Can we take one more news report of a child being sexually abused by a coach? In the last calendar year, no area of youth sports has remained untouched by child sexual abuse. Take for example:
- Robert ‘Bobby’ Dodd: former president of the Amateur Athletic Union and youth sports basketball coach. Dodd is currently under investigation by Memphis authorities for allegedly molesting two boys he coached in the late 1980s.
- Jerry Sandusky: alleged to have used youth sports to access and sexually abuse nine to thirteen year-old boys. This drama continues to unfold.
- Graham Jones: junior hockey coach accused of sexual abuse by former NHL player Theo Fleury while Fleury competed on a junior hockey team.
- Don Peters: former US Olympics gymnastics coach, was removed from the sport’s Hall of Fame and lost coaching privileges, permanently revoked, following an investigation of child sexual abuse.
These nationally reported youth sports tragedies received significant press and national attention; hundreds of others are reported on local and community levels. Sadly, the same pattern exists whether the reporting is national or local.
Children in youth sports are being victimized. We shouldn’t need any more ‘wake-up calls’. We should respond. What are we doing? What should we be doing? Essentially: what’s working, and what isn’t?
Why are children at risk in youth sports?
Almost every kid in the U.S. has a sports hero, and sets goals to ‘be like Mike’ … or Josh Hamilton, or Keven Durant, or Lindsey Vonn or Drew Brees. Youth sports fill an important role in our culture. Further, young athletes spend a significant amount of time with coaches, team volunteers and teammates, often with no direct parent supervision. Children are taught and expected to obey team leaders without question; parents enrolling children into a coach’s team or program expect their child to be instructed and possibly disciplined by that coach. Many young athletes grow to respect, trust and idolize coaches and other team leaders. Young athletes are taught to demonstrate ‘team loyalty’, a sense of putting the team and its success over one’s personal needs or concerns.
Additionally, many youth sports activities involve circumstances that increase the risk of predatory behavior. Risk increases when an activity involves changing of clothes, use of showers and locker rooms, and equipment requiring assistance for application or removal. Additionally, there is heightened risk when a sport involves physical contact, ‘spotting’ and body positioning. Risk increases when a sport requires travel, overnight stays and shared rooms. Different sports carry different and unique risks.
What are we doing to prevent abuse?
Organizations supporting youth sports are prolific, varied in scope and size, and most are led by leaders who are aware that children are at risk of sexual abuse. A random sampling of youth sport websites, however, demonstrates a serious lack of understanding of sexual abuse and sexual abusers. If program leaders lack an understanding of the nature of this risk, they cannot effectively reduce this risk.
Criminal Background Check – is it enough?
Professionals in law enforcement and social services are reporting record spikes in questions regarding sexual abuse — particularly in educational and sports contexts. Youth sports organizations, too, are hearing from parents:
What are you doing to keep my child safe? Common Answer: we do criminal background checks.
Next Question: what else do you do? Common Answer: what do you mean?
Therein lies the problem … given the facts like: Less than 10% of sexual abusers will ever encounter the criminal justice system.
Put differently, more than 90% of sexual abusers have no criminal record to check. If your criminal background check worked with 100% efficiency (which it doesn’t), and perfectly gathered every record in the country…you would receive records of less than 10% of individuals desiring to sexually abuse children.
Is this a reason to discontinue criminal background checks? Of course not. Criminal background checks are necessary and reasonable, the proverbial ‘low-hanging fruit’; every organization providing services to children should make reasonable effort to access past criminal behavior of any applicant, but criminal background checks should not serve as a stand-alone safety measure.
Cases in point: Dodd, Sandusky, James and Peters (mentioned above), were allegedly victimizing children for years … with no criminal background or prior prosecution.
Are criminal background checks ‘working’? If a criminal background check is being used as a stand-alone system to protect children from abuse … no. If a criminal background check is being used as one element of a safety system … maybe. it begs the next question: what is an effective safety system? What should we be doing to reduce the risk of abuse in youth sports?
What should we be doing to reduce the risk of abuse in youth sports?
Again, what we should be doing to reduce risk of sexual abuse should be based on the facts related to sexual abuse and sexual abusers. At a minimum, each youth sports program should develop a safety system, and the foundation of an effective system includes effective training of staff members and volunteers such that coaches, volunteers, and parents have ‘eyes to see and ears to hear’ grooming behaviors utilized by predators.
Sexual Abuse Awareness Training provides staff members, team volunteers and parents with information regarding abuser characteristics, the grooming process (the process by which a predator selects and prepares a child for sexual abuse), common grooming behaviors, warning signs of abuse, reporting responsibilities, and more.
With the facts, youth sports employees, volunteers and participants are better equipped to reduce the risk of child sexual abuse. At the same time, leadership and participants can create an environment that communicates to a would-be abuser that the barriers of protection have been raised.
As well, accurate information about sexual abuse and sexual abusers helps program leaders prepare policies and procedures related to particular sports activities and facilities. The same accurate information assists participants in understanding/implementing those policies and procedures.
In the next five years, more and more state legislatures will require Sexual Abuse Awareness Training in Youth Sports programs. At present, the state of Texas requires abuse awareness training for youth camps, days camps, public schools, charter schools, day care centers, child-placing agencies, and programs for minors on college campuses. Given the trend, required awareness training will continue to expand in Texas, and begin adoption through the U.S.