You may have heard about the recent suicide of former figure skating champion John Coughlin, which occurred following a temporary suspension from US Figure Skating due to allegations of sexual misconduct. Following his retirement from skating, he had been active in the figure skating community, including coaching and teaching seminars. US Center for Safesport, a US Olympic Committee agency with oversight of sexual misconduct and other abuse allegations reported to national governing bodies, had reportedly been investigating three counts of sexual misconduct, including toward minors, prior to his death.
This tragic story made me think about the culture of youth sports -- and not just at the elite level. While we often think of safety in terms of physical injuries, we need to talk more broadly about safety, including preventing child abuse (sexual, physical, emotional). The case against Larry Nassar, a former team physician for USA Gymnastics who sexually abused numerous young athletes over many years, highlights the numerous systemic challenges that exist, both in terms of the culture and environment in which these abuses might be more likely to occur, and also the shortcomings of enforcing the restriction and banning of coaches.
What We Know
Here are some facts from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
- A study in 2008 reported that 2 to 22 percent of children and teens were victims of sexual abuse through sport. The International Olympic Committee reports a prevalence of sexual abuse of 2 to 49 percent.
- In the 2008 study, nearly all cases were perpetrated by coaches and instructors (who were predominantly male).
- The International Olympic Committee reports certain risk factors for abuse:
- Athletes with disabilities are at a 2-3 times increased risk of abuse.
- Athletes in the LGBTQ community are also at increased risk of abuse.
- Type of sport was not correlated with risk of abuse.
Beyond nonspecific behavioral complaints that might indicate child abuse (change in sleep, appetite, interest in activities), the AAP recommends watching out for some sports-specific symptoms, such as unexplained desire to leave the sport, loss of interest in the sport, avoidance of training with certain people, and prolonged recovery time.
What To Do
I admit that when I discuss extracurricular activities with a child or his parents, I don't often think about asking whether there are any concerns for child abuse through sports. However, these stories have made me think twice and have raised my awareness of the risk of child abuse, particularly in situations where the child may be separated from the parent for long periods of time or may be traveling away from home. Parents themselves may not be aware of the increased risk and may not be aware that they have the ability to check if a coach has ever been banned or restricted by their organization for abuse.
When counseling families, it may be worth reminding parents that beyond asking about how the game went or how their child's skills are progressing, they can also check in using questions such as "Is there anything you'd like to share?" or "How are things going for you?" These open-ended questions may help to elicit concerns that other goal-oriented questions may not.
Here are some additional tips from the AAP to ensure that the child's sports organization is providing a safe environment:
- Check to confirm that the organization's policies specifically prohibit bullying and other forms of harrassment by athletes and adults.
- What are the methods for youth and parents to report suspicious behavior? The organization should have a procedure for follow-up of these reports, should include mandatory reporting by staff and volunteers, and all allegations of child abuse should be reported to local law enforcement.
- When communicating with young athletes, parents should be copied on all emails. Adults should not reach out to youth individually via text or social media.
- When traveling away for games or competitions, athletes should be accompanied by an adult or guardian.
- Any one-to-one training should be in a highly visible location with nearby adults.
Click here for tips on how families can check to see if a child's coach or anyone on the coaching staff has been banned by an Olympic organization.
Click here for family resources from US Center for SafeSport.
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