Danger zone

Danger zone


Child predators continue to target youth sports programs around the country, causing horrific damage to alarming numbers of young athletes – and no sport or community is safe. What are you doing to protect your children? Use these tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to help safeguard your young athlete. 

By Greg Bach

Editor’s note: This is the second in a year-long series examining child abuse in youth sports.

This summer millions of children will participate in organized sports programs in their communities.

They’ll wear colorful uniforms, learn and develop skills and take away memories that will last a lifetime.

Yet, for alarming numbers, their experiences will be crippling and life-altering.

As summer’s most popular sports commence – baseball, softball and soccer among them – child predators, armed with engaging smiles and disguised as caring coaches, will infiltrate programs, torment young athletes and inflict unimaginably horrific pain and suffering.    

"We all like to believe it’s the scary monster hiding behind the tree,” says Nancy McBride, national safety director for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “Yes, that person exists, but that’s not usually what is happening to a child. When we look at the people who gain access and opportunity to children they are getting in through the adults because obviously they are making themselves known as somebody who is trustworthy, who is a good person, who looks nice and who is very nice to the kids. So the person who wants that access and opportunity is going to make himself or herself look as good as they possibly can so they can fool us as the adults and certainly fool the kids.”

The molester’s tactics are working: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday.


No sport or community is safe – though too often parents are lulled into a false sense of security. And they pay the ultimate price with their child’s life.

“There are a lot of great programs and safe places for kids and this makes it harder for people to believe that something so horrible can be a part of youth sports,” says Dr. Kristen Dieffenbach, assistant professor of athletic coaching education at West Virginia University. “Youth sports are also a small community within communities, giving a false sense of security through familiarity.”

Combine that with the fact that many parents are blinded by the coach who has that special ability to raise their child’s skill level – in the process carving out opportunities to compete at higher and more glamorous levels of competition – and it becomes a lethal equation that all works in the child predator’s favor.

“Many parents are in denial,” says Dr. Bob Shoop, director of the Cargill Center for Ethical Leadership at Kansas State University and a forensic expert in more than 80 cases of abuse involving coaches and teachers. “The coach may get the kid a scholarship, championships or the Olympics. Parents often do not want to think of their child as a sexual person who would engage in sex. Parents also don’t want to face the fact that they put their child in the hands of the molester.”   

It’s imperative that parents assume aggressive roles when enrolling their children in sports programs, that they ask the right questions and, most importantly, carefully observe what goes on before, during and after practices and games. The risks are simply too great to assume that everything will be fine.

“The key is providing good education for their children about what is inappropriate and also having a good and open relationship with the child so that concerns and questions get brought up,” says Dr. David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

As summer sports reach full swing the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children provides the following tips for parents to help prevent their young athlete from suffering the horrors of abuse:

Does the sports or youth-serving organization conduct a background check on coaches and others who supervise and have access to the children? Any background check should include a federal and state/territorial criminal-history check; a check of sex-offender registries; and reference checks. Parents and guardians should inquire whether the club or organization has a harassment/abuse policy and whether the coach is certified or a member of a coaching association with a code of ethics and/or conduct.

Are there other adults present, besides the coach, to assist in supervising children during team events and practices, including any off-site travel? The coach should not be alone with children during team events, practices, sleepovers, or trips. You should know the names of the others who supervise and have access to your children and meet them in advance of any team activities.

Does the team use a locker room for children to dress, and, if so, is there more than one adult present in the locker room when children are using it? The team should have at least two adult supervisors, of the same sex as the children using the locker room, present while the locker room is in use. Parents and guardians should have access to the locker rooms. The organization should make accommodations so the children have privacy while still providing appropriate adult supervision.

Does the team or organization communicate with and notify parents and guardians of the activity schedule? The organization should keep parents and guardians informed of the team’s activities and send timely notification of any changes in the schedule. Practices should remain open to parents and guardians, and the organization should allow for and encourage proper communication between the team’s leaders and participating families. Parents and guardians who are involved with and attend their children’s sporting events not only show support for their children, but also have the opportunity to monitor those interacting with the children. If parents and guardians have a specific concern regarding the team’s activities, they should first speak with the team’s coach. If the issue remains unresolved after speaking with the coach, parents and guardians should discuss their concern with the organization’s management or administration.

Does the coach pay equal attention to all children? Parents and guardians should be cautious of a coach or others involved with the team who show excessive favoritism toward one child or repeatedly want to spend time alone with a child. Parents and guardians should watch for other potentially harmful behavior such as inappropriate physical contact, comments or jokes, or gift giving. The organization should develop and enforce appropriate boundary guidelines governing the interaction between the child participants and those who supervise and have access to the children.

Would my child know what to do if faced with an inappropriate or uncomfortable situation? Parents and guardians need to assess their child to determine whether he or she has the self-confidence and judgment skills to know how to effectively handle a potential victimization situation. Open communication and interaction with your child is essential to help prevent exploitive situations from occurring. You should ask your child whether he or she likes the team and enjoys participating in the sport. Specifically ask your child how he or she feels about everyone who supervises the sport and has access to them, and carefully listen to their responses. If your child says he or she does not like someone or does not want to play the sport anymore, you should discuss it further to determine if it is a loss of interest in the activity or an indication of a more serious problem or concern. Speak to your children about personal-safety issues and reinforce the safety rules with them. Parents and guardians should reassure and encourage their children to express their feelings and teach them it is OK to say “no” to anyone who makes them feel sad, scared or confused.

These days parents can ill afford to take anything for granted when it comes to their children and their safety.

“We can’t tell who the good guys and bad guys are,” McBride says. “They’re not creepy weirdoes as a whole; they look just like the rest of us. They act like us; they’re very nice, they’re very enticing and they offer kids things they want so how can we expect our kids to be able to discern that?”

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