Sexual abuse is one of the worst things a parent can imagine happening to their child and even the thought of it is repulsive to the average adult. Yet, sexual abuse can occur in any setting where a youth can be alone with an adult for extended periods. The long-term emotional effect on the victim can be devastating, which is why it is important for all adults to know more about it. The general consensus among experts who research this issue is that about 1 in 10 children are sexually abused by age 18. In youth sports the rate of abuse is likely higher, based on the 2020 Athlete Culture and Climate Survey conducted by the U.S. Center for SafeSport. The survey’s key findings report that:
- 27% of athlete participants think sexual, emotional, or physical misconduct is a problem in their sport – but far more (48%) are aware of coaches developing sexual relationships with athletes.
- 93% of individuals who experienced sexual harassment or unwanted sexual contact did not submit a formal report/complaint about it. Over half of those experiences occurred when they were under age 18.
- 18.1% of individuals having unwanted sexual experiences also indicated they were retaliated against.
The possible reasons for sexual abuse being higher in youth sports can be attributed to a number of factors that are discussed in this article. However, with few exceptions, such abuse between adults and youth occurring within youth-serving organizations is typically preceded by a step-by-step process of sexually seducing the victims, known as “grooming.”
Before examining sexual grooming in detail, it is important to first recognize a challenging dilemma that is built into our society. On one hand, our communities are filled with legions of trustworthy adults – educators, ministers, coaches, mentors and others – who are devoted to helping youth reach their full potential. On the other hand, every community also contains a surprising number of “problematic” adults who have a natural, sexual attraction to youth. Although not all of these problematic people will act on their attraction to youth, enough of them do to create a serious risk to youth, parents and organizations.
Researchers estimate that about 10% of adults have some degree of sexual interest in children/youth and are therefore problematic to youth-serving organizations. Their interest can range from strong (which might take shape as calculated actions) to mild (which might take shape as impulsive or opportunistic actions). These problematic adults come from all walks of life and only a small percent of them would be excluded from youth-serving organizations through conventional screening procedures. However, virtually all such problematic adults begin by grooming their victims and therefore it is important that organizations understand grooming and take steps to prevent it.
What is grooming?
As noted earlier, grooming is a step-by-step process for an aggressor to condition a child to cooperate in their own sexual abuse. In about 90% of instances, the victim knows the aggressor which is why the aggressor must first establish the victim’s cooperation before the abuse can take place. Once the abuse begins, the victim will often cover up the abuse out of loyalty to the aggressor. This trust and cooperation are achieved through a process by which the aggressor will:
- Single out and build a bond with the victim,
- Be seen as a valuable employee or volunteer to the organization,
- Be seen as valuable by the victim’s parents,
- Abuse the victim and convince them to help cover it up, and
- Continue this pattern with new victims.
Evidence of this pattern comes not only from research, but through news stories about trusted, sometimes famous, adults who are charged with child sexual abuse. From such stories, we learn that parents, co-workers and friends express genuine shock that the accused adult could have ever done such a thing, even testifying to the accused’s character. Thus, skilled sexual grooming is deceptive and difficult to detect. It is harmful behavior made to look like helpful behavior.
The key to preventing grooming within youth-serving organizations is having sufficiently detailed, written rules of conduct, much as every sport requires a rulebook to prevent the more skilled and aggressive players from taking advantage of less skilled opponents. And as with sports, red flags help signal behaviors that the organization may need to correct on the spot or investigate further to be fair to all parties involved. Finally, as in sports, the more people involved who understand the rules and call attention to them, the less frequently the rules will be violated.
Why sexual aggressors succeed
As stated earlier, whether the grooming is done by an educator, minister, coach, mentor or other trusted adult, the aggressor tends to follow a predictable and reliable pattern:
- The aggressor has no negative history and begins work with a youth-serving organization.
- The aggressor comes to be seen as important to the organization.
- The aggressor shows favoritism toward one or more youth to build a bond with them.
- The aggressor begins secretly interacting with a particular youth, often through digital means and through meetings apart from the organization’s scheduled activities.
- The aggressor establishes a relationship with the youth’s parents. In youth sports this might be discussing the youth’s athletic potential, offering private lessons at low or no cost, taking the youth to out-of-town sports competitions, investigating college scholarships, and frequent digital communications between aggressor and victim. In short, the aggressor makes themself indispensable to the parents.
- The aggressor conditions the victim to be comfortable with being intimately touched. In youth sports this might begin as showing the youth athlete how to best swing a bat or club, throw or kick a ball, swim or complete a gymnastic or wrestling move. In some sports athletes must have muscles massaged before or after competition. Besides sports-related touch, the aggressor may look for opportunities to tickle, roughhouse, give frontal hugs, pat the victim, stroke the victim’s hair or sit intimately next to the victim.
- The aggressor finds ways to playfully kiss and sexually touch the victim and then progress to more serious sexual contact.
- The victim becomes emotionally dependent upon the aggressor and hides the relationship, even defending the aggressor if the relationship is discovered. After the relationship ends, the victim may keep silent for many years out of shame and guilt. Once the victim fully understands they have been manipulated by the aggressor, they may exhibit depression, anti-social behavior and substance abuse.
- If the aggressor is not exposed, they move on to the next victim, improving their methods. In some cases, highly skilled child sexual abusers will abuse many victims before being caught, if ever.
What can organizations and parents do?
Responsible adults agree that no child should have to be the victim of child sexual abuse, yet the problem persists year after year. Likewise, the pattern of grooming remains unchanged, whether the setting is a church, a school, a camp, a sports team or some other youth-serving organization. To prevent the sexual abuse of youth within organizations and the grooming that often precedes that abuse, organizations should have these fundamental prevention strategies in place:
- Policies that clearly address sexual abuse.
- Clear, written rules of conduct.
- Screening of adults who will be in direct and repetitive contact with youth, using not only criminal records searches and reference checks, but also the U.S. Center for SafeSport’s Centralized Disciplinary Database.
- Training, education and awareness about the nature of sexual abuse and the mandatory requirement to report suspected child abuse under your state’s laws and the federal Safe Sport Act of 2017.
- Supervision procedures to reduce opportunities for abuse.
- Modifying settings and situations where an adult can be isolated with youth.
- Training all staff to understand their duty as mandated reporters of sexual abuse, as defined by their state’s laws. The organization should also provide ways for any person to report questionable staff conduct without fear of retribution. Such information might not meet the threshold of reporting suspected abuse, but it could still be a legitimate concern that should be evaluated.
Once these fundamental steps are in place, organizations should consider how to increase the awareness of parents, who may be unintentionally enabling the grooming of their child. For example, the organization could help parents:
- Understand there is no single profile for a potential child sexual offender. Experts in the field of child sexual abuse prevention emphasize that there is no single profile for a sexual offender – not age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, education or income. The factors that motivate a person to violate laws and social prohibitions are deep within them and challenging to detect. This makes it possible for experienced offenders to abuse multiple victims before being caught.
- Learn the predictable patterns of sexual grooming. Once the organization’s staff understand the predictable patterns of grooming, they should look for opportunities to explain it to parents.
- Understand how to intervene when something is not quite right. All staff should be taught how to enforce the rules of conduct tactfully, but effectively. Likewise, parents should be encouraged to enforce the organization’s rules and share any concerns about staff conduct.
- Connect the dots. Organizations are expected to be cognizant and take action when staff openly violate policies or rules. If a staff member is removed for failing to follow policy or rules intended to protect youth, the parents of any youth who are involved should be informed. Later, if your organization is used as a reference by the dismissed staff, you should disclose the fact that the person was dismissed for failing to follow a child protection policy. If your organization hides this information from another youth-serving organization, you may be accused of aiding and abetting the person, should your former staff subsequently abuse a youth.
Looking Back and Looking Ahead
Child sexual abuse is an age-old, human problem that people would not acknowledge, could not understand and did not discuss until researchers began studying it in the early-1980s and victims began coming forward in the 1990’s. In the decades that followed, many youth-serving organizations, such as NCYS, led the way in addressing this risk by developing and promoting effective organizational prevention strategies. As a result, those organizations that have been and remain most proactive can expect to experience fewer incidents of abuse. However, lest we become overconfident, the success of youth-serving organizations to control this risk will be less successful without engaging parents to be part of the solution, particularly when it comes to understanding grooming and helping to enforce the organization’s rules that are meant to protect their child.
The following resources for organizations to develop a more effective sexual abuse prevention program are free or available at minimal cost:
- Minor Athlete Abuse Prevention Policies, U.S. Center for SafeSport, www.maapp.uscenterforsafesport.org
- Preventing Child Sexual Abuse within Youth-Serving Organizations: Getting Started with Policies and Procedures (2007), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov.
- Recommended Guidelines and Best Practices: Background Screening in Youth-Serving Organizations, 3rd Edition, National Council for Youth Sports, www.NCYS.org.
- Centralized Disciplinary Database, U.S. Center for Safe Sports, www.USCenterforSafeSport.org.
- Staff Screening Toolkit, 3rd Edition (2004), Nonprofit Risk Management Center. www.NRMC.org.
Training, education and awareness
- SportsEngine Abuse Prevention Training, www.sportsengine.com/solutions/capabilities/eligibility/safety-training
- SafeSport Training for All, U.S. Center for SafeSport, www.USCenterforSafeSport.org
- Online and in-person training, National Child Advocacy Centers, www.nationalcac.org
- Stewards of Children Training, Darkness to Light Foundation, www.D2L.org
- Armatus Online Abuse Prevention Training, www.praesidiuminc.com.
- State-by-State Mandated Reporting Laws, Child Welfare Gateway, www.childwelfare.gov.
- Safe Sport Act of 2017, www.govinfo.gov.
About the author
R. Leslie (Les) Nichols, MSSA CPP, has been directly involved in helping youth-serving organizations protect children for nearly 30 years. He is the former National Vice President of Child Safety for Boys & Girls Clubs of America and now works as a prevention consultant to organizations and as an expert witness in cases involving injury to children. He can be reached at www.LesNichols.com.