- How can parents prevent a volunteer coach from harming their children?
- What do parents need to know prior to enrolling their child in a youth sports program?
- Are there any characteristics displayed by coaches that parents should be on the lookout for?
- Why do many parents still have this false sense of security that their child’s coach is too nice to commit abuse?
Even when parents can’t be at every practice or game, they should make a point of introducing themselves to the coach and learning more about them. You might ask the coach why they are coaching this particular team? Do they have a child on the team? If not, how did they get involved in coaching? How long have they been a coach? Do they coach other sports? Do they coach other genders and age groups? Most coaches will welcome these questions and will be happy to share their coaching history and philosophy with you. If you sense hesitancy or you feel the coach is uncomfortable with your interest in their coaching history, you may want to pay more attention.
Work with other parents. For example, you might agree to take turns with another parent being at practices or games and keeping an eye on things for each other. Or, if you aren’t able to attend many practices or games and there is another parent who is able to, talk with them and ask if they would help you out by keeping an eye on your child and sharing any concerns they may have with you. Then, let the coach know that there are other adults watching your child when you’re not there.
As children get older and they don’t want parents to be as present, every once in a while show up early unexpectedly and observe how practice is going. Observe how the coach interacts with the youth. Talk with your child about what goes on in practice. Ask if the coach seems to have favorites and how they show they favor one child over another.
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Parents need to be knowledgeable about what policies and practices responsible youth serving organizations need to create safe environments for children. Specifically, these organizations need comprehensive policies and practices instead of relying on one or two policies like criminal background checks. The sad fact is that up to 90% of sexual abuse is never reported to authorities and, even when it is reported it doesn’t always end with a criminal conviction so the vast majority of people who have sexually abused children can pass a criminal background check.
Parents should ask how volunteers and employees are screened during the hiring process. Does the organization require references and do they actually speak with references? Are they knowledgeable about who sexually abuses children and do they use that information to screen out people whose behaviors are concerning?
Parents should ask if the organization has policies about whether and in what circumstances volunteers and employees can be alone with a child or can be in contact with a child outside of the program. These are both risky situations so you want to know whether the organization has planned for ways to reduce this risk.
Parents should ask what training the organization provides for staff on preventing child sexual abuse. Most organizations have policies about reporting sexual abuse but you want to know whether they provide training on how to report as well as training on how to prevent sexual abuse.
Parents should ask if policies address the potential for youth to sexually abuse or be sexually inappropraite with other children. Do their policies minimize opportunities for children to be together unsupervised? Do they provide clear guidance to youth about appropriate interactions and behaviors and do they respond and redirect or clarify the rules if children aren’t following expected behaviors?
Stop It Now! has compiled resources and is available for consultations and training with organizations who need assistance in insuring they have comprehensive policies and practices to keep children safe. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a free resource Preventing Child Sexual Abuse in Youth Serving Organizations: Getting Started on Policies and Practices.
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While there is no such thing as a fool-proof warning sign, there are things parents can watch out for in coaches. One concerning sign would be someone who seems to spend all of their time with children and who doesn’t seem to have adult relationships. They might work with youth, volunteer with youth, and generally spend lots of time with children. Parents should also watch for coaches who seem to prefer certain ages or genders of children and who tend to often have a “special” relationship with one child.
Parents should gauge whether the coach seems to understand boundaries with children. Do they seem clear about appropriate boundaries with children or do they ignore or refuse to let children set their own boundaries around personal space. Does the coach follow the rules of the organization even if they don’t agree? Parents (and organizations) should be concerned if a coach is not willing to follow organization rules and boundaries or if they seem to think rules or boundaries are for other people, not for them.
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No one wants to believe that someone they know, someone they like, someone who is great with children, someone who has a great job or a wonderful family could also be someone who sexually abuses or is sexually inappropriate with children. And, people who sexually abuse children often are very aware that they need to create a sense of safety and trust with the people around them so any thoughts or concerns they might have almost get dismissed before we allow ourselves to entertain our concerns. We have to allow ourselves to consider the possibility.
Sometimes people think everyone who sexually abuses a child is a pedophile, defined as someone whose primary sexual attraction is to children. So if someone is married or has relationships with other adults, we may think that means they would not sexually abuse a child. Yet, some people who abuse children have adult sexual relationships and are not solely, or even mainly, sexually interested in children. Sometimes they turn to children in times of stress or when they are having difficulties.
We need to acknowledge that someone’s private behavior may be very different from their public behavior. We also need to acknowledge that we can’t tell what someone’s intent is, we can only pay attention to and respond to behaviors we can see. At Stop It Now! we encourage parents to get comfortable proactively setting boundaries with all adults who spend time with their children.
If a coach seems to be spending a lot of one on one time with our child, we need to say “I’m not comfortable with you spending so much time with Ali.” This doesn’t mean we’re accusing them of anything, it means we’re being clear on what our boundaries are and what is okay and not okay with our child.
Unfortunately, as a culture we are not very comfortable speaking up to other adults. It is much easier to talk with our children. We need to recognize that we leave children vulnerable when we expect them to set boundaries and limits that we’re not comfortable with as adults.
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