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More Than Me Still Lacks Adequate Systems to Protect Children in Its Care, New Report Says

At a charity where a ProPublica investigation showed a senior staffer preyed on girls, safety issues remain and the organization’s former leader still has not accepted responsibility, an audit finds.

Children walk to their government school run by More Than Me in the small town of Bomboma in Liberia. (Kathleen Flynn, special to ProPublica)

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The U.S. charity More Than Me has released a report by law firm McLane Middleton that identifies significant deficits in the charity’s policies, governance and administration and strongly criticizes the actions of founder and ex-CEO Katie Meyler, who resigned last month.

The report was commissioned following publication of ProPublica’s October 2018 investigation showing how senior staff member Macintosh Johnson, a man with whom Meyler once had an intimate relationship, had serially sexually abused girls in the charity’s care and how Meyler and other charity officials failed to respond promptly to concerns about his conduct. The investigation outlined how the charity wasn’t transparent about the extent of Johnson’s abuse and didn’t make sure that all of his potential victims were tested after it came to light that he had AIDS when he died. Ten MTM students testified against Johnson in a 2015 trial that ended with a hung jury.

McLane Middleton’s audit report was based on interviews conducted in America and Liberia with 30 people, including Meyler, MTM board members and staff, and Liberian government officials. While it is described as an audit of the charity’s current child safety practices rather than an investigation into how MTM responded to the rape allegations, the report says Meyler did not do adequate due diligence on Johnson or do enough to get the truth when she became aware of suspicions that he was harming girls.

“The leader of an organization entrusted with the care of children must understand the fundamental steps to be taken when abuse of a child is suspected,” the report says. “Meyler had a duty to protect the children to whom MTM provided services. Given MTM’s mission to serve the most vulnerable girls, the duty of care was heightened. This heightened duty became urgent once Meyler had a suspicion that the girls were being molested.”

The audit report notes that she did not inform her board of her suspicions and instead made her own inquiries “despite having no qualifications to do so,” and subsequently hired Johnson without implementing appropriate safeguards. In recommending her removal, the audit states, “Meyler’s good intentions do not excuse the devastating impact of her inadequate actions on the vulnerable girls in her care.”

Meyler did not respond to ProPublica’s emailed request for comment.

In her resignation post on facebook, issued in April after the firm’s interim report had been supplied to MTM’s board, Meyler referred to “false allegations” that she knew or should have known of Johnson’s abuse. The audit, however, takes her to task for not accepting her part in what happened. “It is deeply concerning that Meyler continues, to this day, to assert that her actions based on her suspicions or concerns were ‘adequate’ and that her actions constituted ‘due diligence,’” it says.

Of the wider organization, the audit report acknowledges the efforts and commitment of MTM’s staff and that the charity has made significant strides. But it also identifies ongoing shortcomings in how the organization protects children in its care. ProPublica’s story highlighted the lack of relevant experience of the charity’s board and failure to provide effective oversight. According to the law firm audit, five years on, the current board has “limited experience and training” in fulfilling its duties to safeguard children, and it has no members familiar with Liberian culture, law and politics.

The audit report also highlights an ongoing need for “stable” and “qualified” leadership for the charity’s operations in Liberia. Of the organization’s scholarship program, which Johnson coordinated and used to abuse students, the report says, “The MTM scholarship program lacks meaningful oversight, including with regard to safeguarding” of children.

Five years after Johnson’s abuse came to light, and three years after another staff member accused of sexual abuse was allowed to escape following disagreement among MTM’s senior staff on whether the organization was responsible for reporting the case to authorities, the audit recommends MTM establish protocols on suspected cases of child abuse “for dealing with students and parents” and “for dealing with Liberian authorities.”

The audit report, which was overseen by the charity’s U.S. board, was one of two the organization had said it would release to the public. However, in a May 9 letter transmitting McLane Middleton’s work to the Liberian Ministry of Education, the charity said the report of an independent “special investigative panel” consisting of MTM’s Liberian advisory board is now being treated as an “internal document.” Citing the best interests of MTM’s students and the organization, the charity said it has “not yet concluded when and how” that panel’s work can be released.

James Dorbor Jallah, chair of the Liberian advisory board, wrote in an email to ProPublica that after reviewing the report, members of the Liberian board had raised some questions, but the Liberian board “intends to release the Panel’s report after these questions have been suitably addressed in the report.”

According to the letter, MTM also has not shared the Liberian advisory board’s report with the Liberian government, which is itself conducting an investigation by an unprecedented seven-agency “joint ministerial committee.” Despite pressure from activists, who launched a campaign for accountability under the banner “We Are Unprotected,” a reference to the headline of ProPublica’s story and the title of a related documentary, the government has not yet said when it will release its findings.

In the May 9 letter, More Than Me also reiterated the apology it first issued following the publication of ProPublica’s story. Under a section titled “Great Strides in Child Safeguarding,” the charity states that both the audit report and unreleased investigative report “highlighted the importance of the work More Than Me is doing in Liberia and the substantial strides made in addressing safeguarding since 2014.”

MTM’s letter asserts that both reports “recognized that MTM ... effected substantial changes in its operations and overall governance that are adequate to prevent or ensure the timely discovery of any actual or threat of abuse.”

In an email to ProPublica, an MTM spokesperson wrote: “The work of the Panel and McLane Middleton ... represents an important opportunity for More Than Me to continue to hold itself accountable as we strive to provide a safe, quality education for our students.”

The spokesperson outlined significant organizational changes, saying the charity would be restructured into two entities, the first an organization with programmatic oversight in Liberia that will be overseen by mostly local Liberian trustees, and the second a U.S.-based organization primarily focused on fundraising for the Liberian entity. A new Liberian country director with 20 years of experience has been hired, the spokesperson said, as well as a similarly experienced Liberian “Academy Director of Safety.”

The spokesperson said the charity expects to hire a safety manager in 2019 “to become the main point of contact for government authorities on safety related issues, and oversee incident reporting and follow ups” for the 18 public schools More Than Me also manages in Liberia. The charity has said it will continue to provide support to the victims of Johnson.

This is the full text of the organization’s statement following publication of the audit:

>“No child should ever have to endure sexual abuse, and we are profoundly sorry some of our students were victimized. We sincerely apologize to those who were harmed, and we deeply regret their suffering.

>“We also recognize words are not enough, which is why we are announcing important changes to the organization to ensure a safe learning environment for our students. While More Than Me has already made numerous changes to more effectively safeguard our students, there is more to be done and we are taking decisive action.

>“And while the Independent Panel and McLane Middleton identified past shortcomings and recommended additional improvements, they also highlighted the importance of the work More Than Me is doing in Liberia and the significant strides made in addressing safeguarding since 2014.”

>— More Than Me

Correction, May 10, 2019: This story originally misstated when a second More Than Me staff member accused of sexual assault was able to escape. It was three years before the release of McLane Middleton's audit report, not four.

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