I find it unacceptable that USA Gymnastics, the sole national governing body for gymnastics in the US with 3,000 gyms, regularly fails to report allegations of child sexual abuse to authorities. This is yet another example of reckless policy making, individual irresponsibility, and institutional failure on behalf of children.
Everything we know about child sexual abuse prevention indicates that we must take every report of abuse or suspected abuse seriously, no matter whether it’s first, second or third hand. The average age a person discloses child sexual abuse is 40, following decades of shame and fear. By then, how many other children have been harmed by the child sexual abuser?
To add insult to injury, USA Gymnastics, like many youth-serving organizations and schools, only conducts criminal background checks. Most people who sexually abuse children are never caught, much less convicted, so background checks are largely meaningless unless conducted as part of a three-pronged strategy that also includes: a) Interview questions about boundaries with children and b) Reference checks.
If the leaders of sports organizations reject best practices and ignore their own moral compass, where does that leave children?
We can and must do better on behalf of all children involved in every level of athletics, from local recreation programs, to school teams, to elite competition. Sexual abuse is not more prominent in one sport over another. All children are vulnerable, but fortunately, there are many small and large actions parents can take to put children first, before the all-consuming power of sports, heroes, and winning.
Here’s exactly what you can do now:
1. Talk with your children about body safety.
Regularly talk with kids 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 them, “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.
2. Be vigilant about talking with coaches and administrators.
Unfortunately, in the quest for power, wins and medals, adults may debase children. If you enroll your child in a program affiliated with a “hero,” or in a program which seeks the spotlight and winning at any cost, screen and screen again. Ask to read the organization’s child sexual abuse prevention policies, ask how the policies translate to practices, and find out how sexual abuse prevention policies and practices are monitored. You have a right to ask, “Has there ever been a concern about anyone in your organization behaving inappropriately with child? If so, how did you handle it?”
Ask about background checks and make sure that administrators are conducting background checks and also checking references and asking interview questions about boundaries with children. Lastly, be sure to ask about policies for adults being alone with children because an adult should never be alone with a child – not in the locker-room, field, gym, car, hotel, or at a competition.
3. Be wary of hero worship.
We cannot honor a person’s stature, position, or notoriety at the expense of children’s safety. Think about your own attitudes toward the leaders in organizations which care for your child, and don’t be intimidated about asking hard questions. In fact, the more power the 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. You don’t need proof to protect a child.
While everyone has a right to due process, do not hesitate to speak up if you see concerning behaviors. Learn the warning signs that someone might be behaving inappropriately with a child—and if you see something or suspect something, tell the organization’s leader, call social services, and/or report it to the police. If you don’t, you are complicit and can be held liable. If you are scared or nervous to speak up, talk with another parent first or call Parenting Safe Children for a consultation.
If you don’t get an immediate and satisfactory response, you may be dealing with an organization or team that puts winning before safety, in which case, keep reporting up the chain and call the police if you have not already done so. Feel free to download for free this Parenting Safe Children resource: Behaviors to Watch Out for When Adults Are with Children
5. Own the responsibility.
We all, as individuals and members of our communities, share responsibility for keeping children safe. Make sure the volunteers, staff, and administrators who interact with your children in school and youth programs have been trained to honor and uphold the body safety of all children.
If you would like some additional support on how to invite your child’s coach and youth sports program onto your prevention team, please see the Parenting Safe Children video: Talking with a Sports Coach about Body Safety
For more information about the source investigative reporting on USA Gymnastics, see A blind eye to sex abuse: How USA Gymnastics failed to report cases: