April 18, 2013

How To Keep Our Kids Safe From Predators In Youth Sports


Safety in Youth Sports

Predators in youth sports. I know this isn’t an easy topic. It’s not easy to write about and I know it’s not easy to read. But please read it, share it, and start asking questions and talking about it.

Recently I was asked to join the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children social media outreach team. It’s a volunteer position, but one I couldn’t say no to. In March, the Center put together a 2-day Summit that brought together leaders in youth sports, experts in child health, and safety experts to discuss the new Safe to Compete program.

While BabyGirl is not on a sports team, she does take karate and is involved in other activities. As a family with a personal connection to the Center, it is very important for me not only to make sure my child is safe but I’m “that mom” when it comes to the reality of sexual predators in youth sports. Within the past year there have been several stories of college athletes coming forward to openly share their stories about being sexually abused by coaches and sports team personnel.

Recently, a good friend of mine posted some cryptic information on her Facebook page about her daughter’s former cheer coach. I quickly reached out and did some research of my own to find that the cheer coach had been arrested and was being held suspicion of being a predator in youth sports cheerleading. Fortunately, for my friend, her daughter was not one of his targets. What struck me, though, were some of the comments on the posts that deflected some of the blame to the girl’s parents. While that’s for another post, clearly something is wrong when a coach sexually assaults young girls and outsiders want to put any blame on the parents.

But here’s the thing, the parents of these girls are likely blaming themselves. Wondering what they did wrong. Trying to recall every conversation, interaction, and exchange to find out where they missed the clues. Problem is, these predators are good at hiding their motive and getting the child and, sometimes, the parents, into their good graces so there are few warning signs.

That’s why it’s all the more important to begin having these conversations with our children very early. We entrust our children to these men and women (yes, women can be predators too), but often we don’t give our children any training on how to stay safe. We think these other people are going to keep our kids safe. And while most do, all it takes it one person, one time, to change our child’s (and our) lives forever.

So what do we do? As parents it’s our job to empower our kids to say NO. It’s our job to research the people and organizations our kids are with.

7 Questions to Ask the Organization

1. Do all coaches, trainers, chaperones undergo criminal background checks?

2. What is the protocol for children being alone with an adult?

3. Is there a reporting process for reporting inappropriate conduct?

4. Does the organization have a sexual abuse policy?

5. Do coaches and staff undergo any training related to child safety (i.e., emotional, physical, and sexual)?

6. How are interactions between coaches/staff and students monitored?

7. What is the parent “drop in” policy? Can I stop by any time or attend training sessions?

5 Important Sexual Safety Topics for Kids in Sports

1. Personal boundaries – kids should know where it is and is not OK to be touched. Often a predator will start with acceptable touch to see how the child reacts.

2. Appropriate & inappropriate interactions between adults and kids – often our kids will see another student getting “special attention” or maybe they’re the one getting that “special attention”. Kids should know what is and is not appropriate conduct by the coach or staff member

3. Saying No – every child should know they have the right to tell their coach/trainer (anyone!) not to touch them. Because much of the grooming behavior is often seen as innocuous (touching under a shirt, stroking hair, rubbing back/inner thigh/buttocks) or couched in a sports-related paradigm (injury, comfort), our kids should know they can ask the person to stop. Also, kids should know that regardless of whether the person stops or not (or if they felt “weird” or not) they should tell you or another safe adult

4. Identify the safe adults – it may seem that everyone is a potential predator, but if we ask the right questions and know who are kids are spending time with then we’ll be able to identify these safe adults for our kids. While our kids need to know they can always come to us, they also need to know they can talk to other safe adults.

5. There’s no such thing as a tattletale – sometimes kids may see something happening to a friend or teammate but won’t want to tell. Just like with bullying, bystanders are the often the key to stopping the behavior. Often our kids don’t want to get in trouble or get their friends in trouble so they won’t say anything. Silence is what predators rely on.

I know these won’t be easy conversation. But we have to have them. We have to let the organizations, coaches, staff, and chaperones know we’re aware and alert and so are our kids. Sexual assault of student athletes is happening and we can stop it. We make huge sacrifices for our kids to be involved in sports, after-school athletics, dance, cheer, summer camp, and other activities. Many parents are dividing their time to get all the kids to their different programs, relying on other parents or coaches to help.

It’s OK to trust people, to ask for others to help with carpool, and to get our kids individual coaching and training opportunities. The key is knowledge and empowerment. Too many kids know what’s happening shouldn’t be happening but they don’t know who to tell or how to tell. Other kids (or even parents) see what’s going on but may not know they should speak up.

We have to get over our worry that maybe we’re overreacting or we didn’t understand the situation. I know this isn’t an easy topic and talking to our kids about scary stuff like this isn’t the awesome part of parenting, but it’s so important. We are the solution to this epidemic hurting our kids. There are predators out there, and they’re relying on us to be afraid to talk to our kids, to ask questions of the people and organizations we trust with our children, or to think someone else is stepping up.

Together we can end this. All it takes is saying NO to Silence! I hope you take time to talk to your kids, and ask questions of the programs your kids attend. It’s OK to trust. But we can’t trust blindly.



Lou Bivona April 18, 2013 at 7:15 am

Sara this is a well researched piece and heart felt. I hope everyone that reads this will pass it on and do as you say. As you and I know the act itself is the first phase of the abuse, it is the long lasting effects if the child does not get help that compounds the trauma. We also need to not let others be abused since we know abusers will not do one child but multiple children.
Thanks for all your help!! Your are a special person.

Sara April 18, 2013 at 9:18 am

Thank you, Lou! I appreciate you stopping by and sharing your insight both from a personal and professional standpoint. ~ Sara

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