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Preventing Sexual Abuse in Youth Sports: Background Checks A Good First Step

Every Parent's Nightmare

One of every three girls and one of every six boys will be victims of sexual abuse by the time they are 18. One of the places that children are vulnerable is in youth sports.

It is every parent's nightmare that their child might be a victim of a sexual predator while participating in youth sports. Unfortunately sexual abuse of young players has occurred in youth sports leagues of all kinds, as well as with individual coaches in individual youth sports.

Background Checks: A Powerful Tool

Many sports leagues now require that all adults involved in youth sports pass a background check. Performing background checks on all volunteers is a powerful tool for protecting each player in your league. While there are many different organizations, each sport league will determine the cost and depth of the background check that is best for their situation. This safety measure is so important it needs to be required in all youth sports leagues. Background checks are effective to the extent that most sexual predators are not willing to have their background checked. Administrators hope that adults who should be around kids will not apply and thus they will be able to weed out potentially harmful people.

As a parent it is appropriate to ask the administrators of your sports league if they have done background checks on all adults involved in their league. If the answer is yes, then you know the foundation for safety has been established and the league understands the importance of the issue.

If the answer is no, then help the administration to seek opportunities for providing this important service to your league. There are many services providing background check services on the Internet, some specializing in screening of sports volunteers. Look for a service which is a member of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners. For a helpful site with links to background check services, click here

Good First Step

But background checks do not solve the entire problem. It is a good first step. Unfortunately, most background checks do not show information about a person who has moved from state to state. For example, the information that is collected by the statewide soccer organization of which I was a member (South Texas Youth Soccer) only got its information from a Texas database. If the person had a problem in Massachusetts it probably would not show up in Texas.

Coach And Player: Never Alone

There a variety of steps a parent can take to protect their child from sexual predators. By far the most important step is to make sure your child is never alone with the coach by instituting a two-adult rule. Such a rule is good because it:

  • Protects the child: A child is vulnerable to sexual abuse by a coach because he or she inherently trusts the coach and may be unable and unwilling to accept an abuse of that trust. If the coach is never alone with a child, the child is protected from being a victim of sexual molestation; and
  • Protects the coach: Prohibiting a coach and player from being alone also protects the coach from accusation or innuendo that something could have gone wrong. A coach's career can be destroyed if the accusation of inappropriate behavior is made because the coach has no way of defending himself if he was alone with a child. This is a simple but powerful protection for all people involved. If an opportunity for inappropriate behavior never exists then inappropriate behavior cannot be alleged. Neither is inappropriate behavior likely.

Teaching safe versus unsafe touching

Parents should also be proactive in establishing a safe environment for their kids as well making sure adults act appropriately. Children should be taught how to determine what is safe touch and what is bad touch. In youth sports, touching does occur. But it is imperative that the child feels comfortable with the type of touch that is appropriate in sports and can determine if a coach or player has stepped over that line into inappropriate touching.

Youth sports organizations or parents are often uncomfortable providing safe training for kids. They do not want to feel like they are meddling with the raising of children. An excellent way is to use materials that are already in existence and have been tested for effectiveness. This means the parents or youth sports organization does not have to start from scratch to provide this level of training.

A good place to turn is the Sexual Assault Center of Nashville, Tennessee. The Center, which I helped found in 1978, has developed resources and programs that are effective in school settings as well as recreational youth sports settings. It's "Safe @ Last" personal safety curriculum is taught in elementary schools in 11 counties in Tennessee, serving more than 124,000 students in 2008-2009 school years, and in 2007 it started a program for middle and high school students called "Be. Promoting Healthy Relationships" , which reached more than 9,000 students in the 2008-2009 school years.

Make sure as parents that you have done your part to create a healthy and safe environment for your child and every child in your youth sports organization.


Most recently revised April 5, 2014

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