Child Abuse/Molestation Awareness Training for Sports Organizations

by John Sadler

Goals of the child abuse/molestation awareness training program

This content was developed to provide administrators and staff of sports organizations training on child abuse and molestation risk management awareness. This includes Child Abuse in Youth Sportstraining on how to better identify the various types of abuse and molestation and 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 suspicion, 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 a list of vendors.) However,  it’s not enough to merely run background checks on your staff. Approximately 95% of sexual predators have never been caught and don’t have a criminal history that could be detected by running a background check.  As a result, efforts that concentrate almost solely on running criminal background checks are misplaced and do nothing to protect youth against the 95% of predators who don’t have a criminal history. This is why 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.  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 were first brought to light in 1999 by a Sports Illustrated cover article and by an ESPN special report.

Sexual predators find that getting involved with youth sports programs is the perfect opportunity to prey upon children. Compared to churches, schools, and daycares, most youth sports programs are way behind on their risk management controls. This is primarily because churches, schools, and daycares are run more professionally due to the presence of paid staff who have received formal training on preventing abuse/molestation.

The epidemic of child abuse and molestation has received high-profile media attention, most recently from the Sandusky incidents at Penn State and the incidents involving U.S. Figure Skating and U.S. Gymnastics. What can be learned from these incidents is that organizations have difficulty in self policing and that cover ups can occur. This has resulted in the formation of the U.S. Center For SafeSport and the passage of the Safe Sport Act. SafeSport and the Safe Sport Act have created a new standard of care that should be incorporated into any child abuse and molestation risk management program.

Who gets sued following an abuse/molestation incident?

In addition to criminal charges being brought against the perpetrator, a civil lawsuit is usually filed against the perpetrator AND the sports organization as an entity and its administrators (i.e. directors and officers). It’s important to note that the directors and officers may 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 failure to screen out the predator with a criminal background, failure to implement protective policies and procedures, and/or 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 very concerned 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 is case law in a few states that reaches a different conclusion.

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, settlements or jury verdicts, but this coverage can be hard to get unless your organization has the appropriate risk management controls in place, such as the mandatory running of background checks, staff education, and policies and procedures to make an incident less likely to occur.

Types  of abuse and other misconduct

The topic of child abuse is much broader than just sexual abuse and molestation, which seem to get most of the attention. It also refers to physical and emotional abuse. In addition, the better risk management programs also address bullying, hazing, and harassment.

Examples of sexual abuse/sexual harassment

Below are examples of sexual abuse and sexual harassment, which include. more 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.

  • Rape, physical assault, sexual battery
  • Unwanted physical sexual contact
  • Unwelcome sexually explicit or offensive verbal communication
  • Verbal sexual harassment
  • Sexual attention toward a minor whether touching or not touching
  • Any intentional exposure, voyeurism, or sharing of pornographic material with a minor
  • Any discussions, innuendo, comments, or jokes of a sexual nature with a minor
  • Peer-to-peer sexual misconduct between minors that is not addressed by staff

As regards sexual interaction with a minor, the consent of the minor, mistaking the age of the participant, or that the interaction did not occur during a sanctioned event are never excuses.

Examples of physical abuse

Below are examples of physical abuse, which are are broader than assault and battery. 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.

  • Punching, beating, biting, striking, choking, or slapping a participant
  • Intentionally hitting a participant with objects or sports equipment
  • Training practices become abusive such as isolating a participant in a confined space, forcing a participant to hold a painful stance or position, or withholding adequate nutrition or hydration
  • Conduct that violates safety rules
  • Encouraging or allowing athletes to become physically or verbally abusive
  • Providing alcohol to a participant who is under the legal drinking age
  • Providing non prescription drugs or illegal drugs to a participant.

Examples of emotional abuse

Below are examples of emotional abuse which involves a pattern of intentional, non-contact behavior that causes or has the potential to cause psychological or emotional harm to a participant.

  • Verbal acts such as telling a participant that they are stupid, fat, disgusting, an embarrassment, etc.
  • Physical acts such as throwing objects or punching a wall in anger
  • Withholding support or attention such as ignoring or excluding an athlete from practice for a prolonged period of time.

Examples of bullying

Below are examples of bullying, which involves a pattern of committing or allowing others to commit intentional and repeated acts that are intended to cause fear, isolate, or belittle others physically, emotionally, or sexually.

