Protecting Against Sexual Abuse and Molestation in Youth Sports

Child Abuse in Youth Sports

Preventing Grooming is the Key

Do parents who send their children to ball practice ever think that they might be handing them over to a sexual predator?  That’s probably the last thing that crosses their mind. They assume that they can trust the coaches, volunteers and league administrators who come in contact with their children.

Child sexual predators fall into one of two categories: “grabbers” and “groomers.” Most sexual misconduct involves grooming, which can easily be confused with innocent behavior. The best way to protect children against sexual grooming, and thus sexual misconduct, is to protect them against inappropriate boundary invasions.

Sexual grooming by adults involves a process with the following elements:

  • Finding a vulnerable child lacking self-confidence, low self- esteem, or parental attention.
  • Involving the child in peer-like activities such as hanging out away from the ballpark.
  • Desensitizing the child to touch such by tickling, patting, stroking, or wrestling.
  • Isolating by spending a significant amount of time alone with the child and urging them to keep secrets.
  • Making the child feel responsible for the sexual misconduct that has occurred.
  • Inappropriate boundary invasions involve the adult invading the child’s personal life or personal space by the following actions:
  • Showing undue interest in a child
  • Giving gifts
  • Granting special privileges
  • Discussing adult matters
  • Keeping secrets
  • Protecting youth athletesBeing alone with, attending outings with, transporting to school and events
  • Telling sexual jokes, showing pornography, asking sexual questions
  • Hugging, kissing, physical contact

The following steps help prevent inappropriate boundary invasions:

  • Educate administrators, employees, and volunteers on the definition of and associated behaviors of inappropriate boundary invasions, sexual grooming, and sex abuse/molestation.
  • Expressly prohibit inappropriate boundary invasions.
  • Require all employees, and volunteers to report all inappropriate boundary invasions to administration.
  • Correct and discipline offenders and those who fail to report.

Also, we strongly recommended that the General Liability policy covering the league should be endorsed to include a specific coverage limit for sex abuse and molestation.

Deterring Child Predators in Youth Sports

Protecting kids is a group effort

League administrators are responsible for doing everything in their power to protect children. It is unfortunate that not everyone is aware of the dangers that sexual predators pose or are how this battle to protect our children can be fought.  

The September 1999, Sports Illustrated article “Every Parent’s Nightmare”  is still relevant.  It’s an in-depth, in-your-face report about abuse in youth sports. The article takes readers inside the heads of  the average sexual predator. It delves deep into the thought process of predators who found their victims on ballfields. Those highlighted in the story made a combined effort to let readers know HOW they got to the children and signs for which parents and other adults need to be on the lookout.

Coach abuse in youth sports

It’s much broader than just sex abuse/molestation

Sex abuse and molestation by coaches tends to get the most attention in the media and cause a lot of outrage, but there are many other forms of coach abuse. Sports administrators and parents can protect youth by being aware of physical, emotional, and/or verbal abuse, neglect, bullying, harassment, and hazing or initiation rituals. Such behaviors have resulted in many lawsuits against coaches and administrators.

A quality risk management plan that deals with sex abuse and molestation will also incorporate these other types of abuse. We offer many articles on abuse in youth sports, which we encourage you to read. We recommend reading this excellent article that provides a full definition and examples of each of these types of abuse.

The Rate of Abuse and Molestation in Youth Sports

How prevalent is it?

The media makes sure we know when allegations and indictments of sexual abuse take place in our communities. This is true particularly when children are the victims. Schools, religious and recreational youth organizations are ripe for the picking by such predators.

But a study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that instances of all types of abuse within youth organizations are actually quite rare. The researchers surveyed more than 13,000 children, including infants and children to age 17. The results show that less than 1 percent reported any type of abuse. And of that percentage, only 6.4 percent reported some type of sexual abuse.

The bad news

As encouraging as that is, it still means the up to 100,000 children may be subjected to sexual abuse while participating in youth-oriented activities.

The study results raise another point for concern. Of the children surveyed who reported abuse, 64 percent said the abuse was emotional or verbal, specifically saying they had felt scared or bad because an adult “called you names, said mean things to you, or said they didn’t want you.” That puts estimates at 1 million children being subjected to abuse of a non-physical nature. That is 10 times the number of those being sexually abused.

Defining abuse

It’s important to note that the statistics of abuse are never exact. This is due in part to underreporting of incidents, but also because of the different definitions of the word abuse. Government agencies use a legal definition, while JAMA Pediatrics’ criteria is whether the child feels he or she has been abused. In fact, the final conclusion of the study is that abuse in youth organizations is relatively rare and dwarfed by abuse perpetrated by family members and other adults.

Preventing and combating abuse

Nonetheless, parents need to be aware of their child’s youth organization’s policies and procedures regarding screening and training of staff and volunteers. And parents should work together to make sure at least one parent is at every event, practice and game and tasked with monitoring the behavior of staff and volunteers.

We know that abuse and molestation incidents, while rare, result in very costly claims and demand serious risk management attention. Our risk management page has a section with resources devoted to abuse and molestation prevention.

What if the sex offender is a parent or spectator?

Most national organizations require criminal background checks of coaches, which includes at a Coach abuseminimum, national database checks and sexual offender registry checks. Throughout our risk management materials you will find that even if it’s not required by law, these screenings are highly recommended.

But what should a league do when the registered sex offender is a parent or a spectator?

The first step is consulting your local attorney since he/she would be familiar with the particular state laws. Also, make sure that the organization is following its own policies and bylaws. The General Liability policies that we write for national organizations may require that volunteers be screened, but not parents who aren’t volunteers. This is because, as a general rule, only a volunteer who has repeated access to youth is in a position to groom them for molestation.

Whether background checks are required or not, a lot can be accomplished by educating the team/league, volunteers, and parents on inappropriate boundary invasions.  

Why organizations hide sexual abuse incidents

What drives organizations to conceal such vile behavior?

News of yet another sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church sparked fresh outrage. The abuse itself is enough to make your blood boil. But it boggles the mind knowing so many were in the know and helped cover up the scandal over the course of 70+ years.

To think that maintaining the church’s reputation and finances outweigh the wellbeing of more than 1000 children.

Of course, religious institutions (Catholic and Protestant) aren’t the only organizations that cover up such crimes. Sex abuse within USA Gymnastics was horribly widespread. Unbelievably, the investigation uncovered that the team physician, who should have been the most trusted adult in organization, was a pedophile of the worst ilk. Longstanding shameful behaviors and crimes among celebrities and business executives are also being exposed through the #MeToo movement.

Who and what are being protected

These scandals are covered up because too often the perpetrators or those enabling the predators are a substantial source of income or influence. Their high value to the organization translates to greed, which unfortunately overrides any moral obligation to the victims.

They frequently move around within the organization or the spotlight on them is lowered to reduce the risk of discovery. The culture within the organization breeds silence. Victims quit talking since they aren’t believed. Witnesses fear retaliation for speaking up, including losing their jobs, and therefore turn a blind eye.

For years, complaints about Olympics gymnastics physician Larry Nassar fell on deaf ears. Joe Paterno and others at Penn State were aware of Jerry Sandusky’s suspected activities long before the story broke in 2011. Football and the legendary Paterno, who coached there for 45 years, reigned supreme: total revenue from the football program in 2010 was $70.2 million.

When silence isn’t golden

It’s all about protecting the money and preserving the brand, never about the victims. Ironically, these institutions are actually hurting the people positioned to grow the organization. Sports organizations need athletes, churches need parishioners, and Hollywood needs actresses. Go figure.

In the end, it all comes down to the organization’s powerful word against the victim’s weak voice. Who’s going to believe a kid making accusations about their coach or a starlet’s claims against a director? This is what results from the predator’s grooming process and the code of silence within the organization.

It’s shocking to learn that complaints about the abuse in the Pennsylvania dioceses were locked in a secret archive. Maintaining this archive is actually required by their Code of Canon Law  – and only a bishop holds the key to it.  

The bottom line and the Safe Sport Act

There will always be sexual deviants in society. Some organizations attract them in greater numbers than others because of the populations they serve. Children are always an easy target, as are vulnerable women.

It’s important to identify the problem and then manage it. Setting the right tone and establishing policies and procedures is the responsibility of those at the top.

The new Safe Sport Act was signed into law in February of 2018. It applies to most youth sports organizations. The Safe Sport Act directly targets those organizations that want to handle matters internally. It requires any adult with access to youth to report a suspicion of child abuse directly to law enforcement within 24 hours.

We offer more information on mandatory reporting requirements and the latest in child abuse education and prevention in our Safe Sport Child Abuse And Other Misconduct Risk Management Program For Non NGG Organizations program.

Who gets sued and the delayed nature of lawsuits

It is also interesting to note that litigation for sex abuse and molestation can occur decades after the incidents. This is because there is no statute of limitations on this type of behavior.

The alleged abuser, the legal entity, and respective directors and officers will all be sued for failure to screen, failure to respond to an allegation, or failure to implement policies and procedures to prevent occurrences. It is critical for organizations to keep all General Liability policies on hand indefinitely in the event of future litigation. In addition, the past administration will be held accountable for their lack of oversight based on today’s standards instead of past standards, which were much more relaxed.

The delayed-reaction nature of litigation for sexual abuse and molestation means a claims-made policy form is inferior to the occurrence policy form under a General Liability policy. Please read “Occurrence vs Claims Insurance Made For Sports Organizations” for more detailed information. In addition, it is strongly recommended that the General Liability policy covering the sports organization should be endorsed to include specific coverage for sex abuse and molestation.

Please contact us if you have any questions about risk management to reduce the chances of child abuse and other misconduct or need an insurance quote for your sports organization.


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