Child Sexual Abuse in Amateur Sport

An open letter to parents about sexual abuse in sport.

Karyn Kennedy responds to the CBC’s Investigative Report on child sexual abuse in amateur sport.

As a trained therapist and professional who has worked in the field of child abuse and trauma for over 35 years, I was saddened but not surprised when I heard the numbers. An investigative report released earlier this week by the CBC revealed staggering numbers related to child sexual abuse in amateur sport. Combing through hundreds of court documents going back 20 years, they revealed over 220 convicted coaches and more than 600 child victims across Canada. These numbers are tragic and likely just the tip of the iceberg.

This week’s reporting has focused on the pervasiveness of sexual abuse in sport; on the lack of coordinated provincial and federal oversight and on the gaps in administration. While all of these are important factors that must be addressed to help keep children safe, I do not believe that this is just a story about sport. This is actually a story about all kids. Though it focusses on amateur athletes and their families, this story speaks to the vulnerability of children everywhere.

I don’t mean to sound the alarm and instill panic in parents and caregivers. I am not fear mongering. My intention is to share what I believe to be helpful information and practical tips for parents, coaches, volunteers – anyone who currently works with, cares for or cares about kids. Anywhere.

The reality is that the most effective child abuse prevention does not start with a policy or a police check. It begins with healthy communication between parents and their children.

Started at an early age, healthy and ongoing communication demonstrates to children that they can come to you with a problem or a worry and that you’ll hear them out. Research indicates that a common barrier to children disclosing abuse is their fear of not being believed. Having a proven track record of listening to and helping your children with their problems from an early age sets a good foundation for trust in the future. Open dialogue about bodies, healthy sexuality, personal boundaries and consent helps children and adolescents make personal decisions about what they are comfortable with. It also provides an opportunity for healthy discussion helping to eliminate the stigma and embarrassment sometimes associated with these topics. If the first time a child needs to talk to you about their body, sex or sexuality is to tell you about something that makes them uncomfortable, imagine the challenge they face.

Another protective factor is the messages we give our children about touch. We need to teach our children that there are different kinds of touch and that sometimes people touch others in ways that are not okay. Empower your children by assuring them that they are the ones who decide how they are touched and how a touch makes them feel. Part of this empowerment is supporting children’s decisions. For example, if your child tells you that giving goodbye kisses to extended family members makes them uncomfortable, assure them that their decision will be respected. Help them navigate the potentially awkward moment at the door by saying “Lisa prefers high fives to say goodbye” and model that behavior. Let your children know that if they feel uncomfortable, it is always okay to say “no” and tell you or another trusted adult. Acknowledge that it might be too scary to say no, and that’s okay – tell them to talk to an adult they trust about what happened, even if you couldn’t say “no” in the moment. Above all, make sure they understand that touching should never be kept secret – all touching can be talked about.

Conversations about getting help can also empower children. Let your children know that they can come to you with any kind of problem but that your feelings won’t be hurt if they talk to someone else. Sometimes children are embarrassed about a situation, and don’t want to go to their parents. They may also worry about making you sad and want to protect you. Tell them that although you hope they would come to you, it’s okay to go to another adult they trust for help. Help them identify who these adults are.

Remember – one discussion is not enough. Children learn best through repetition and reinforcement. Keep the lines of communication open and be sure to listen. Talk to your children every day about what’s going on in their lives (e.g., school, friends, and activities). Try to listen to their stories without offering judgment, commentary or solutions, until asked. This will strengthen your relationship.

In addition to the trust, communication and plans to get help that we establish with our children, we, as parents, also need to know that the adults we entrust with our children every week have the necessary knowledge and training to keep them safe. It is vital that the adults in any child-serving organization are trained to identify signs of abuse, document their concerns and especially important, understand and are committed to their moral and legal obligation to report any suspicion of abuse to the authorities. When you sign your kids up for activities, ask the organization about their reporting policies, about the training their staff receive and what the level of supervision will be. A good coach or organization will be happy to walk you through this information.

The reality is, there is no quick fix or easy solution to child abuse prevention. It takes time and patience and sometimes going outside our comfort zone.

If you want to learn more about child abuse, your duty to report suspicions of abuse and how we can keep kids safe, please visit www.boostforkids.org.

Karyn Kennedy, President & CEO
Boost Child & Youth Advocacy Centre

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