Blog

Recently, someone asked me why I do this work. Why, she asked, am I a child advocate who works to prevent child sexual abuse?

My answer?  I got into child advocacy the same way some of the best things have entered my life…quite by accident. That, she patiently explained, is how I started out as a child advocate; she wanted to know why. My answers seemed very superficial. Because it’s important. Because I seem to have a knack for it. Blah blah blah. None of my “answers” even scratched the surface of my True Why.

I quickly understood how millions of dollars are earned by authors, business coaches and media hosts who help people find their Why. It’s a tricky question. Like a sneak attack. On the surface it seems like a nice, simple question. But let me tell you.  It’s not. This “nice and simple” question took me on a journey I wasn’t prepared for. In fact, I went kicking and screaming.

There was a lot of journaling involved. And meditating.

I slowly started to realize how important it was to me – personally – to prevent the pain from abuse that can leave a residue of worthlessness, betrayal, and shame. How important it was to me – personally – to give children a voice. To be a voice for our children who don’t have one.

While my Trauma wasn’t child sexual abuse, I know the pain of not having a voice as a child; the pain of feeling like there is something wrong with me, and that it’s my fault. Anger walks alongside that pain, and…damn…it holds on tight. And I know so many of you share this with me.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

That’s my Why: It doesn’t have to be that way!

As adults, we can do simple things to better protect our children from sexual abuse. Mind you, I didn’t say ‘easy’ things; but they are simple. If we are willing to.

That’s why I want you to step out of your comfort zone and talk about child sexual abuse, and then talk about child sexual abuse prevention, and then take action by making child protection part of your organization’s, team’s or family’s way of doing things. I don’t mean changing your child protection behaviors only when it’s convenient or when it’s not too uncomfortable. I mean always…no matter who…not matter what.

Why? Because the price is too high for us not to.

That’s why I force the conversation, work to increase awareness and provide prevention and response information and training. Please join the conversation and let’s do this together.

Power Structure of Child Sexual Abuse in Youth Sports

Jerry Sandusky (American Football). Larry Nassar (Gymnastics). Andy King (Swimming). Graham James (Hockey). Greg Stephen (Basketball). Conrad Avondale Mainwaring (Track & Field). And then, of course the more than 80 British Football coaches convicted in 2016.

Their victims were boys and girls, recreational and elite athletes, young children and college students.

My point? My point is…There is not one single sports team in the world that has the luxury of claiming child sexual abuse isn’t a real risk in their organization.  Not one.

Which means, there is not one single sports team in the world that shouldn’t have Athlete Protection Policies & Procedures and Child Sexual Abuse Prevention & Response Training that are research-informed and based on best-practices.  Not one. And because I tend to repeat myself in 3s (just ask my kids), I’ll say it again…Not one.

Here is what we know:

» 1 in 10 children are sexually abused by their 18th birthday, and

» 90 percent of those kids are abused by someone they KNOW, LOVE, TRUST.

Here is what we also know:

The vast majority of youth sports coaches are good and decent people who are coaching our kids for all the right reasons.  But sadly, we also know that not all are.

ACCESS

Coaches have unique access to their young athletes outside of competition.

Think of all the ways coaches build rapport and camaraderie within a team that could avail them private and uninterruptible access to the youth. Sleepovers? Camping trips?

Think about how many working parents need the coach to help drive their kiddo to/from practice, giving them private and uninterruptible access to the youth.

Think about the overnight travel games and tournaments that parents can’t attend, where private and uninterruptible access to the youth is pretty easy to create.

You get the idea.

TRICKERY

It is not uncommon for coaches to abuse their athletes under the guise of coaching or treatment, so many young athletes may feel very uncomfortable with certain coaching techniques or treatments, but they may not realize until much later that it is, in fact, abuse.

POWER

But what keeps the youth athlete from stopping or telling someone about the abuse? In addition to all the reasons we outlined in my last blog on why children don’t disclose abuse, a coach with ill-intent can naturally develop a power structure with an athlete that easily allows for ongoing abuse.

Kids learn in their pee-wee leagues to ‘listen to their Coach’ and ‘do what your Coach asks you to do.’  Right?

Who determines how much playing time an athlete gets? Yup…Coach.

As young athletes progress into elite athletes, who is most integral to college recruiting and college scholarships?  Yup…Coach.

You get the idea.

WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?

Let’s actually start with what this does not mean. It does not mean we stop trusting every coach working with our kids.  It does not mean you pull your kids from youth sports programs.  And, it does not mean you have to hire a security guard to observe all your coaches’ interactions with your athletes.

As an Amateur Youth Sports Organization, this means that you consider all this as you hire, onboard and train your coaches; develop your organization’s policies & procedures; and build your organization’s culture.

As the Parent of an athlete, this means you ask the sports organizations that your kids are a involved with:

  1. What are their hiring practices?
  2. What are their athlete protection policies & procedures?  
  3. What kind of child sexual abuse prevention & response training do they provide their coaches? And,
  4. Is that training research-informed and mandatory?

Look…you (youth sports administrators and parents) talk about this stuff as it relates to concussions. Why is this any different?

It’s not.

We need to move past our discomfort and get this right.

Please let me know if I can help your organization develop Athlete Protection Policies & Procedures and provide Child Sexual Abuse Prevention & Response Training that are research-informed, based on best-practices, and most importantly…can minimize the risk of abuse within your organization.

