Most children in America will participate in some form of team sports or afterschool activity during their childhood. Playing team sports or participating in other youth activities can help to foster a child’s self-confidence, sense of belonging and help them develop respect and empathy for others. No matter what sport or activity, ALL parents have a responsibility to ensure that their child can play in a safe and nurturing environment, and all program directors should ensure that they've taken steps to vet the personnel around their team.
The following list is steps you should take as a parent, to help mitigate the chances of your child being a victim of a child predator while playing on a youth team:
- Ask the leadership of the sports organization if they have a written policy detailing the steps that are taken to background check and verify all coaches and volunteer credentials before they are allowed to be around children and coach/train a team.
- If your child is working with a private trainer, make sure you or another adult attend the sessions to keep an eye on them, or drop in at various times unexpected to see for yourself what is going on. Insist that all training sessions occur in a public place with other people around.
- Empower your child ahead of time with personal safety skills, so they will know what to do should various situations arise. Children often become paralyzed by fear when put in uncomfortable situations with adults and don't know how to react.
- Impress upon your child the importance of not keeping secrets! This is a big one. If a coach or volunteer is asking your child to keep secrets, they could be grooming them for sexual abuse later. Predators will often start with little secrets to see if the child will comply, and then slowly and methodically advance to more sinister actions that they want kept secret. Once the abuse happens, they will use shame (making the child feel it was their fault it happened) or intimidation (saying they will hurt or kill the child's family). The child then feels trapped and alone.
- Let your child know it’s okay to say ‘No” or “Stop, I’m not comfortable with what you’re asking me to do.” By empowering your child with the authority to stand up for themselves with an adult, you have given them another tool to help keep themselves safe. Adults need to respect a child's right to say "No".
- If your child relays information about the coach or a volunteer that concerns you, DO NOT freak out because it may cause the child to stop talking. Casually ask the child to tell you more about the situation and person. Ask your child if other kids are privately expressing concern about this person also. Investigate and inform the leadership of your concerns and police department if warranted. While child sex offenders are required to register with the state, often times the sexual crimes unit in local police departments are too overwhelmed to follow up on all of the offenders to make sure they are avoiding contact with children.
- If there is something about the coach or a volunteer that just doesn’t set right with you, follow your gut instinct. Many times people ignore that gut feeling only to find out later that there was something to be concerned about. Try talking to the coach or volunteer to see if you can pinpoint as to why your Spidey senses are tingling.
All parents want their children to enjoy their childhoods and to go cheer them on when their team competes. It can be so much fun and a bonding experience for the parent and child. But, parents must put the safety of their children first, and not assume all organizations have done their due diligence on their coaches and volunteers. Always, always, always check the references of an organization and it's coaching/training staff thoroughly before allowing your child to participate in their program!