  • Physical acts such as hitting, pushing, beating, choking, spitting, slapping, throwing objects, etc. at another participant
  • Verbal acts such as threatening harm, intimidating, teasing, name calling, ridiculing, etc.
  • Cyberbullying acts through electronic communications or social media to humiliate, harass, spread false rumors, or to exclude a participant and ask others to do the same
  • Sexual related taunting, teasing, ridiculing based on gender traits, sexual orientation, or sexual attractiveness

Bullying if often committed by other participants, but staff members have the responsibility of intervening on behalf of the targeted participant(s) once such incidents are known or should be known by staff.

Examples of hazing

Below are examples of hazing, which typically involves an initiation activity for new team members or social acceptance.

  • Physical assault and battery such as paddling, beating, branding, etc.
  • Deprivation of hydration, food, sleep, etc.
  • Forced consumption of illegal drugs or alcoholic beverages
  • Restraining through locking in a confined space, taping, or tying
  • Forced public actions that embarrass or are illegal or socially unacceptable

When staff members know or should know about hazing activity, they should take affirmative action to protect participants.

Tactics of sexual predators

Sexual predators fall into two main categories: grabbers and groomers.

Coach abuseThe 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 and 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 can appear like 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.

Sexual grooming steps used by predators

  1. Find a vulnerable child with low self-esteem or who is paid little attention by parents
  2. Involve the child in peer-like activities
  3. Desensitize the child to touch
  4. Spend time alone with child and urge him/her to keep secrets
  5. Make the child feel responsible for sexual misconduct

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, depressed, have disabilities, lack self-confidence, or who have speech impediments. The second step is to engage the child 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 employed by 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 will focus only on the highlights of the contents of such a plan. Our most comprehensive risk management plan with the greatest amount of guidance and detail is our SafeSport Child Abuse and Other Misconduct Risk Management Plan.

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 running background checks. The answers to questions on a formal application can be revealing, especially questions dealing with past experience in working with youth and past criminal convictions. The application should include a Criminal background checksconsent provision to run a criminal background check and should include all personally identifying information that is required, such as social security number, driver’s license number, and present and former addresses.

The running of background checks is the minimum due diligence that’s required, according to case law in most 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 are internet sexual offender registry checks, which are free. 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  $5.00 to $30.00 and beyond, 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 by 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 within the sports organization on a need-to-know basis.

And, before any adverse action is taken, the vendor must assist in compliance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act and other similar state laws that protect applicants.

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 defining and prohibiting all forms of child abuse and other types of misconduct including physical abuse, emotional abuse, bullying, and hazing
  • Education on grooming so that it can be recognized and prevented
  • Implement a two-deep leadership rule to prevent one-on-one contact between any adult and a single, unrelated child
  • If applicable to operations, set up procedures for travel (local and overnight) and locker/changing rooms
  • Implement procedures to reduce cyberbullying

The first step is to educate all staff and parents and to issue a formal statement prohibiting all forms of child abuse/molestation and other forms of misconduct. Next, all one-on-one contact between a single adult and a single, unrelated child should be prohibited. The two-deep leadership rule is the key to preventing grooming and inappropriate boundary invasions. Be sure to address the common situation where a child is stranded after practice and left under the supervision of a single coach. A take-home/pick-up policy should be implemented. 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 to prevent abductions.

It’s important to frown upon staff 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. A 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 following the two-deep leadership rule and to allow for appropriate monitoring by chaperones who are in nearby rooms.

Responding to Abuse/Molestation Incidents and Policy Violations

Administrators, staff, and parents should be instructed to report within 24 hours all suspicions, concerns, complaints, allegations, and policy violations

Protecting youth athletes

 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 sexual or physical abuse has occurred, law enforcement must be notified within 24 hours and law enforcement should take over the investigation. The staff member should be suspended pending the outcome of the investigation by law enforcement.

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.

Notify law enforcement upon suspicion of child abuse or physical abuse

It’s important to note that staff may be required by state or federal law to separately report any suspicion of sexual or physical abuse to law enforcement within 24 hours. Failure to do so may result in criminal and civil liability. It’s also important to understand that reporting individuals will be given immunity from civil lawsuits if acting in good faith. Many sports organizations have illegally tried to cover up cases of sexual and physical abuse by handling the incidents as internal matters. This is why a separate report must be made to law enforcement.

Conclusion

I hope this information is of value and that your sports organization has already taken the important step of adopting and implementing a written abuse/molestation risk management program. This is very easy to do with the help of this information and the sample child abuse and other misconduct programs. The relatively small amount of effort that is put into this program could make a big difference in the lives of many children.


DISCLAIMER
THE RISK MANAGEMENT CONTENT IS MEANT TO PROVIDE BASIC INFORMATION ON ABUSE / MOLESTATION RISK MANAGEMENT AND IS NOT ALL ENCOMPASSING AND MAY CONTAIN OMISSIONS AND MISTAKES. 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.
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