Are Your Kids Safe from Abuse in Sports? 3 Questions Every Parent Should Ask
Little league baseball, rep hockey, competitive swimming, after-school tennis lessons, karate classes . . . so many sports for our kids to choose from!
Whatever activity your child chooses, the benefits of participating in youth sports are almost endless: they can improve outcomes in all areas including physical, social, psychological, academic and health. In well-structured sports, children receive opportunities to set and meet personal goals, develop lasting friendships and enhance problem-solving skills.
Central to any sport is the relationship between the child and his coach. A great coach can draw out the abilities of a timid child in community sports, or propel a talented child on a competitive team to world-class achievement.
When boundaries between coaches and athletes are violated
Like anything, each sport carries its own risks. With that in mind, we buy the protective gear to guard their growing bodies: helmets, shoulder padding, shin guards, mouthguards, and more. Children are carefully taught the proper warm-ups and safety procedures. These are the “boundaries” that both protect and encourage your child to explore her sport and build the skills she is seeking. They are essential to her safety.
Just like physical boundaries, there are also “relational” boundaries in sports. When boundaries are in place, and trust and safety are high, the results can be remarkable. But when ethical and moral boundaries are broken, they are disastrous.
Consider the following cases:
- U.S. gymnastics team doctor, Dr. Larry Nassar, pleads guilty to sexual assault of young athletes age 15 and younger
- Canadian alpine ski coach Bertrand Charest convicted of 37 charges for assaulting young female athletes between the ages of 12 to 18
- Former Penn State Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky convicted on 45 counts of sexual abuse of at-risk boys through his charity work
- Canadian junior hockey coach James Graham convicted of sexually abusing adolescent boys under his charge
- More than 100 Ohio State University students have reported sexual abuse by the university’s team sports doctor, Dr. Richard Strauss
In each of these cases, the coaches or affiliated staff such as a sports doctor groomed and sexually abused multiple children over many years.
How could this happen to so many children over so many years?
Unfortunately, research shows that children who are sexually abused rarely disclose their abuse to a trusted adult.
When a victim is willing to speak publicly about her childhood sexual abuse, it’s vital that we pay attention to her story so that we can learn how to help children better.
Amelie-Frederique Gagnon is one of the brave adults who is sharing what happened in her youth. In this video, she describes how she fell victim as a fourteen-year-old competitive skier to her former ski coach and sexual abuser, Bertrand Charest:
Amelie-Frederique advises parents to be careful and pay attention to their kids while also watching for signs of abuse. Her warning is a powerful reminder to stay vigilant.
Related: The 3 Big Red Flags of Sexual Abuse
What are the child abuse risk factors in youth sports?
The research on sexual abuse of youth has been gaining momentum, particularly in light of the many high-profile cases in the media over the past few years.
Recent statistics show that:
- All young athletes are vulnerable to sexual abuse.
- Between 2% to 8% of minor-age athletes are victims of sexual abuse through their participation in sport.
- 98% of sexual abusers in sports are coaches, instructors, and teachers.
- While most victims are young female athletes, a large proportion of boys are also sexually abused in sports.
- Sexually abused children in sports often have low self-esteem, strained relationships with their parents and eating disorders.
- Many of these children are elite or high-performance athletes. This may indicate something about the culture of a particular sport (i.e. drive for performance over the well-being of the child), or an athlete’s close relationship to a coach (i.e. more private time for grooming if the coach is a sexual abuser).
Is it still safe for my child to play sports?
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed as a parent when the headlines about child sexual abuse seem to be multiplying. Our reaction may be to either ignore the distressing news (leaving our kids vulnerable to real risks), or to hide kids away at home (depriving our kids of healthy activities).
But we can choose a better option! We can equip kids with confidence and the tools to handle any situation.
Protect your kids – start by asking these three questions!
At the most basic level, every sports organization should have in place some behavioral rules, criminal record checks and screenings, and other training to protect young athletes from sexual abuse.
The RCM encourages parents to ask their child’s sports organization three questions:
- Does your child’s coach follow the Rule of 2?
- Has your child’s coach completed a background screening?
- Has your child’s coach taken ethics training?
Question 1: Does your child’s coach follow the rule of 2?
Having been a Scout leader, Sunday School teacher, and youth group leader, I’ve been following the Rule of 2 in my own volunteer work for some time now.
The Rule of 2 says that two adults need to be present when working with children at all times. In other words, your child’s coach should never be alone for any extended period of time with your child.
One night, I was ready to drop off my son for his baseball practice at a nearby diamond. We were the first ones to arrive, so I decided to wait until the coach and some other parents turned up. I usually run an errand or two during practices and stay for the games.
This time, only one of our two coaches was able to make it. I noticed that several parents dropped off their kids in the parking lot and then drove away.
My own plans changed on the spot. I didn’t feel right to leave our coach alone with several kids under his care. Not because I didn’t trust him, or had a bad feeling, but I remembered the Rule of 2 in my own work with kids. So I stayed. About ten minutes later, another parent showed up with his son and also remained for the practice.