In my last blog, I promised we would talk next about why kids don’t disclose sexual abuse.

Approximately 75% of children who are sexually abused don’t ever disclose their abuse or they disclose at least five years after the abuse occurred.

To begin to understand why so many children don’t disclose their abuse, you need to know one very uncomfortable truth: 90% of children who are sexually abused, are abused by someone they know, love or trust.

I’m sorry, but I’m about to make you even more uncomfortable, so please stay with me. That statistic means kids aren’t likely to be sexually abused by some creepy stranger; they are most likely to be sexually abused by a…

Family member. Like a parent. Or stepparent. Grandparent. Older sibling. Or an admired adult. Like a coach. Or youth group leader. Or Priest. Minister. Rabbi. Or a doctor. Or a teacher. Or family friend.

I think you see where we’re going here.

We can break down the reasons why children don’t disclose sexual abuse into two simple words:

Fear and Shame

As a child, some people are your whole world. They are the foundation of your very being. And you will do almost anything to protect them.  

If it’s hard for us, as adults, to get our heads around the fact that the people most likely to sexually abuse a child are those the child knows, loves and trusts, think about how hard it is for a child to grasp that concept in a real way.

“If I tell, they will get in trouble…my parents will get divorced…they will lose their job…”

This inner dialogue is often followed by, “No one will believe me.”  “This is my fault; I must have done something to make them do this to me.” “Everyone will think I wanted this since I kept going back.” “I can’t tell my parents…they will be so upset.”

Now consider that most perpetrators threaten their victims with shaming declarations that no one will believe them or threatening to hurt someone in their family, including a pet, if they tell. Or they outright tell the child how much trouble they could be in and ask the child to ‘keep this our secret.’

Like I said…Fear and Shame.

But sometimes, kids just don’t have the right words. Depending on their level of sexual education, a child may not know that what is happening is ‘abuse.’ To them it may be ‘icky’ or ‘creepy’ or ‘uncomfortable.’

Often times, after I have this conversation with someone they say, “Yea, I get it.” Followed by a thoughtful pause, and then, “But…”  I get it. As an adult, it can be difficult to understand the psychology of a child who is enduring trauma. So, my answer to the lingering, “But…” is: Yes, it is helpful if we understand why a child doesn’t disclose abuse, but at the end of the day, we don’t need to understand.  We just need to believe them.

Right?

I Believe You

I was having my morning coffee while reading my local newspaper (Yes…I still subscribe to an actual printed newspaper) when a headline about a local police officer being charged with child molestation caught my eye. The man had been molesting this youth for six years. Six. Years. But the most heartbreaking sentence I read detailed how the boy had told his mother when the abuse first started and she didn’t believe him.

Before we go any further…NO JUDGEMENT here. This is NOT a shame and blame article. It is a ‘we could all learn something here’ article.

Mom dismissed her son’s disclosure because she thought it was a result of night terrors he was having. Fair enough. And, let’s remember how little child sexual abuse was talked about six years ago.  Six years ago, do you think anyone would have read past the first sentence of this article? I can answer that for you.  Nope.

This mom is not in an exclusive club. Remember Jerry Sandusky? One of his first victims told his guidance counselor. She didn’t believe the boy’s disclosure because of how upstanding and amazing and generous Coach Sandusky was. There are many more examples, but you get the idea. Lots of adults don’t believe children when they disclose abuse.

But, we should believe them.

It is estimated that only 4% – 8% of children’s disclosures of child sexual abuse are false claims. What we see far more of is children NOT disclosing their abuse (we’ll talk about this more in my next blog) …nearly 75% of child sexual abuse survivors never disclose or wait more than five years to disclose their abuse. And if a child does immediately disclose abuse, it is more likely to a friend rather than an adult.

So, we should believe them.

Aside from reporting the disclosure of abuse, believing the child is possibly the most important thing you can do.  It is not our job to determine if the allegation is true or not, or if the action was abuse or not. Our job is to believe the child, assure them they have done nothing wrong, and report the allegation of abuse to your state’s department of child services or local law enforcement.

If a child ever discloses abuse to you, your first words are NOT, “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” They are NOT, “Are you sure?”

Your first words are, “I believe you.”

Thank You “Athlete A”

Friends, please meet “Athlete A” – Maggie Nichols. Maggie just graduated from the University of Oklahoma and she is, arguably, the best collegiate gymnast we have ever seen. And, it wasn’t that long ago when many said she was good enough to represent the United States at the 2016 Olympics.

While those titles and accolades are very important, they are not THE most important thing about Maggie Nichols.  It is her courage for which I will always honor this young lady. 

Maggie Nichols was the first person to report Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse to USA Gymnastics. She opened the door for more than 500 other young women to step forward and disclose their abuse at the hands of the USA Gymnastics team physician. And her voice was among many publicly and privately calling for a culture shift within the National Governing Body.

There are many, many lessons to be learned from this horrific history of child sexual abuse. But, in my humble opinion, here are the most important things parents, coaches, sports team/program administrators and youth works can learn…

☑️ Youth protection, specifically child sexual abuse prevention, needs to be consistent and constant.

☑️ We can’t make youth protection a priority only when it’s convenient or not uncomfortable.

☑️If your organization or family has policies or ways of doing things to minimize the risk of abuse, then no one…and I mean no one…should get a pass because of their prominence in the community, their relationship in the family, or how long you have known them.

It’s that simple.  Let’s not make it more complicated than it needs to be.