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Who's Protecting Our Children - An NCYS Child Safety Initiative

The National Council of Youth Sports (NCYS) is the largest association in America representing youth-serving organizations--its membership represents participants of more than 52,000,000 boys and girls. The NCYS has taken a leadership position in addressing the crisis currently affecting youth-serving organizations - known incidents of and potential for abuse and molestation of youth by coaches and mentors. Child abuse/molestation is by no means confined to sports, yet unfortunately, any program where adults supervise children represents an obvious opportunity for sexual predators, and youth sports programs are known targets for perpetrators of these crimes.

The NCYS is providing its membership with the following information, including the results of a recently conducted survey of a sampling of members and recommendations on ways to best protect youth and organizations against the criminal actions of perpetrators in society.

The following will address:
What is the magnitude of the problem?
What are youth organizations doing to address the problem?
What must youth organizations do to combat the threat?

According to Department of Justice statistics, a child in America is sexually assaulted every two minutes. Unfortunately the majority of incidents are not reported because children are afraid to tell anyone what has happened, and the legal procedure for validating an episode is difficult.

Particularly frightening is the fact that perpetrators are not generally the stereotypical creepy stranger lurking in the shadows near the schoolyard. Experts tell us that perpetrators of child abuse are almost always known to the victim and commonly hold positions of trust and confidence in the community. There are currently more than 400,000 known sexual offenders identified on state sex offender registries. These are just the ones we know about.

A 1986 American Medical Association study found that one in four girls and one in eight boys is sexually molested before they reach the age of 18. While these statistics are clearly dated, they still provide us with a sense of how broad the problem is. Although the number of athletes who are abused or exploited by coaches has never been quantified, the research on sexual abuse in general is massive and sobering. Many experts believe that sexual abuse in sport, like sexual abuse in society, goes well beyond isolated incidents. Keith Lanning, an FBI supervisory agent, who has written extensively about child molesters, says that the average “seducer” molester, the kind most common in youth sports, victimizes approximately 120 children before he is caught. Despite today’s charged atmosphere, in which it may seem that allegations are easily made, estimates are that for every serious incident reported, 10 go unreported.

Unfortunately, sports and other youth activities present an ideal opportunity for abusers. Experts say sexual predators typically seek the trust of both the parents and the child before beginning the abuse, so the child will be afraid to complain. This is compounded by the fact that an emotional bond is often created between the youth and the adult.

Sexually abused adolescents often display symptoms of anxiety, numbing, hypersensitivity, depression, alcohol or drug use, problem sexual behaviors, and aggression. Typically, molesters will take advantage of their position of authority and trust. Gaining a child’s trust means everything to a molester. Violating it means nothing. When abuse occurs in this context, the betrayal is intensified. The longer the abuse has occurred, the more likely the victim is to feel that he/she should have been able to stop it and thus he or she feels more "guilty."

Recovery from child sexual abuse is an on-going process. Developmental stages, particularly adolescence and young adulthood, may trigger old feelings about the abuse. For example, the time when an adolescent's body begins to develop physically, or when he or she marries, or becomes a parent may restimulate old feelings and memories. Those children who have been abused are far more likely to show signs of depression and to engage in risky health behaviors, including smoking, drinking and using drugs, eating disorders and early pregnancy. When a child is sexually exploited, it is a shattering experience for everyone. Family members often feel the same emotions as the victim: powerlessness, anger, guilt, depression, and fear.

Recent Media Attention
There has been heightened media attention focusing on abuse/molestation in youth organizations. In January 2004, a search on the Internet turned up numerous articles on sexual abuse in youth-serving organizations. A few examples include:

A 61-year-old coach of a girls’ soccer team in Virginia who was arrested on charges of producing child pornography by secretly videotaping girls changing into bathing suits at his home.

A Washington, D.C. police officer and former youth baseball coach was charged with exposing himself to a minor after he allegedly was caught playing tennis naked with an 11-year-old boy who was clothed.

A registered sex offender who was hired as a part-time track and basketball coach was sentenced to three years in prison for fondling a 14-year-old girl while driving her home from a middle school.

A 44-year-old man was alleged to have used his position as a father, neighbor and youth basketball coach to gain access to and rape at least two girls and molest three others.

Meanwhile, another man has been charged with sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy he met while coaching bowling. The man, who was previously convicted of molesting a child and was a registered sexual offender, has been charged with second-degree sodomy.

Incidents like these are often highly publicized and have the potential to destroy the integrity and financial stability of youth-serving organizations, especially if it appears that no steps were taken for prevention or early identification and correction. Individuals are being held personally accountable and legally liable for harm caused by these criminals.