One reminder that stuck with me on this particular night: don’t park n’ fly when it comes to kids’ sports activities. Make sure that at least 2 trustworthy people are in charge of the kids.
And support your coaches! The majority are wonderful volunteers. It helps coaches to know that other parents are available for backup so that they don’t have to shoulder the burden alone.
Bottom line: we need to work together to make the sports environment safe for kids and hard for child abusers to get in and get comfortable.
“Having two people present is the significant protect factor that we need to reduce abuse.” Lorraine Lafrenier, CEO, Coaching Association of Canada
Question 2: Has your child’s coach completed a background screening?
The background check includes security screening tools such as:
- Comprehensive job history
- Reference checks
- Criminal record checks
If your child is going to participate in a competitive sports program, be sure to ask the head office about how they screen the coaches.
Question 3: Has your child’s coach taken ethics training?
Another important step for developing coaches is ethics training. This raises the awareness level and moral responsibility that coaches and other leaders have to prevent and report any abuse or harassment they see while kids are under their care. In Canada, the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) offers the Make Ethical Decisions and Respect in Sport module.
If your child is heading into a competitive or travel team environment, ethics training for coaches is vital for the emotional and physical well-being of the athletes.
"Sexual abuse that does not include contact can still have a psychological and emotional impact on survivors.” Canadian Centre for Child Protection
How do you know if a sports organization takes child protection seriously?
Those three questions are just a baseline measure to help protect kids. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, through its Safe to Compete program, publishes a guide that recommends policies for specific concerns:
- Internet communication - guidelines for coach-athlete communication through texting, social media, email, etc.
- Privacy - appropriate adult-to-child ratios and supervision in locker rooms and shower areas
- Travel - screened chaperones, number of adults and athletes in a car
It doesn’t matter how much your child may admire a certain coach or long to be part of a particular team. If you are not comfortable about how a sports team handles child protection, please look for a better organization!
Personal boundaries are key to preventing child sexual abuse in youth sports
While safety in sports has its unique challenges, child sexual abuse in any context involves violating boundaries through manipulation.
As parents, we can develop an ongoing conversation with our children to ensure that they have the skills and confidence to recognize warning signs and trust their gut instinct.
Sometimes as part of a grooming process, an adult may attempt to push boundaries, but pass it off as humorous or “no big deal”. Or she may attempt to frighten your child into complying by threatening to hurt her or others.
The more confident and prepared your child is, the more willing he will be to say NO to abuse and tell you about anything that is not right.
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Coach Sarah, a Certified Professional, Betrayal Trauma Recovery Coach sums up the value of boundaries as a gift that we give to our kids:
“Teaching our children healthy boundaries is one of the most loving things we can do for them. Helping them to develop a strong voice (being able to own their ‘yes’s’ and their ‘no’s’, and knowing they have the right to ask for what they need to feel safe) empowers them to know how to navigate relationships and recognize when they are not healthy. What better gift can we give to our children!”
Red flags – what should I look for?
You’ve asked your child’s organization about its child safety procedures (Rule of 2, background screening, ethics training). Additionally, you’ve inquired about special considerations that are relevant to your child’s situation such as safety in locker rooms and travel.
So what else can you do to keep your kids safe from abuse?
You want to stay involved in your child’s sports activities and be aware of boundaries that may have been crossed (not indicating sexual abuse in all cases, but certainly not examples of ethical behavior either). Here are some “red flag” behaviors to be on guard against:
- Unusual interest in your child beyond normal expectations
- Attempted communication with your minor child outside of practices and games – either by phone or online
- Child’s behavior has changed – anger, withdrawal, acting out
- Child is receiving packages or unusual gifts – you’ve noticed new clothing, jewelry or items that your child is being vague about
- Inappropriate jokes and stories, particularly of a sexual or crude nature, are told to youth
- Touching children in ways that are not relevant to training for the sport
- Commenting on child’s body or physicality in ways that are not relevant to her training or sport
Related: The 3 Big Red Flags of Sexual Abuse
5 Action steps for parents with children in sports
- Get involved in your child’s sports activities.
- Introduce yourself to your child’s coach.
- Watch how your child interacts with her coach.
- Know what the sport organization’s policies and procedures are for keeping athletes safe from abuse, especially if there is travel involved.
- Review the principles of healthy boundaries with your child. Keep the conversation going. Let him know you are always there for him, and nothing or no one should ever shame him into silence.
- Monitor your child’s social media presence. Ask questions about whom she is speaking to, and know what platforms she is on.
- Be alert for any sudden changes in your child’s appearance or behavior. If something doesn’t feel right, ask your child questions. Don’t ignore your parenting instinct!
- Know who to turn to. If you suspect something or find out about an abuse situation, contact the local and national organizations who can help.
- U.S. State Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Numbers
- Darkness to Light
- Canadian Centre for Child Protection (Canada)
With better policies, proactive parents, and confident kids, young athletes can enjoy all the benefits of sports free from the dreadful abuses that have happened in the past.
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