It Takes a Village: How an Entire Community Left Liberia’s Girls Unprotected
By: Cyrene Williams and Jerome Verdier Jr.
Many Liberians once admired the work of Katie Meyler with the establishment of the More than Me foundation, especially her grassroots hands-on approach. From the way she told the stories of Liberia and the girls shared on Instagram, the world was touched by the necessity of her work. The stories of the girls and their extreme bravery despite their challenging lives inspired many, prompting them to volunteer time, effort, and money to the cause.
Until now, perceptions of the foundation and its founder has been a success story, which has remained that way to an extent. Katie saw a need to protect some of Liberia’s most vulnerable girls, as well as risked her life for dying Liberians during the Ebola crisis when many of our own, even public servants, took off on planes to safety, leaving the masses to fend for themselves. However, as the world has recently learned, this success story is not all it seems to be.
With Propublica and TIME’’s release of the ‘Unprotected‘ documentary, disgust, anger, and disappointment has filled Liberians to their core, forcing the nation to dissect where all the faults are hidden in Meyler and More than Me’s failure to protect its students. Where now, can these faults be placed?
The first place to start of course, is at the source that brought together the nation’s most vulnerable girls in one space, and exposed them to a predator.
Katie Meyler’s inexperience or lack of expertise in the education field does not disqualify her intent and known vision for More than Me (MTM) Academy; however, Liberia’s systematic bias for foreigners, especially Whites, hindered us from looking beyond to ensure Liberians were protected, supported, and of the nation’s utmost primary interest. After such scandal of the sexual abuse of over 30 vulnerable girls between ages 10-16, whose saviors were self-endearing, and negligent with their protection, the Liberian government under Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf entrusted a vast education task to Ms. Meyler who is neither an educator nor an expert in the field. Was she a force needed in making a change? Possibly, but she is not the only one embarking on such a journey. Her tireless efforts in telling the story of Liberia and its girls is commendable, as she was able to bring the nation’s frail education system to the world’s perview, raising millions of dollars to the cause. What also is not undeniable, though, is that she ascended to the heights she could based on the color of her skin, and not the cause alone, as many Liberians are and have been on the ground doing similar works; except, they were not given the same trust and platforms Meyler was awarded – both from Liberians and the world.
Meyler’s recent justification of her negligence in the rape scandal in wake of the publication, stated; “we tested the students, and I will say, do you not realize the backgrounds some of these students come from?…”.
Her statement was vague, and an unsuccessful attempt at distancing herself from the girls and their tragic ordeal in wake of the publication. The truth is, no matter the backgrounds of the girls prior to entering More than Me, it was Meyler and the foundation’s sole responsibility to protect them, staying true to their mission and promise to protect and empower girls with history of sexual abuse through “Safety, health, education, and monitoring”. Keeping all of this in mind, the then school nurse reported that only five of the ten girls who came forward were allegedly tested for HIV/AIDS, despite knowing that the predator and former lover of Meyler, Macintosh Johnson, had abused more students.
Also truth in Meyler’s statement is her public shaming of the girls she has dedicated her life to protecting. Shaming these girls of their pasts when pushed against the wall strips Meyler of her self-acclaimed “I live for them” rhetoric, as she has proven to still see them as “prostitutes” when convenient. Her view of the girls shows that she and the MTM foundation have failed in providing for the girls. Despite the over USD6m raised on the girls’ behalves, they are still the little girls standing in the dark alleyways of WestPoint hoping to get commissioned for the night in order for they and their families to eat the next day.
As for MTM board of directors, they have proven that they are more focused on running a business than an education foundation. The prestige of the brand mattered more, as they did not ensure that the girls received the justice they deserved. Even in the aftermath of the story, they continue to prove where the true interests of the foundation lies — and that is with the money.
The MTM pitch line for fundraising and the vision of the foundation. was to “build a pathway of dreams for thousands of the world’s most vulnerable girls.” Based on that promise, it was implied that the foundation’s utmost concern was to provide a safe place for these girls and try to protect them from the abuse they suffered. However, this was not the case. The organization instead saw girls who in their minds had no hope, and if they wanted education or food, their best choice was More Than Me (MTM). This was a win-win situation for the organization, and so they embarked on a social media campaign to show the world the sad crying faces of young African girls who were victims of sexual abuse in hopes that their stories would get the donors and their dollars. It worked.
On the board was an Italian Prince and his wife who marketed cosmetic products, a close friend of Meyler who ran a perfume company, a Liberian-American entrepreneur, and Meyler herself. Board members at the time were all entrepreneurs. Not educators, therapists, or any of the likes. They were business people interested in profits, and as seen time and time again, marketing poverty is a highly profitable business venture. Meyler sold her vision to them and encouraged them to invest in her cause.
The world has since realized that these board members were barely interested or involved with the integral parts of the organization, Meyler was. When then country director, Morgana Wingard who has a nonprofit experience questioned Meyler on ethical issues and voiced her concerns about sleepovers with the girls, with Johnson and another male employee being chaperones, Meyler’s chilling response was that Morgana “didn’t get it”; that she “didn’t understand the culture”. Morgana also reportedly warned that the school could not open in September of 2013 as planned saying, “We cannot possibly be ready”.
There was a culture of recklessness and a lot of disparities making the organization ripe for abuse.
Wingard was alone in her fight to ensure this organization wasn’t telling a one-sided story, that they were practicing what they preached and actually helping “the world’s most vulnerable girls”. Wingard’s Risk Management proposal is a testament. She tried “to avoid a small disaster…or a bigger one for that matter.” Meyler on the other hand, sold her idea of what she called “a Liberian startup organization” to the board and made them believe it was ok to ignore a lot of things, and they went right along with whatever she said. It is saddening, but not surprising that had she stayed, maybe there would have been someone to challenge Meyler and force the board to do what was right for the students.
In America, Where Meyler is from, none of this would be tolerated and those board members at the time knew that; however, Meyler had convinced them that this was the “culture” and a lot of things gets swept under the carpet in “a Liberian startup organization”. So instead of doing their due diligence or bringing in someone who knows what’s right, they left it all to Meyler.
Standard procedure would require a background check of potential employees, a drug test and reference letters. While it can be agreed that the Liberian system is broken and lacks the capabilities to adequately fulfil these requirements, Meyler and the MTM board took advantage of that. The organization, knowing what’s better, should have ensured that those working for them were worthy of the trust they bestowed. Even then, Macintosh Johnson the predator was immune from such because he was a “co-founder”. Their romantic affair aside, he had a character reference from Meyler, as she hailed him as a good man, describing him as “the Jesus of Westpoint” (Lord have mercy). They knew he was a former child soldier, they knew child soldiers in Liberia were involved in rape and quite obviously murder, of which Johnson admitted to. Despite this knowledge, Johnson was flown to the US to help Meyler raise money and tell his story of change and transformation; from a child soldier to community leader.
In Liberia, it doesn’t take much to discover the truth about someone’s character, it’s home to only 4.5m people after-all. What the Police do not know, the community members do, what the Liberia National Police (LNP) has no record of, people in the community can provide detailed accounts. From when Meyler first arrived in Liberia in 2007, till 2013 when the school was opened, and her frequent visits and involvement in the country, it can be agreed that Katie Meyler could have prevented this predator and saved those innocent kids the abuse. If she wasn’t already aware, she could have found out about the 14-year-old girl Johnson impregnated in 2009; she could have discovered his record of domestic abuse, and it was no secret that Johnson was a pedophile.
Katie Meyler claims to know the culture but couldn’t understand what someone means when they say someone likes “small children business”.
Meyler claimed she was uncomfortable about Johnson’s ex-wife’s account about his relationship with children and the girls at the school, but she said it wasn’t “explicit”. This is Westpoint, Liberia. How explicit did this have to be to get one to listen and understand? Truth is, Meyler was not uncomfortable enough to take action and ensure those girls were safe. Despite being an American, she ignored her duty to report and her duty to warn required by law from all Americans, by keeping this realization of abuse from members of her board, the Liberian public, and the world who she got involved when it was time to raise money.
Katie Meyler you are an American and you grew up in a country where the laws protect children and as such you should not have taken this lightly.
When Michelle Spada first heard of the abuse, she recounted that “It felt like I’d been punched in the stomach,”. It was clear that those on the board, especially Skip Borghese have very different stomachs, and being the Prince he is, was cut from a very different cloth.
