Youth professionals have a responsibility to have policies and practices that help keep children safe from sexual abuse.
Though it may difficult to talk about child sexual abuse, we know that the more parents talk about it, the less likely it is to happen.
Here are some tips for having conversations with leaders and staff in your child’s sports programs.
1. Talk with the director of your child’s sports program
Ask for a written copy of the program’s child sexual abuse prevention policies. If they don’t exist, find out when they will and keep asking until you have them.
It is unacceptable to be operating a youth-serving program without these policies:
- Staff should not be alone with children during or outside of activities.
- Staff should not text with children or teens, without copying a parent. Staff should not be friends with or follow children and teens on social media.
- Staff should receive annual training in child sexual abuse prevention.
- Administrators should conduct background checks and include interview questions about the appropriate and inappropriate touch of children.
- Staff should understand their responsibilities and the process for reporting both suspected and known abuse.
The policy manual also should explicitly state how the policies are monitored, to whom staff is accountable, and what to do if the very person in charge is the one engaging in behaviors of concern.
2. Talk directly with the coaches and volunteers working with your child
Let coaches know that you talk with all of your child’s caregivers about how to keep children safe from sexual abuse. Specifically, let the coach know:
- Your child is the boss of their body.
- Your child does not keep secrets.
- Your child will obey the rules unless one of their body-safety rules is being violated in which case your child has permission to say “no” and tell a trusted adult.
To make these conversations easier, buy a pack of Parenting Safe Children Conversation Starter Cards ($10 for 25 cards) and use them to help you speak with your child’s coach (teacher, nanny, etc.), as a jumping off place.
3. Be wary of hero worship
In a culture that is enthralled by entertainers and athletes, even well-meaning adults can be star-struck. Please do not let a person’s position or charisma blind you to the safety of a child. In fact, the more power a person has, the tougher you may have to be to keep your child safe. You have a right to ask any question and to see both policies and staff training materials.
4. Talk with your children about body safety
With all the responsibilities of parenting, it can be tough to continually reinforce body-safety rules, yet it’s important to keep those conversations alive-e.g., “No one is allowed to touch the private areas of your body or ask you to touch theirs. If anyone tries to or does touch your private parts, tell a trusted adult.”
Children don’t always tell when they are being abused because they may have been threatened and/or may fear losing a person (including a coach) they love or admire, or in sports, losing the opportunity to compete.
So remind your child, “It’s never too late to tell. I will not be mad at you. I will always love you, and will make sure you get to safely play the sport you love.”
For teen athletes, you would modify the body-safety rule and have a meaningful conversation about consent. “Remember that consent is always a ‘must.’ This means that no one is allowed to touch the private areas of your body without your permission (and visa-versa) – and no one has the right to force, coerce, bribe threaten, or manipulate you. It is also never acceptable for an older person in a position of trust or authority, like a coach, to be involved with you or any teen in a sexual way.”
Also talk with your children and teens about texting, emailing and phoning coaches and other adult mentors. Parents or another adult should always be copied on texts and emails. Youth should not be communicating by phone privately with coaches or other adults.
5. You don’t need proof to protect your child
While everyone has the right to due process, do not hesitate to speak up if you see a concerning behavior. Tell the program director, call social services, or report it to the police.
We have to speak up about inappropriate behavior if we are going to change the culture of grooming and abuse. For instance, if a coach texts your child without copying you, address it. If you see a youth volunteer tickling a child, address it. If you see an adult escorting a child to the bathroom alone, address it.
More than likely, the action was based on ignorance around keeping kids safe and gives the organization an opportunity to strengthen its polices and train staff. Or you may be protecting a child by stopping a groomer.
Imagine if every parent took these actions. By working together, we can keep children safe.
Feather Berkower, author & presenter, is founder of the Parenting Safe Children Workshop.