life, how it was always there for you,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen had no way of knowing then that Boys Town already had amassed more from fundraising than the vast majority of America's 1.37 million public charities. She also never imagined that she would one day sue Boys Town over sexual abuse she alleges she suffered there.
Boys Town, with family-style foster homes at its home campus in Nebraska and with satellite residential programs in New Orleans; Portsmouth, Rhode Island; and Orlando and Tallahassee, Florida, is one of the oldest, largest, wealthiest and most-renowned youth-focused charities in the country.
Yet a four-month Des Moines Register investigation found that Boys Town's vast fundraising operations earn poor marks for fundraising efficiency, providing less bang for its donors' bucks, while serving fewer youth at its home campus than in earlier decades. And it cloaks in secrecy accusations of sexual abuse at the campus.
Among the investigation's key findings:
- Last year, Boys Town spent almost as much on fundraising — $67 million — as it did on all its landmark youth programs in Nebraska and Iowa, its consolidated financial report shows. Overall, Boys Town spent $499 million on its broad operations.
- The abuse Nielsen alleges she suffered when she lived at Boys Town was not isolated. At least 12 rapes, six aggravated assaults and 111 other assaults were reported by Boys Town's village police department over the last five years, the investigation found.
- Boys Town advertises that it adheres to the highest standards of safety, but it doesn't deny abuse sometimes happens. "Bad things can and do happen in child care settings," the charity said in a statement. "And while some of these situations often are unavoidable, they are still unacceptable." But the public has no way of knowing how much abuse is substantiated in its programs, which house kids from Iowa and other states.
- Boys Town Police Chief William Clark refused to release any police reports about a dozen alleged rape offenses his department reported to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program and the Nebraska Crime Commission in the past five years.
- A spokesperson for Boys Town, Brooklyn, New York-based media consultant John Collins, insisted Boys Town always reports abuse to the appropriate authorities and suggested the offenses were not rapes but instead touching among high schoolers. But two state agencies that are supposed to provide added oversight for kids in such settings in Nebraska told the Register they did not receive sexual abuse reports, though that's required under state and federal law.
The findings come as Boys Town, undergoing a rare leadership change, has largely skirted the reckoning faced by other residential facilities for youth across the country. Dozens of facilities nationally have shuttered amid widespread reports of abuse, state investigations and new research documenting the traumatizing effects of abuse on children.
Nielsen said if any nonprofit in the country had the experience, training and resources to protect her, it should have been Boys Town.
As an adult, she said, she understands now how difficult it was to try to report abuse by a man she trusted, who was married to a woman she adored, who knew she had nowhere else to go.
Boys Town has denied the allegations in Nielsen's lawsuit.
For her, the nonprofit's promises of healing and hope proved empty. "What happened broke my heart," she said.
She believes now that Boys Town chose her to speak to donors and visitors because her personal story was so compelling. "I know that sounds horrible," she said. "But people like me bring in the most money."