"Every parent thinks their child will tell them if someone touched them inappropriately," Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic athlete and CEO of Champion Women, recently told me. "But by the time that happens, the child is well-groomed, and it is too late. Research shows that children do not tell their parents." And, since most survivors of child sexual abuse do not disclose the abuse, abusers often continue to enjoy the trust of their victim’s family, and continue to abuse.
As documentaries such as "Leaving Neverland" and "Abducted in Plain Sight" showed, abusers do not just groom individual victims, they also groom entire families and even communities. Parents do not intentionally expose their children to harm, but often feel honored that a respected adult has taken a special interest in their child. Once predators have secured their trust, parents believe that they are providing a positive experience for their child with a person they consider safe. This part of the process of grooming enables abuse and hinders disclosure.
In the context of the Olympic movement and children’s dreams of gold, the special attention of experts in the sport is often welcomed by parents and children alike, interpreted as a sign that a child has exceptional athletic potential. When perpetrators have the trust of parents and the community — as serial sexual predator Larry Nassar did — they have unquestioned and unencumbered access to their victims, often when those children are far from home or help.
This is why experts agree that limiting one-on-one interactions between child athletes and adults affiliated with the sports is key to limiting — or hopefully eliminating — abuse.
And yet, on June 23, the U.S. Center for SafeSport, an independent organization tasked with preventing abuse in sports, will require the national governing bodies that manage individual Olympic sports to adopt their incredibly flawed Minor Athlete Abuse Prevention Policies.
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The major flaw in the rules is that, with parental permission, coaches can travel alone with children. Even worse, this policy allows coaches to interact with children outside of program activities, including at their homes, restaurants and other locations, if parents provide permission.
No policy should allow for the possibility of uninterrupted time alone, especially in the context of travel; everything we have learned in the past few years shows that sexual predators quite often obtain parental permission. Requiring parental permission for these activities might prevent kidnapping, but it does not prevent abuse. The fact is that many abusers do not have to kidnap their victims in order to have one-on-one access, simply because their victims’ parents have trusted them.
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According to Darkness to Light, 90 percent of children who are sexually abused know their abusers; 30 percent of abusers are related to their victims, while 60 percent are nonrelatives who have gained the trust of the children’s families.
And a list of red flags for potential abusers from Stop It Now! includes: “Insists on or manages to spend uninterrupted time alone with a child.” For this reason, many school districts have explicit policies prohibiting staff from spending time alone with students outside of school activities, which includes providing transportation to students in nonemergency situations.
California swim coach Dia Randa told me, “Never, ever should one-on-one travel be allowed with a minor. This is the context for some of the most insidious abuse in the sport of swimming.”
Debra Denithorne Grodensky, a survivor of abuse in swimming, explained to me, “That policy could not be more detrimental to athletes and parents. My parents were groomed just as much by my swim coach as I was.”
Though the new rules do require abuse-prevention training for adults and minors — again with parental permission — it fails to limit the role of the adult or address the power imbalance between the adult and minor, a cornerstone of abuse prevention policies. Instead, the SafeSport document claims that, “Policies concerning one-on-one interactions protect children while allowing for these beneficial relationships.”
But strong policies are not simply comprised of lists of prohibitions and exceptions; they frame the terms of professionalism, set ethical standards and include overarching principles that help stakeholders understand healthy boundaries and appropriate relationships between adults and minors in a specific context. The Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia, for example, defines boundaries as “limits which protect the space between the professional’s power and the client’s vulnerability.”And Spokane Schools prohibits “singling out a particular student or students for personal attention and friendship beyond the professional staff-student relationship.”
Not only do the new rules fail to prohibit this type of grooming behavior, they do not give parents, coaches or other stakeholders any information about an appropriate adult-athlete relationship in the context of sports. In the absence of clear guidance from SafeSport, governing bodies like USA Swimming have developed their own materials that actually promote poor boundaries by framing the coach as a mentor in whom children can confide about “anything weighing on your mind.” Yet, a Queensland College of Teachers’ document on professional boundaries, lists “offering advice on personal matters” as a breach of professional boundaries. And, the Ropes and Gray report into Larry Nassar identified this exact kind of personal attention as a way Nassar groomed his patients, “Nassar groomed his patients by acting as a caring ‘friend’ in the often harsh world of competitive gymnastics.”
But perhaps the most insidious problem with SafeSport’s Minor Athlete Abuse Prevention Policies is that, by virtue of their existence and promotion, parents and guardians will reasonably assume that these policies are effective and comprehensive. Dr. Julia Rudolph, an expert in sexual abuse prevention and researcher at Griffith University, told me, “I think that parents do need information about perpetrator modus operandi, for example, what incentives they use and the relationship they develop with the child and the parents. They need to know the script of sexual offending and then protective behaviors need to be tailored exactly to those things.”
Reducing boundaries and abuse prevention to a list of prohibited behaviors does not equip parents and other adults to recognize warning signs nor convey the appropriate role of the adult in the child’s life. This policy would not have prevented the abuse described in "Finding Neverland" or in the Ropes and Gray report on Nassar. Parents and children deserve strong, effective policies against abuse from a highly decentralized and unregulated system of youth programs — and especially from an organization that calls itself SafeSport.