Sexual abuse in sports has been in the news a lot lately.
And as parents, it is something we are all concerned about. I asked Jill Starishevsky, prosecutor of child abuse and sex crimes in New York City, to address this very important topic.
This post is a bit longer than my usual posts, but if you are a parent, I urge you to take the time to read it.
Gone are the days when the coach could smack a child’s bottom for a job well done…or are they? There is a certain familiarity in youth sports that is inherent and sometimes welcomed. However, with the recent widespread news of sexual abuse occurring on sports teams, how is a parent whose child participates in a sport to keep him or her safe from sexual abuse?
We used to teach children about “stranger danger”, but studies have shown that most sexual abuse occurs at the hands of someone known to the child. 93% of all child sexual abuse is committed by someone the child knows and the parents trust.
Coaches, as the nation has recently discovered, fit well into this statistic. Unfortunately, this person, who is always showing an interest in your child and working to develop trust, can sometimes be a child predator.
The way to prevent child sexual abuse in youth sports is to educate children about their bodies and encourage them to inform a trusted adult if someone touches them inappropriately.
In addition to educating the children, there are some preliminary steps parents can take too: Inquire whether background checks are performed on the coaching staff. Find out what those background checks include.
Is there any screening beyond a criminal background check? This is not a dispositive test as many child predators have no criminal record because they have never been caught.
Are there red flags (excuse the pun) in the way a coach acts? Is the coach hugging, touching, kissing, tickling, wrestling with, or holding a child even when the child doesn’t want this contact or attention? Ask your child to talk with you or a safety zone person if this happens to them or to a friend.
Just as we teach children about the dangers associated with crossing the street or going near a hot oven, we must talk to them about how to keep their bodies safe.
As a prosecutor of child abuse and sex crimes in New York City, I am all too aware of the importance of having this discussion with children at a young age. Here are some practical suggestions for parents and educators:
1. Safety in numbers. Find out what the policy is for one on one contact. Organizations can limit or eliminate the opportunity for abuse if there is a policy requiring a third person to be present (whether it is an adult or another child). In a sport such as tennis where there may not be a third person, parents should consider being present for the lessons.
2. Safe touching vs. unsafe touching. Have a discussion with your child about what types of touching are appropriate in that particular sport. With a contact sport such as football or wrestling, be explicit about what behavior is acceptable and what is not. Teach your child to come to you and ask questions if they are uncertain. Discuss whether there are other touches that you have not addressed.
3. Use a broad brush. While parents may have concerns about protecting their child from a coach, they should keep in mind that other children can be perpetrators of sexual abuse against a child as well. All lessons should apply to anyone who might touch the child inappropriately, whether adult or child.
4. No secrets. Period. Encourage your children to tell you about things that happen to them that make them feel scared, sad or uncomfortable. If children have an open line of communication, they will be more inclined to alert you to something suspicious before it becomes a problem. The way to effectuate this rule is as follows: If someone, even a grandparent, were to say something to your child such as “I’ll get you an ice cream later, but it will be our secret”, firmly, but politely say “We don’t do secrets in our family.” Then turn to your child and say “Right? We don’t do secrets. We can tell each other everything.” Secrecy is the most powerful weapon in a child abuser’s arsenal.
5. Identify a “safety zone” person. Teach your children that they can come to you to discuss anything, even if they think they will get in trouble. Convey to them that you will listen with an open mind even if they were doing something they should not have been doing. A safety zone person can be a neighbor, family member, religious official or anyone who your child feels comfortable confiding in should something happen to them and they are reluctant to discuss it with parents. The safety zone person should be advised that they have been chosen and should be instructed to discuss the situation with the parents in a timely manner. Keep in mind that child predators often “entice” their prey with something inappropriate such as allowing a child to watch an adult movie or miss school, letting them smoke a cigarette or drink alcohol. Children will often be reluctant to tell about inappropriate touching for fear they will get in trouble for the drinking or missing school. Explain to children that they if someone touches them inappropriately, they should tell the parent or the safety zone person, even if they did something that they were not allowed to do.
6. Teach your child the correct terms for their body parts. This will make them more at ease if they need to tell you about a touch that made them feel uncomfortable. Teaching children only the nicknames for their private parts can delay a disclosure. An 11-year-old who only knows the term hoo hoo for her vagina may be embarrassed to tell someone if she is touched there. If a 5-year-old tells her busy kindergarten teacher that the janitor licked her cookie, the teacher might give the child another cookie, not realizing she just missed a disclosure.
7. Practice “what if” scenarios. Say to your child, “What would you do if someone offered you a treat, or a gift when I wasn’t there?” Help your child arrive at the right answer, which is to say no, and ask you first. Many parents also encourage children to walk or run away in this situation if the person is a stranger. Parents should note that giving a child a gift and asking them to keep it a secret is a very common step in the process of grooming a child for sexual abuse.
8. Teach children to respect the privacy of others. Children should learn to knock on doors that are shut before opening them and close the door to the bathroom when they are using it. If they learn to respect the privacy of others, they may be more likely to recognize that an invasion of their privacy could be a red flag meaning danger.
9. Let children decide for themselves how they want to express affection. Children should not be forced to hug or kiss if they are uncomfortable. Even if they are your favorite aunt, uncle or cousin, your child should not be forced to be demonstrative in their affection. While this may displease you, by doing this, you will empower your child to say no to inappropriate touching.
10. Teach children that No means No. Teach children that it is OK to say No to an adult. Without permission from you, many children may be reluctant to do so even if the adult is doing something that makes them feel uncomfortable. Teach children that all of these lessons apply to children as well. If another child is touching your child in a way that makes him or her uncomfortable, teach your child to say No, get away and tell someone. When someone tickles a child, if the child says No, all tickling should cease. Children need to know that their words have power and No means No.
Young children respond well to these tips and they should be revisited often. We can teach our children about water safety and not make them fearful of the water. We need to do the same when it comes to keeping their body safe. Use your poker face.
Encourage your child to come you if they have questions about anything. Avoid looking shocked or embarrassed by the question. Children who sense their parents’ discomfort will be less inclined to approach the parent next time he or she has a question. If a child does disclose any type of abuse, it is important to take the disclosure seriously and report it to the appropriate authorities promptly.
Through prevention education, together we can help break the cycle of child sexual abuse and keep children in youth sports safe from sexual abuse.
Jill Starishevsky is also a mother of three. In October 2006, she launched HowsMyNanny.com to support parents and their children. HowsMyNanny.com is the first online nanny reporting service that works to keep children safe by enabling parents to receive positive or negative feedback on their child’s caregiver. Jill is also the author of “My Body Belongs to Me”, a children’s book intended to prevent child sexual abuse by teaching children that their bodies are their own. http://www.MyBodyBelongstoMe.com
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