One of the most troubling aspects of many high-profile allegations of sexual abuse of children in youth agencies is the failure of these institutions to protect them. Some may argue that this happens out of greed or self-protection. Others will argue that the officials receiving the complaints just couldn’t believe them; after all, had anyone ever heard of a team doctor sexually abusing hundreds of young athletes, or a beloved coach having sex with young boys after practice? Whatever the cause of institutional inaction, the fact remains that parents have a critical role to play in holding institutions accountable, and here are some ways to do that.
Believe your child: I recall a conversation with a friend who grew up in the ’60s; we were discussing the then-breaking story of pedophile priests, and he said that when he told his parents about what he now jokingly called a “Father McFeely” he was harshly punished for disrespecting a priest. In his book, Killing Willis, former child star Todd Bridges alludes to being silenced by his parents when he tried to tell them his publicist sexually abused him; the publicist was key to keeping Bridges working. Parents can learn from these mistakes and come to all conversations about their child’s feeling of safety and security with an open mind.
If your child shares a concern, stay calm, express your support for their feelings, belief in their report and listen carefully. Resist the urge to repeatedly question your child; the science of forensic interviewing has taught us that frequent questioning can cause a child’s narrative to change, which can be a problem if a criminal charge is later filed. Open-ended questions about how a child feels are much safer then demands for times, dates and places.
Young athletes, especially when they reach levels of elite competition, can be trained to ignore their own instincts. While most people respond to feelings like pain and hunger, athletes with a training regimen and weight requirements are trained to power through. We do not want our children powering through any feelings of any nature that make them uncomfortable around their coaches, trainers, or others who have a role in their success.
Speak Truth to Power: When you sign your child up for a sports team or other organization, learn its process for hearing complaints. Be fair and open-minded as it reviews your concern and keep your child away from the suspect circumstance. If after a week or two you feel as if your complaint is being ignored, consider contacting higher authorities. If you are unsure if the issue is serious enough for legal intervention, consider speaking to an expert, such as staff from a Child Advocacy Center.
Perhaps the worst reaction I’ve heard was from a summer camp where my child was enrolled years ago; when I contacted the director after another parent contacted me about an allegation her son was making about a staff member, the director told me that I was welcome to remove my child if I didn’t think the camp was safe. I can still recall my anger as I responded that if the camp wasn’t safe enough for my child it wasn’t safe enough for any child. Parents owe it to each other to consider the safety of all children and not just their own.
We shouldn’t let the fear for our child’s safety keep us from enrolling them in beneficial activities, but we can be mindful of our role in keeping them safe.
Dr. Janet Rosenzweig is the Executive Director of The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children and 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 , follow @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter or contact DrRosenzweig@sexwiseparent.com to schedule a program for your school or community group