In Washington State, The Seattle Times series “Coaches Who Prey,” prompted two state legislators to push for new laws that would dramatically change the oversight of coaches involved in youth sports in Washington. Under the new proposals, criminal background checks, statewide licensing of coaches and stricter hiring practices by schools are just a few of the policies being proposed to reduce the opportunity for misconduct between teachers/coaches and students.

Current Abuse/Molestation Cases in Litigation
We are aware of the following abuse/molestation cases that are currently in litigation or have been recently settled.

A high school girls volleyball coach had a nationally ranked team that traveled to tournaments nationwide. Being a member of this team almost guaranteed college scholarship consideration. During “overnight competition” the coach had several female athletes sleep with him threatening to kick them off the team if they refused. A suit was filed against the coach, school and the amateur sports body by several girls who were molested during the coach’s career. All the defendants were eventually dropped from the suit, with the exception of the high school that paid close to $2,000,000 in settlement.

An amateur sport’s girls basketball coach was coaching a team that included his daughter. He encouraged team members to participate in slumber parties at his home so they could “discuss plays.” He molested several girls at his home before he was caught. Suit has been filed for damages in excess of $5,000,000. The coach remains in prison.

A coach of an urban boys basketball team had been hired by a friend despite a strong indication that he had been terminated from several teaching positions for molesting students. He was accused and convicted of molesting over thirteen athletes over a five-year period. Although most of his victims recovered from their ordeal, a youth athlete remains hospitalized in a catatonic state with serious mental residuals. The multiple plaintiffs recovered in excess of $7,000,000.

A boys baseball coach was participating in a national tournament and traveled with the “team manager” requiring that they share the same room. The young boy was molested repeatedly over a four-day period and now suffers from severe depression and other mental problems. Suit is pending in excess of $5,000,000.

A boys track coach drilled a “peep hole” into the girls locker room where he could film his athletes undressing and in the shower. The coach filmed over 100 young girls in an eight-year period. Some of the film eventually appeared on the Internet. These suits are still pending, but settlements reached to date are in excess of $1,000,000.

Key Point 1-Claims:
As the visibility of claims of abuse/molestation continues to increase, insurers are shying away from providing adequate insurance protection for youth-serving organizations. This leaves the organization exposed to catastrophic financial consequences in the event of an uninsured or underinsured incident.

Many organizations believe it is unreasonable or impractical to screen all employees, volunteers, and coaches. Quality screening programs are necessary and are used in other industries. Yet, what constitutes a quality-screening program is often misunderstood. In general it is agreed that youth-serving organizations cannot guarantee the safety of their participants at all times. They are, however, expected to have taken steps to safeguard participants that would meet or exceed a reasonable standard when compared to other organizations in similar circumstances. What constitutes this reasonable standard has changed significantly in the last decade.

It may have been considered unreasonable 10 years ago to expect youth-serving organizations to conduct background checks of prospective employees and volunteers. But 10 years ago, the criminal and sexual offender databases were either nonexistent or not legally accessible to youth-serving organizations. Today, however, the availability of online databases, as well as statutory changes enabling better communication between states and federal agencies, has made conducting background checks both accessible and reasonable.

Several organizations have responded to the recent attention on sexual abuse in youth-serving organizations by requiring volunteers and employees in their organizations to undergo a simple search of a state’s sex-offender registry. Unfortunately, this provides a false sense of security given the fact that according to a survey of law enforcement officials responsible for sex offender registries in all 50 states, police have lost track of one in four of the sex offenders who are supposed to be registered. Additionally, while background checks are among the most comprehensive screening tools currently available, they are not foolproof.

While experts agree that molesters look for vulnerable sources and that criminal background checks almost certainly deter child molesters who have arrest records, the issue is complicated by the fact that many child molesters have no criminal records because the molestation is never reported, charges are never filed, or charges are not detected because the perpetrator has moved. Further, those who do get arrested may not have convictions that appear through a background check. Many offenders make plea bargains, for instance, and are convicted of lesser charges. A screening program may not be the entire solution, but it is essential.

Background checks are critically important, not only to protect children but also to help shield the leagues from crippling litigation and skyrocketing liability insurance costs. Through a mandate of the U.S. Congress, the NCYS is working with the Justice Department and the FBI to establish a system of conducting background checks based on fingerprints. While this system is likely to be more accurate where there is a match available, it will take longer and cost more than online screening.

Key Point 1-Screening:
In order to protect children from abuse or injury, youth serving organizations should require reliable, rapid, comprehensive criminal background screening checks on volunteers at a very reasonable cost so informed screening decisions can be made. As important and responsible as the screening process is, it is equally essential that the information received has been recently updated, is dependable, complete, and widespread.

