Child Abuse/Molestation Awareness Training for Sports Organizations
by John Sadler
To view the video version of this content, click here.
Goals of child abuse/molestation awareness training program
This content was developed to provide child abuse and molestation risk management awareness training for administrators and staff of sports organizations. This includes training on how to better identify the various types of abuse and molestation and to understand the tactics that are most commonly used by child predators.
It also keys in on staff screening, certain policies and procedures that can be implemented to minimize the chances of an incident, and how to respond to a concern, complaint, or allegation. Once administrators and staff become aware of these issues and their responsibilities, the end result is a hostile environment that may run abusers and sexual predators out of your program.
There’s no doubt that the screening of staff, including the running of criminal background checks, is required as a minimum level of due diligence. (See our resources page for articles on the types of criminal background checks, differences between vendors, and list of vendors.) However, it’s not enough to merely run background checks on your staff. The vast majority of sexual predators have never been caught so don’t have a criminal background that could be detected by running a background check. This is why, in my opinion, background checks must be supplemented with awareness training for administrators, staff, and parents, along with the adoption of certain policies and procedures that make incidents less likely to occur.
Staff refers either your employee or volunteer workers including coaches, managers, umpires, referees, concession workers, field maintenance workers, and so forth. When Administrators are your directors, officers, or other personnel who plan, manage, and supervise your overall operations.
The widespread nature of abuse/molestation in churches, schools, not for profits, youth sports.
According to media accounts, court cases, and insurance company claims departments, abuse and molestation is widespread throughout society in churches, schools, day cares, nonprofits, and youth sports. Sexual predators operating in youth sports programs have been well documented by a Sports Illustrated cover article and by an ESPN special report. Evidently, sexual predators find that getting involved with youth sports programs is the perfect opportunity to prey upon children. Compared to churches, schools, and day cares, most youth sports programs are way behind on their risk management controls. This is primarily because churches, schools, and day cares are run more professionally due to the presence of paid staff.
Who gets sued following an abuse/molestation incident?
In addition to criminal charges being brought against the perpetrator, a civil lawsuit is often filed against the perpetrator AND the sports organization as an entity, as well as its administrators (i.e. directors and officers). It’s important to note that the directors and officers have personal liability in these lawsuits, which means that their personal assets can be taken by the court to satisfy the judgment.
The legal basis for these lawsuits is for the failure to screen out the predator with a criminal background, failure to implement protective policies and procedures, and failure to adequately respond to a suspected case. It’s of particular importance that the risk management program addresses all of these areas.
Insurance industry response to severity risk of abuse/molestation lawsuits
Insurance carriers that write General Liability insurance are scared to death over the abuse/molestation risk in youth sports. There have been a number of $1,000,000+ settlements and jury verdicts. However, different carriers take different approaches. Most have an exclusion that takes away coverage for all abuse/molestation lawsuits. Other policy forms are silent on the issue of abuse/molestation. When a policy is silent on this issue, it usually means that coverage exists. However, there are cases in a few states that say otherwise.
Some policies have an affirmative grant of coverage for abuse/molestation by including a special endorsement to the policy. This is the recommended approach since it removes all doubt.
You don’t want to personally pay out of pocket for defense costs and any settlements or jury verdicts, but this coverage can be hard to get unless your organization has some risk management controls in place, such as the mandatory running of background checks.
Types of abuse/molestation
The topic of abuse/molestation is a lot broader than just sexual abuse, which seems to get most of the attention. It also refers to emotional abuse and physical abuse.
Examples of emotional abuse
Below is a list of examples of emotional abuse which primarily take the form of insults and put downs. Of course, these are totally inappropriate comments that can be psychologically damaging to youth. Furthermore, they’re not effective as a motivational technique.
- You’re stupid
- You’re an idiot
- You’re an embarrassment
- You’re not worth the uniform you play in
Examples of physical abuse
Below is a list of examples of physical abuse, which are characterized by excessive exercise as punishment or other actions that often lead to injury. If any of these activities result in an injury, it’s easy to prove a case of negligence against the coach. Furthermore, it’s possible in some cases that criminal charges could be filed against the coach which could result in jail time. There was recent a high-profile case in the media where a T-ball coach arranged for a mentally handicapped player on his own team to be hit by a baseball in pre-game practice so that the player could be dropped from the lineup. Most cases of physical abuse are much more subtle.
- behaviors seem violent versus disciplinary
- training practices become abusive
- encouragement of illegal moves that are often associated with injuries
coaches teach improper technique or encourages
- conduct that violates safety rules
- coaches allowing athletes to become physically or verbally abusive
- behaviors resulting in injuries to athletes
- assault and battery
- athlete-on-athlete hazing
Examples of sexual abuse/sexual harassment
Below is a list of the examples of sexual abuse and sexual harassment. It’s a lot broader than just rape or sexual contact with a minor. It also includes verbal communication of sexual content and other sexual attention directed towards a minor.
- physical assault
- sexual battery
- unwanted physical sexual contact
- unwelcome sexually explicit or offensive verbal communication
- verbal sexual harassment
- sexual attention towards a minor
Tactics of sexual predators
There’s no one standard tactic used by sexual predators. However, I recently read a very good article published by the National School Boards Association on this topic and I’ll share some thoughts.
Sexual predators fall into two main categories: grabbers and groomers. The vast majority of all cases in the youth sports context involve the slow strategy of sexual grooming. Sexual molestation is usually a three step process. The first step is inappropriate boundary invasions followed by sexual grooming followed by sexual molestation. It’s very difficult to detect that sexual grooming has occurred until it’s too late and the child has been molested. Therefore, the experts say that the key in stopping the entire chain of events is to prevent inappropriate boundary invasions.
Sexual grooming steps used by predators
- Find a vulnerable child with low self-esteem or who is paid little attention by parents
- Involve the child in peer-like activities
- Desensitize the child to touch
- Spend time alone with child and urge him/her to keep secret
- Make the child feel responsible for sexual misconduct
Sexual grooming can be difficult to detect in the beginning because it can appear similar to innocent behavior. It always starts out with a series of increasing boundary invasions that indicate which children will make the best targets. By the time the boundary invasions become inappropriate, the child is often brainwashed into thinking that a special relationship exists with the predator that justifies the behavior.
The typical five-step process used by predators is to first find a vulnerable child with low self-esteem or who is paid little attention by his or her parents. Examples of common targets are children who are often left alone, are depressed, have disabilities, lack self-confidence, or who have speech impediments. The second step is to engage in peer-like activities, such as shopping, running errands, watching TV or playing video games at the home of the molester. The third step is to desensitize the child to touch. This starts out as appropriate touch that gradually changes to inappropriate. Examples are tickling, rough housing, and wrestling. The fourth step is to isolate the child by spending a lot of time alone with him/her and by making the child feel special by having secrets and granting special privileges. The fifth step is to make the child feel responsible for the inappropriate behavior. Examples would be telling the child that he/she will be arrested for his/her own illegal behaviors (such drinking alcohol or taking drugs ), or that he/she actually welcomed the sexual activities in the first place.
Examples of inappropriate boundary invasion
Below is a list of inappropriate boundary invasions into a child’s personal life that may lead to sexual grooming. These boundary invasions must be prevented by the sports organization by educating administrators and staff of their potential role in sexual grooming, setting policies and procedures to make them less likely to occur, and by being vigilant and requiring staff to report violations to administrators.
- showing undue interest in a child (special relationship)
- giving gifts for no legitimate sports-related reason
- peer-like behavior, such as “hanging out”
- granting special privileges
- discussing adult matters
- telling/keeping secrets
- being alone with, attending outings with, or transporting a child
- sexual jokes, showing pornography, asking sexual questions
- hugging, kissing, physical contact
Elements of an abuse/molestation risk management plan
Now that we’ve discussed the prevalence of child abuse/molestation in youth sports, definitions and examples of the different types of abuse and molestation, and the techniques of sexual predators, it’s time to turn our attention to how to implement a risk management plan to reduce the risk of an incident.
Sports organizations should have a formal, written abuse/molestation risk management plan and should appoint a “conduct official” to administer the plan. For purposes of this awareness training, we’ll focus only on the highlights of the contents of such a plan. We have other videos and sample risk management plans that go into the details.
The three most important areas to key in on are the screening of staff through applications and criminal background checks, implementing policies and procedures to help prevent inappropriate boundary invasions, and responding appropriately to concerns, complaints, allegations and policy violations.
Screening of staff
The screening of your staff for suitability is accomplished by taking a formal staff application and by running background checks. The answers to questions on a formal application can be revealing, especially those dealing with past experience in working with youth and past criminal convictions. References should also be obtained on the application and verified. The application should also have a consent provision to run a criminal background check and should include all personal identifying information that is required, such as social security number, driver’s license number, and present and past addresses.
The running of background checks is the minimum due diligence that’s required, according to case law in many states. Quite simply, you have no chance in a court of law if you have an incident with a staff member who would have been disqualified had a background check been run.
There are a number of different types of background checks. The least reliable but free are internet sexual offender registry checks. Instead, it is strongly recommend that you purchase a criminal background check through a third-party vendor. The costs from such vendors can range from $2.00 to $30.00, depending on the quality of the check and the services provided. We have excellent reports that will assist you in choosing the type of background check and the vendor that is best for you.
Before you run your first criminal background check, you’ll need to set up your administrative rules so that you won’t get into legal trouble. For example, you must set up your written disqualification criteria to make sure that all candidates are treated under the same set of rules. You’ll also want to set up your appeals process so that you can consider hardship cases that may deserve an exception.
The sports organization should protect the confidentiality of staff applicants through every step of the process, from the taking of the information on the applications to the results of the background checks. This is why a single conduct official should handle almost all of the information and results. Information should only be released to others in the sports organization on a need-to-know basis.
According to a leading vendor, about 9% of applicants will be red flagged with criminal histories and 5% of applicants should be disqualified based on commonly used disqualification criteria.
Policies and procedures to reduce chances of an incident
- Statement prohibiting all forms of child abuse and molestation
- Prohibit one-on-one contact between any adult and a single, unrelated child
- Require more than one adult to be present at every activity (buddy system)
- Take-home/pick-up policy
- Avoid inappropriate touching of child
- Avoid socializing with participants outside of sponsored activities
- Avoid sleepovers
- Limit distribution of personal information
- Prohibit printing of athlete names on uniforms
- Prohibit athlete-on-athlete hazing
Sports organizations should prevent inappropriate boundary invasions of its youth by formally implementing policies and procedures that make them less likely to occur.
The first is to issue a formal statement prohibiting all forms of child abuse and molestation. Next, all one-on-one contact between a single adult and a single, unrelated child should be prohibited. Next, more than one adult should be present at every sanctioned activity. This is called the “buddy system.” Because any time a child is stranded after practice and left under the supervision of a single coach, your sports organization should establish a take-home/pick-up policy. Specific start and end times to practices should be published. Parents should be instructed to make back-up plans in the event they can’t pick up their child. Parents should authorize in writing which family members or friends are allowed to pick up their child in order to prevent abductions.
Next, inappropriate or unwelcome touches of a child should be prohibited. In certain sports, a coach may be required to touch certain body parts in order to provide instruction. Otherwise, it’s recommended that all touching be limited to the head and shoulders. Next, it’s important to avoid socializing with youth participants outside of sponsored activities. It’s a red flag anytime a staff member starts to spend too much time with a child outside of an official setting Sleepovers as official or unofficial functions should be avoided. The sleepover presents the perfect opportunity for a predator to make a move. Travel teams often won’t be able to avoid spending the night out of town. In these situations, the risks can be mitigated by requiring staff supervisors to use the buddy system and always be in the presence of another staff supervisor.
Next, the distribution of personal information should be limited so that predators will be denied the vital information that would assist in tracking the location of a child or in starting a conversation. Examples of personal information beyond the child’s name would be address, phone, and email. You should limit the distribution of this personal information to those in the organization on a need-to-know basis. You should also limit the distribution of rosters and avoid posting this information on websites that are not password protected. In addition, many organizations prohibit the printing of athlete names on uniforms.
Next, all athlete-on-athlete hazing should be prohibited as this has been the source of a number of recent lawsuits. You should inform all administrators, staff, and parents to bring any of these policy violations to the attention of the conduct official.
Responding To Abuse/Molestation Incidents and Policy Violations
Administrators, staff, and parents should be instructed to report all concerns, complaints, allegations, and policy violations to the conduct official. If the conduct official is the alleged abuser, the report should be made to the organization’s president. The Conduct Official should immediately perform an investigation with the results brought to the attention of the board of directors. The investigation should include a gathering of all pertinent facts in a fair, respectful, and confidential manner including an interview with both the accuser and accused.
Investigate concerns/complaints/allegations/policy violations
After the investigation, the conduct official must determine if the acts were appropriate but unappreciated; inappropriate, but not illegal; or illegal. If there is reasonable cause to believe that abuse or molestation has occurred, law enforcement must be notified immediately and should take over the investigation. The staff member should be suspended pending the outcome of the investigation by law enforcement.
Notify law enforcement if reasonable cause is present
It’s important to note that administrators and staff members may be required by state law to report any suspected case. Failure to do so can result in criminal and civil liability in most states. It’s also important to understand that these individuals will be given immunity from civil lawsuits if acting in good faith.
Short of an illegal act, the board must decide the appropriate action/punishment
Short of an illegal act, the board should be notified of any inappropriate acts by staff, including violations of any policies or procedures. The board may decide to impose discipline or punishment in the form of an oral or written reprimand, suspension, or termination.
I hope this information is of value and that your sports organization has already taken the important step of adopting a formal abuse/molestation risk management program. This is very easy to do with the help of the information and sample programs that we provide on our website. The relatively small amount of effort that is put into this program could make a big difference in the lives of many children.
THIS VIDEO AND SUPPORTING WEBSITE SAMPLE PROGRAMS, ARTICLES, FORMS, ETC. ARE MEANT TO PROVIDE BASIC INFORMATION ON ABUSE / MOLESTATION RISK MANAGEMENT AND ARE NOT ALL ENCOMPASSING. NO SPECIFIC ADVICE IS BEING PROVIDED FOR ANY SPORTS ORGANIZATION. EACH SPORTS ORGANIZATION SHOULD CUSTOMIZE ITS OWN ABUSE/MOLESTATION RISK MANAGEMENT PROGRAM BASED ON ITS OWN UNIQUE RISKS AND NEEDS AND SHOULD REVIEW AND UPDATE ON A CONTINUAL BASIS. OTHER RISK MANAGEMENT SOURCES AND EXPERTS SHOULD BE REFERENCED.
NO LEGAL ADVICE IS PROVIDED. THE LAWS PERTAINING TO ABUSE / MOLESTATION RISK MANAGEMENT VARY FROM STATE TO STATE. ALWAYS CONTACT A LOCAL ATTORNEY FOR APPROPRIATE LEGAL ADVICE IN YOUR STATE.
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