His response was, “we need to think about how we protect the organization. We need to think about whether this was our responsibility.”
Point of correction sir, this was specifically your responsibility. You employed a pedophile, you sponsored his trip to the US, he was listed as a “co-founder” on your website. In the West where you sit loftily, you would be sued! Maybe you have not heard but there is a thing called vicarious liability. Your organization would face a civil lawsuit and your employee would be subject to criminal charges. Ironically, this organization is called More Than Me, but on its board, sat what proved to be a bunch of selfish and greedy individuals who sought to protect their interest and their organization, not the “world’s most vulnerable girls” as claimed.
The Liberian system lacks standard, and that cripples the nation every time. The absence of security for underprivileged children all over Liberia is prevalent. Orphanage homes can be built by anyone and in any way — with no regulation governing the conditions of those homes or obligations of the caregivers.
The nation’s inability to govern, failure to prosecute wrong or uphold the rule of law led us to this tragedy. Where was the Ministry of Education? Did they certify MTM school, ensuring their instructors or curriculum met the required standards? Or does the President’s presence at its launch certifiy such requirements? More importantly, where was the Ministry of Gender, Children & Social Protection (MoGCSP)? What role did it play in regards to their mandate “to advise Government on all matters affecting the development and welfare of women and children as well as any other matters referred to it by the Government.”? They all failed woefully in protecting these girls and ensuring these organizations abide by existing laws. It was surprising to learn that MTM provided the safe house for the 10 girls who testified against Johnson, and not the government of Liberia.
The Government of Liberia (GoL) handled this incident irresponsibly.
Instead of it being a GoL issue, it was a MTM issue. They brought the money, hired teachers, opened a school, and in such a situation, the expectations from the government would have been to fight for and care for these girls. The unfortunate excuse being used to justify their failure to act is the Ebola crisis which is honestly no valid excuse. Whatever district this police report was filed, the representative of that district must have known of this and taken it as a priority. The entire government had 4 years since the incident, and over 2 years since the Ebola crisis to bring this entire incident to light.
Everything about this case is centered in Montserrado County whose Political leader at the time was Senator George Weah. It would be important to know what his office did about this, and what role they played in ensuring this doesn’t happen again.
It is a matter of MUST that the GoL seeks redress in this case. The victims deserve justice, and this organization and its officials need to make amends. Article 1 of the Liberian constitution states; “All power is inherent in the people. All free governments are instituted by their authority and for their benefit and they have the right to alter and reform the same when their safety and happiness so require”. This just doesn’t apply to election, under oath, you owe them a duty of service.
The culture of abuse which runs deep in our nation needs to be abolished at once. The community of WestPoint failed to protect these girls from a man they knew were abusing them. He was caught raping a teenage girl and there was no action taken, it was never a concern of the community. What happened to community leaders?
Chants of “you kill my ma, you kill my pa, I will vote for you” still echoes in mind when such carelessness and neglect occurs.
Say what you may, but clearly, this predator’s ex-wife failed her own. She failed young Liberian girls. Her negligence, complacency and enabling by not fully reporting her concerns but also tolerating pedophilic nature-relations between her husband and those girls under her roof is questionable, and draws light to how the women behind the se abusers can sometimes play a role in their behaviors.
This kind of story lives in many homes where abuse is normalized, and people would take baby-step actions with no intent of a total impact. Because Johnson was instrumental in bringing a school to Westpoint doesn’t mean you, the community should keep quiet and not speak of this character and history of abuse. You had every opportunity to stop this or at least minimize casualty and not allow this man to abuse more than 30 young girls. It is a shame you rioted not for the abuse of the girls or the organization allowing the rapes to happen but because the organization had reported Johnson. You failed those girls.
Iris Martor, thank you for eventually coming forward to speak out. But that was five months too late.
The fear of not protecting the vulnerable should always be greater than fear of offending people who should be held accountable. You were the eyes on the ground, you were the hands and feet of justice, at the impulse of your kindness this could have been avoided.
This has happened but it is not over, Johnson is dead but there are many more Johnsons around in our communities, ours social groups and even in our families.. I implore the Liberian people to , make amends, take a stand and break the curse of sexual assault and abuse one girl, one family and one community at a time. Because, if we are not protecting our own, what are are we doing?