Key Point 2-Screening:
Youth-serving organizations need civil immunity (or in the alternative an affirmative defense) when they can demonstrate that they obtained background information provided in a reasonable and prudent fashion and relied on it as a complete report of criminal arrests, indictments and/or convictions.

Results of a recent study conducted by NCYS reveals that even though all organizations recognize abuse/molestation as a serious threat, only a small percentage have implemented measures to effectively combat the threat. Deficiencies were found in four primary categories:
Education for employees, volunteers, and membership
Quality criminal background screening programs
Strict guidelines for the reporting of incidents
Established procedures for responding to reported incidents

The NCYS recommends that youth organizations take the following actions immediately:
Acknowledge that abuse/molestation is a threat to youth programs in this country and should be managed as a top strategic priority by every youth-serving organization
Implement a comprehensive abuse/molestation management program
Periodically audit the effectiveness of your abuse/molestation management program
Unite as a community of youth-serving organizations to eradicate criminal behavior from our programs

The National Council of Youth Sports (NCYS) has partnered with American Specialty, a leading provider of insurance and risk management services for the sports and entertainment industry, and IntelliCorp, a leading criminal background check company, to create a program that will enable youth-serving organizations to proactively combat this threat.

As part of the NCYS Child Safety Initiative, the NCYS and its corporate partners are providing resources to assist youth organizations in the development and implementation of a comprehensive abuse/molestation management program. This program includes the following features:

1. Program Review to conduct an evaluation of your current abuse/molestation management program to determine areas for improvement.

2. Policies and Procedures to work with your organization to create guidelines, policies, and procedures.

3. Screening - to evaluate your current screening program, make recommendations for improvement, and/or develop a customized screening program for your organization.

The NCYS would like to help its members by assisting in the development of industry best practices relative to criminal background checks. These best practices would:
Define categories of individuals that should be screened and how often
Define what a “reasonable” background check includes
Utilize the most reliable database available to conduct the screening
Provide guidelines for reviewing and responding to the results of the check

4. Education - While background checks can catch those who might pose a danger to children before they are able to get close to them, or discourage them from even trying, education may be the most useful tool in keeping these predators at bay. Educating children and their parents about what abuse/molestation is and how to guard against it will further insulate children from sex crimes. One of the most effective aspects of education is knowing that it is important to identify and report inappropriate behavior.

NCYS and its corporate partners will work with your organization to develop educational materials consistent with your standard methods of communicating with your employees, volunteers, and membership.

5. Audit As part of an overall abuse/molestation management program, follow-up audits on an annual basis should be performed to confirm that the program that has been developed and implemented is being followed and has not been weakened or eliminated by employee or board member turnover.

During the past decade, there has been a growing trend of lawsuits relating to liability risks to nonprofit organizations. Related litigation costs and the uncertainty of jury verdicts have resulted in a substantial exposure to the assets of many youth-serving organizations in America. These lawsuits have driven up the cost of insurance, reduced the number of insurers willing to insure these organizations, and, in some cases, have threatened their insurability and continued existence.

In early 2003, the National Council of Youth Sports proposed an amendment to the National Child Protection Act of 1993. Among other important needs we proposed immunity as such:
“Though nonprofit youth-serving organizations will occasionally have access to other background information that can and should be considered, given the limited resources of and severe time constraints associated with the selection of coaches, teachers, mentors, administrators and others who work with children in their programs, organizations that do acquire background information pursuant to this Act should be able to rely on the information as being complete and accurate. Therefore, the Act should provide protection to organizations that make good faith diligent efforts to discover relevant information as part of the screening process seeking to eliminate unacceptable risks of injury or abuse to children. Organizations that obtain this information and use it in a reasonable and prudent manner should be able to rely on these background checks. This can be done either by an immunity clause or by creating an affirmative defense.”

The result of the proposed NCYS amendment…..On April 30, 2003, the NCYS was named as a participant in the Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to end the Exploitation of Children Today Act of 2003 (PROTECT Act) to address a variety of provisions for children’s safety including a pilot program for national criminal history fingerprint background checks and a feasibility study. Costs, efficiency, and immunity continue to be an issue for the use of fingerprint background checks. Online criminal background screening has become a responsible and realistic alternative.

Now, the NCYS is advocating the proposal of a Bill before the U.S. Congress that would provide immunity to nonprofit youth-serving organizations who have conducted good faith diligent efforts in performing criminal background screening, without the constant threat of litigation. We believe that once this bill is passed, these youth-serving organizations will have the unobstructed ability to protect children and promote safety for the betterment of society.