In the wake of a recent trial involving a rapist horse breeder who was a host for two farm stay groups despite already being convicted over other offences, it still appears the agencies conduct no thorough checks on hosts’ backgrounds.
While one very popular organisation states it cannot provide “in-depth” checks on hosts’ backgrounds due to its size, the other relies on the member-screening process of the first group.
In August, 68-year-old Gregory Richard Douglas was sentenced to nine years’ jail for sexually assaulting five women, aged between 18 and 27, at his remote farm in Peelwood, a small locality outside Goulburn.
The women came from Germany, Japan and Australia to work on his farm between 2014 and 2019 through two agencies: three via World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) and two via the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS).
When Judge Ian Bourke SC handed down his sentence in the NSW District Court earlier in August, he said while Douglas had no prior convictions for sexual assault, his criminal history dates back to the 1970s and included offences of assault, stealing and possessing a prohibited weapon.
But on WWOOF’s website, it says that due to the national nature of its program, and the great distances across Australia, it is unable to conduct “in-depth” background checks on its hosts. It says it “operates a great deal on trust”.
A spokesperson for AIFS said its organisation works with WWOOF on its rural placements and relies on WWOOF’s member screening processes.
“In October 2019, when we became aware of the accusations against Mr Douglas, we immediately contacted authorities and fully cooperated with their investigation,” the AIFS spokesperson said.
The first person assigned by WWOOF and assaulted by Douglas began work at his farm in 2014, but WWOOF said the first time it became aware there had been an incident with him was in October 2019.
“As a consequence, Mr Douglas is no longer a WWOOF host and has not been a host since the day this incident was reported to us, and this membership cancellation is permanent,” WWOOF Australia office manager Traci Wilson-Brown said.
“Prior to this incident, there had been no reports of misconduct made to us by other volunteers who had visited Mr Douglas.”
She said WWOOF had immediately contacted all volunteers who had been in contact with Douglas to ask if they had stayed with him, then put them in contact with police.
Ms Wilson-Brown said all WWOOF volunteers must be at least 18 years old and, as adults, are advised to adopt sensible, safe travel precautions when travelling alone.
“We continue to advise WWOOFers [volunteers working with WWOOF] to make their own personal safety a priority and encourage them to report to us any host they feel is behaving inappropriately,” she said.