This fall marks a decade since former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was finally arrested on 52 counts of sexually abusing boys, spanning a 15-year period. But despite the outrage and shock the revelations provoked, did anything change to make children safer at athletic organizations around the country?
In recent years, we’ve learned of more and more abuse by predators in positions of power. The Sandusky revelations woke much of the world to the horrors of child sexual abuse at schools and athletic institutions, but he was far from the first or the last to take advantage of the access and the cover that those organizations provide to predators.
Thanks to the brave survivors who have come forward, we now know the horrifying details of abuses perpetrated by Larry Nassar at Michigan State University and in his role with USA Gymnastics, Richard Strauss at Ohio State, Robert Anderson at the University of Michigan, and so many others – all within organizations created to serve young people’s needs.
But while we know the names of these perpetrators, the environments that allowed them to abuse with impunity continue to exist across the country.
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Too often, youth sports organizations fail to put adequate protections in place to prevent child sexual abuse and to respond appropriately when abuse is uncovered.
With students back in schools around the country, how can parents be confident that the organizations they are entrusting with their children’s safety are doing everything they can to prevent abuse and report red-flag behavior responsibly?
Based on CHILD USA’s Gold Standard policy framework, which is derived from the best child sexual abuse prevention research, here are five questions every parent should ask the schools, sports teams and other organizations they entrust with the care and oversight of their children:
1. What kind of background screening is done for staff and volunteers? Comprehensive background screenings should include both criminal (FBI fingerprinting) and informal (contacting references) elements. While we can’t rely on screenings to identify all perpetrators of abuse, if an organization does not conduct these simple checks, parents or guardians should see it as a red flag.
This is a baseline policy that all organizations should have in place, and if a youth sports organization doesn’t, you should hesitate to entrust your child to its care.
2. Does this organization have a code of conduct? Many organizations do. If not, that is a red flag. If so, ask for it and read it carefully to see what it includes.
These codes are fundamentally important because they provide a straightforward outline of how adults should interact with children under their supervision, with clear delineation between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. CHILD USA’s Gold Standard offers a model for what should be included in any code of conduct.
3. Does your organization regularly train all staff, volunteers, parents and children about child sex abuse? Many organizations conduct an initial training when volunteers and employees start, but it is not regularly repeated. The safest institutions will conduct this training – at minimum – once a year.
4. Do you have a policy that no adult should ever be alone with a child? This is the environment in which most abuse takes place, so it’s critical that adults are never alone in a closed space one-on-one with a child.
5. Are all staff members, volunteers, parents and children taught where, how and when to report abuse to civil authorities? It is vital that all involved with the organization know how, where and when to report suspected abuse to the authorities.
We know from the stories of countless institutions that failed to protect children that encouraging reporting to internal supervisors is not enough. Everyone within an organization, from leaders to participating children, must be empowered to report red-flag behavior and sexual abuse to the right external authorities.
By asking these questions, you will know whether your child’s school team or sports club takes abuse prevention seriously. If an organization in your child’s life doesn’t have good enough answers, I encourage parents to share these policies and insist on creating a safer environment for every child in the community.
It’s on all of us – the adults – to make this a safer world for our children to thrive and to grow up without the danger of hidden abusers.
Marci Hamilton is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and CEO of CHILD USA, a nonprofit think tank working to end child abuse and neglect in America.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sexual predators in sports: 5 questions parents need to ask