Tips to keep your child safe from coaching sex abuse at swim clubs and public pools
Despite recent stories of USA Swimming coaching sex abuse, swimming is one of the most popular Olympic sports, and the success of famous athletes such as Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin inspires children across the nation to start swim lessons with USA Swimming Clubs, YMCA/YWCA programs, or municipal summer recreation pools. All too frequently, however, coaches abuse their close relationships with young athletes, and take sexual advantage of them. The problem of coaching sex abuse is worsened when the supervising organization, rather than taking steps to protect the victim and any other children under its care, tries to preserve its reputation by covering up the actions of the coach turned predator.
One of the biggest coaching sex abuse scandals in youth athletics in recent years continues to involve USA Swimming. So far, over a hundred coaches working for USA Swimming's member clubs have been permanently banned from the sport for molesting, groping, and secretly filming the young athletes under their care.
Heightening the problem was USA Swimming's refusal to take action against their coaches. However, San Jose attorney Robert Allard has filed a series of sex abuse lawsuits on behalf of victims against USA Swimming, and got the organization to start better protecting young athletes. The organization now has a list of banned coaches that is public.
Preventing Coaching Sex Abuse
As a parent who is interested in placing their child in a swim program, the lessons learned from USA Swimming coaching sex abuse should be helpful to parents looking to ensure the safety of their children.
- Coaches should not engage in giving their swimmers rubdowns.
- Parents need to ensure that swim clubs are checking the backgrounds of anyone on a pool deck. This includes coaches, officials, and even volunteers. You must do a comprehensive background check before anyone has access to your child. Little League baseball, for example, has a comprehensive safety program that it uses to thoroughly check anyone with close access to kids.
- The rule of twos; There should always be at least two adults with a child in a situation where the child is alone.
- Coaches should not be alone with children on road trips
- Another adult should supervise all coaching; A coach and child should not be alone.
All too often, the story is the same: a coach of a sports or swim program will sexually molest an athlete who is training under them. Rather than contact police, the athletic organization or club which employs the coach will bury its head in the sand, or conduct an internal investigation without lawfully notifying the authorities. This not only fails to protect the victim from the molester, but also makes other children training at the same facility vulnerable to the predator. For this reason, you, as a parent, need to document all of your complaints and act on your gut instincts. Lastly, call the police. It is their job to investigate this type of criminal behavior. Sports organizations do not have the same training. Allow law enforcement to do its job.
As a parent, there are a few other things you can do to be aware of and prevent coaching sex abuse of your child at a summer athletics training camp or retreat. General safety tips include:
Thoroughly vet the swimming organizations and coaches who will be in charge of your child.
USA Swimming is a large organization comprised of member clubs and affiliates across America. Double- and triple-check the organizations to which you’re considering sending your young child to swim. Ask what procedures the organization has for reporting suspected sexual abuse, punishing perpetrators, and protecting your child from harm. How are coaches or pool staff—anyone who has access to your child—being checked? Does the swim club do background checks on all its employees? Do they take fingerprints? Ask for references? What's the process for complaints? What are the locker room and rubdown rules?
Understand and be able to identify predatory grooming behavior.
Size up the coaches and staff at the swimming or athletic organization. Take time to come to a few training sessions. Monitor the behavior of coaches and make sure none of them are taking too keen an interest in your child. If the coach pays special attention to your child, compliments them constantly, becomes overly touchy-feely with them, makes excuses to be alone with them, or asks penetrating questions about their sexual development, then you should immediately remove your child from the organization. These behaviors are typical red flags of predatory grooming.
Talk to your child about body parts and sexual impropriety.
It will be a hundred times harder for a predator to take sexual advantage of your child if your child is already aware of predatory grooming behavior and sexual impropriety. Tell your child what is appropriate and inappropriate touching and behavior between adults and minors. Tell them to inform a trustworthy adult immediately if their coach, or another adult, touches them in an uncomfortable way. Let your child know that it’s okay to say “no,” even to adults. Make sure that your child knows the correct names for body parts; using slang or pet words for anatomy will make your child’s story less credible to authorities.
Make a note of what was said in your pre-enrollment interviews with the organization, and keep a log of suspicious behaviors in coaches. Also keep any correspondence you receive from the school. This paper trail may be vital later in a criminal or civil investigation.
Take note of your child’s behavior before, during, and after the summer athletics camp.
Children wear their hearts on their sleeves and their behaviors don’t lie. If your child becomes withdrawn, reticent, inexplicably fearful of places or things, displays signs of sexual injury, has trouble walking, sleeping, urinating, or defecating, acts in a sexually inappropriate manner, becomes clingy, regresses to an earlier age mentally or behaviorally, or displays other untoward behavior, it may be a sign that somebody sexually molested him or her. You should seek mental healthcare for your child as soon as possible. Make sure your child knows that they can come and talk to you about anything without fear of reprisal.
Know where to go and who to call if you suspect somebody has been abusing your child.
There are different protocols for reporting coaching sex abuse to a national athletics training program like USA Swimming than there are for reporting sex abuse to the YMCA or YWCA. Keep a list of phone numbers you can call (including law enforcement) if you suspect that your child has been abused.
Don’t hesitate to act on your suspicions.
You may be reluctant to report coaching sex abuse of your child. You may doubt your child’s word, or worry about ruining an innocent coach’s career, or be concerned about your reputation. Don’t be. This is your child’s health, sanity, safety, and future at stake. Countless other children may be in danger because you failed to act. The least you can do is start an official investigation. Innocent parties will be cleared of blame and guilty ones punished for their despicable crimes, and future youth athletes protected.
These are just a few of the things you can do to ensure your child’s and other children’s safety at summer athletics retreats and camps. Based on our experience in working with victims of USA Swimming coaching sex abuse, we believe that the tips shared above will help protect your child and other children in these programs.
Please do not hesitate to contact us if you suspect that a coach is engaging in sex abuse. Call us at 408-287-1417 for a free and confidential consultation. Attorney Robert Allard’s landmark success protecting swimmers has earned him “2012’s Person of the Year” by SwimSwam and recognition as one of the “Top 10 Most Impactful People in Swimming” by Swimming World in 2014.