If you see something, say something.
But then what?

Proactive policies to protect young athletes against sexual abuse

By Wendy Helfenbaum

The overwhelming majority of coaches, staff and volunteers who get involved in sport are there for the right reasons and they believe in contributing to the future of children. But sport organizations must be vigilant in updating their policies to ensure they proactively keep youth safe, says Noni Classen, director of education at the Winnipeg-based Canadian Centre for Child Protection (CCCP).

In its presentations, CCCP cites research revealing that 84 per cent of Canadian youth ages three to 17 participate in sports, and up to eight per cent of athletes—particularly those competing at elite levels—are victims of sexual abuse.

To address this, CCCP offers organizations strategies, policies and training to prevent such occurrences. The best defence is a multi-pronged offence, notes Classen. That means not relying exclusively on criminal records to screen individuals working with young athletes. 

“We’ve learned that most people who engage in problematic behaviour won’t have a criminal record, so while it’s certainly a piece of a screening process, it can’t be the process; we need to go much further than that,” says Classen.

That includes a comprehensive system review of the formal and informal processes in place to safeguard children. 

Strong guidelines

Organizations are responsible for implementing risk management strategies, especially training staff and volunteers to understand child sexual abuse—how it happens and what constitutes high-risk behaviour and situations. 

Because sport organizations are affording access to young athletes, they need a formal code of conduct outlining the expectation of adults working with young athletes, especially authorization for contact outside of an adult’s responsibilities and duties, says Classen. 

Strange or inappropriate behaviour that doesn’t hit the standard threshold of abuse can easily be missed if they’re not spelled out formally, she adds. “You would think it’s odd if a coach invites kids to watch a movie at his house, or massages athletes on the sidelines without credentials to provide therapeutic massage, or emails a child when it’s not tied to their responsibilities as a coach, but you’re not going to phone police or child welfare about that.”

Effective codes of conduct should detail expected professional boundaries governing any contact between adults and kids, making sure all interactions are goal-oriented and in response to the athletes’ developmental needs, says Classen. 

“If an athlete who fell is bleeding and a coach has their hand on the child’s back to console them, any reasonable observer witnessing that would be fine because they’re responding to the needs of that athlete who’s hurt. But at practice, if a coach rubs the girls’ backs and puts his fingers through their ponytails, it’s the same sort of touching but it’s weird because it’s not in response to the athletes’ needs; that’s meeting the coach’s need, and that would be a transgression in boundaries.”

Catching problems before they happen

Formalized boundaries are especially important because most child sexual abuse situations develop in increments, Classen says: “If you have somebody who’s grooming a child, the only opportunity to potentially disrupt a situation is seeing boundary transgressions, because you’re not going to see sexual abuse; that only happens behind closed doors.”

The CCCP provides expertise to the Coaching Association of Canada’s Responsible Coaching Movement through Commit to Kids, a step-by-step plan designed to reduce the risk of child sexual abuse in sports. In addition to background screening and training, the program focuses on the Rule of Two, which requires that two adults be present with an athlete in a potentially vulnerable situation. 

“The Rule of Two is the most powerful prevention tool, and it’s about open, transparent and visible spaces,” says Lorraine Lafrenière, chief executive officer of the Ottawa-based Coaching Association of Canada. “For example, after a swim meet, the coach doesn’t take the athlete into a meeting room alone, but to the side of the pool deck to have their debrief conversation.”

However, sport’s biggest challenge is capacity, admits Lafrenière. From community through high performance, about 73 per cent of sport is delivered through volunteers, and smaller organizations struggle to find people.

“We ideally want two NCCP-certified or trained coaches, but we recognize that capacity isn’t going to allow that to happen, so it’s really about having one certified coach and another coach or adult present,” she says.

Reporting cases of suspected abuse 

Often, when people contact CCCP, they’re unclear about whether an interaction or relationship between an adult and a child hits the threshold of being reportable or illegal, whether a child is in need of protection, and who is responsible for investigating or proving allegations of abuse, says Classen, noting that it’s important to focus on whether the situation is harmful to the child.

“It still needs to be addressed, even if child welfare or the police say there’s nothing technically chargeable going on,” Classen says. “You can’t just rely on the criminal justice system and the child welfare system; organizations need their own formalized structures in place in order to manage these situations and to truly provide safe environments and healthy opportunities for kids.”

Normalizing the conversation

Ultimately, parents will drive change to ensure sport organizations protect their children, says Lafrenière.

“We want parents to say, ‘tell me about your code of conduct, your screening, your training and your Rule of Two policies’ first, before they ask, ‘what hockey stick should I buy’ and thinking that’s the limit of safety,” she says.

“We don’t want policies buried on the website; we want clubs and coaches talking to parents and participants about safety at a pre-season meeting so everybody understands how to behave,” Lafrenière continues. “There’s a ton of goodwill and passion around sport as a development tool for young people. Normalizing this conversation is how you prevent problems.” 


When people…

  • don’t know how to safeguard athletes from sexual abuse
  • don’t know what behaviours or situations should be considered serious
  • don’t know who to tell
  • don’t know the process for reporting
  • don’t know what happens once reported
  • fear retribution

When organizations… 

  • aren’t sure how to respond protectively to inappropriate behaviour because the coach is revered and producing winning results
  • are under enormous pressure to keep elite athletes from dropping out regardless of what is going on
Source: Canadian Centre for Child Protection
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But then what?”