By Roberta Humphries
Executive Director, Child Advocacy Center
Organized youth sports programs are one of the greatest resources available for instilling valuable life skills in young people of all ages. But choosing the right program for your child can be very complicated for many reasons. Children deserve to be in a program that is fun, safe and rewarding and meets their needs and interest. One thing parents must consider when choosing a program for their child is whether a child sexual abuse prevention policy is in place and how it is enforced.
Recently we have seen too often disturbing reminders that youth sports are not immune from child predators. No matter how much we like to believe we can pick these people out, most child predators fit into the community masquerading as concerned and caring people.
Ninety percent of the time children are sexually abused by someone they know and have regular contact with and who exerts control or authority over the child. In youth sports that is the coach. The bond that develops between the player and coach can be very strong and in many cases healthy and beneficial for the child, but parents need to remain alert because that strong bond can be used to manipulate a trusting youth by a sexual predator.
From a very young age, children are told to listen to the coach and do what they are told. The coach is the one that controls whether they get to play or not and in what position. Often times, the parent is so interested in gaining the coach’s favor to benefit the child’s athletic progress that they may inadvertently overlook the subtle grooming techniques that may be occurring with their child. Also the coach may be a highly respected and trusted member of the community and in the parent’s mind may not look like a child molester. But child molesters don’t look any different from anyone else. They can be your neighbor, friend, family member, community leader, white, black, young, old, male, female and can even be that athletic hero that you and your child look up to.
It is important for parents to realize that sexual abuse often begins with very subtle and minor boundary violations. It may start with a pat on the back or buttocks, an arm around the shoulder, a hug, a small gift, singling out the child as special, offering to spend extra time helping the child, offering to take the child home from practice, etc. These grooming techniques work to gain the trust of the child and the parents. Child molesters often gain the trust of the parents first to gain easier access to the child. They are very aware that the more the parents trust them the less likely it will be for the parents to suspect that they would do anything as horrific as sexually abusing their child, and they are also very skilled at finding the triggers which keep children silent. Unfortunately, most children suffer in silence and do not initially disclose the abuse for many reasons. These include: shame because they are told it is their fault by the abuser, threats to themselves or their family, fear of disappointing their parents and disrupting the family, confusion as to what has happened because they may be too young to understand, embarrassment because they may feel that they should have been able to stop the abuse themselves, and fear that they are going to be the one to get into trouble. These are all manipulative tricks that child molesters use to keep children silent.
Following is information for parents to consider when selecting a program for their child:
- What is the organization’s policy on child sexual abuse prevention?
- How does the organization screen employees and volunteers?
- Do they conduct personal interviews, use written applications, check references, and conduct criminal background checks?
- What is the policy about interactions between employees/volunteers and youth? Do they minimize one adult/one child situations? Do they have a code of conduct that focuses on positive interactions and not just about what not to do?
- How do they monitor interactions between adults and/or older youth and children? Do they observe interactions and take action as needed? What is the procedure for bringing up concerns and who is designated to handle those concerns?
- Is the physical environment safe? Are all areas visible to others? Do doors have windows or are they kept open so anyone can observe?
Also it is very important to talk to your child about safety in an age appropriate way. Talk to them about the following:
- Who sexually abuses children – let them know that it is more likely to be someone they know than a complete stranger
- How to recognize concerning behaviors – help them understand the rules for how adults should behave with children and talk about what they should do if an adult’s behavior makes them uncomfortable
- Boundaries – what is their personal space, how they can set personal limits
- Inappropriate behavior between adults and children or older youth and children – does the adult treat the child more like a peer, are they more focused on relationships with children than with other adults, do they turn to the child for emotional or physical comfort or share personal or private information or activities with the child?
- Tricks offenders use to build a relationship with the child
- The reason why it is important to tell a safe adult, and identify who safe adults are for that child, whenever they feel uncomfortable or have a concern
It is a given that those who sexually abuse children are drawn to settings where they have easy access to children. Although it isn’t healthy to expect the worst in people, it is healthy to make a conscious decision to be alert to the possibility of child sexual abuse by people we know and trust. Empowering ourselves and our children with knowledge is an important step in breaking the pattern of denial that allows child sexual abuse to occur. Informed children are less easily manipulated, and should abuse occur, they are more likely to tell and retain their confidence and power.