How to protect your kids from sexual predators at youth sports

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Parents can protect their kids by going to practices and paying attention.

Every so often there is a new report—or a wave of reports—concerning sexual misconduct in youth sports with a resulting wave of searches for solutions from both the government and advocacy groups.

The fact is, though, that the most effective solution for your family is very much in your own hands, and it’s as much your responsibility as putting food on the table: The key ingredient to the sexual health and safety of your child in youth sports is your own involvement.

Below is a letter that you’ll probably never see printed anywhere else:

Dear Parent,
Welcome to Main Street Sports League! We hope your child has a great experience in our program. Our policy is to conduct a criminal background check on all our paid staff and volunteer coaches. This will allow us to identify the approximately 5 percent of child molesters who have been reported to police, caught, charged, and convicted of a sex crime. We can’t protect your child from the other 95 percent without your help.

Spectators in our bleachers, vendors in the food stands, maintenance contractors working on the field, and others can potentially be near your child. They have not been screened so we lack even the minimal 5 percent safety net here.

Pedophiles, one type of child molester, are people whose primary sexual attraction is to children. They often develop relationships with children based on trust, friendship, and affection that lead to sexual abuse disguised as sex play. Most pedophiles have learned to identify children who really enjoy or even need attention from adults; predators are particularly interested in the children less likely to be supervised by parents or other adults. Hebephiles and ephebophiles, predators attracted to adolescents and teens, are similarly taking stock of opportunities.

Attending your child’s practice and games has many benefits for you and your family, but probably none as important as the added measure of safety. It's an extra pairs of eyes and ears for your child, our team, and our community.

Sincerely,
Commissioner, Main Street Sports League

Now, of course it’s impossible for most busy working parents to attend every single game and practice for each of their children who participate in sports programs. But if a predator happens to find that your child matches his or her attraction, he or she will begin to watch to see how much attention you are paying to your child.

So, get out of your minivan and talk to your son’s coach at pickup or drop off. Arrive a few minutes before your daughter’s gymnastics practice ends and watch from the bleachers. When you’re organizing your schedule for the week, pretend practice ends fifteen minutes before it really does, leave the iPhone in the car, and pay attention to your child’s athleticism and interactions with other athletes and the adults. Talk about it on the way home.

Can’t do it all on your own? Team up with another working parent with a child on the same team and take turns doing this—and be sure to cheer on all kids. Be wary of teams or clubs that overly restrict parental access to practices or coaching sessions.  I suggest that teams add a new volunteer role to their roster, along with snack-parent or car-pool parent—add a ‘stand-parent’, whose job it is to be in the stand keeping an eye out for any child whose parents could not be there. You’re not just taking my word here about the importance of knowing that a grown-up is watching; this warning and advice comes straight from the mouths of convicted child molesters I interviewed, whose perspectives helped inform my books.

Background checks, great policies, and even certain laws might help, but nothing is more important than the watchful eyes of an aware, loving, and communicative adult.

Rosenzweig is also the author of The Sex-Wise Parent  and   The Parent’s Guide to Talking About Sex: A Complete Guide to Raising (Sexually) Safe, Smart, and Healthy Children.  For more information, read her blog and follow @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter.