You may remember a couple of years' back a lot of media attention was focused on a prominent Canadian youth hockey coach charged with sexually abusing seven players over a six year period. The stories highlight the continued need for parents to be proactive in protecting their children against becoming victims of a sexual predator while participating in sports.
By far the most important step a parent can take to protect her child from a sexual predator is to make sure the coach is never alone with a child. Demand that a two-adult rule be instituted. A two-adult rule not only protects the player but the coach: if he is never alone with a child then inappropriate behavior cannot be alleged. Private or closed practices are a red flag. If the coach wants to exclude you from practice, ask why.
Background checks: important but not fool-proof
Background checks are important but not fool-proof. Parents should demand that their child's sports league perform background checks of every person over the age of 17, whether volunteer or paid employee,who work with or in the vicinity of children. At a minimum, coaches should have job descriptions that define and limit their authority,references should be checked, and the club should engage in ongoing monitoring and evaluation. In higher risk situations, such as when a coach frequently travels out of town with young athletes, more extensive background checks should be performed. Background checks are only as effective as the data bases accessed. Background checks need to access a national data base utilizing multiple criminal record sources,as many predators try to become coaches outside the state where they lived.
Prevention tips for parents
- Know the warning signs of sexual abuse; first in terms of the coach's behavior (does your child's coach make her feel that she needs him in order to succeed? Does the coach spend time with you in an attempt to win your trust or try to be a surrogate parent? Does your child's coach act differently with your child when in front of others? Does he try to isolate him from his teammates? Does he spend a lot more time with her than with other athlete's? Does he try to spend time alone with her? Does the coach give her gifts?), and in terms of your child's (unexplained behavioral changes, such as sudden aggression, quitting the team or being reluctant to return to a sport activity, disordered sleeping or eating, emotional disorders, regression to behavior typical of a young child, sliding grades, fear of washrooms, locker rooms, or closed doors, sudden interest in sex disproportionate for the child's age, may be signs he or she is being sexually abused).
- Get to know the program and who is running it. Are there women's voices on the board of directors? Is there a player-parent advocate? Get to know your child's coach. The tendency is to give tremendous license to someone who is a coach, especially if he or she has a track record of success. Don't put the coach on a pedestal.
- Teach your children how to distinguish between proper and improper touching, to know that, whomever they tell about improper sexual touching, will listen and believe her. If he or she doesn't want to tell you, your child should know he can talk to another trusted adult, whether it is a favorite teacher, guidance counselor, minister or rabbi.
We all want a safe and nurturing environment for our kids playing sports. The best way to prevent your child from becoming a victim of abuse while playing sports (whether it be physical, emotional or sexual) is by staying involved, keeping your eyes and ears open and trusting your intuition. The moment you feel uncomfortable because you don't trust the coach or think your child is not safe, you need to either correct the problem or remove your child from the situation.Many parents recite the mantra, "when I drop him off at practice, I pray." Perhaps the new mantra needs to be, "when I drop him off at practice, I stay."
Brooke de Lench is the the producer and director of The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer, which is airing on PBS stations across the country through winter 2015. For more information about the documentary, click here. She is also author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins), and Executive Director of MomsTEAM Youth Sports Safety Institute. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow her on Twitter @brookedelench.