Sara Austin says parents enrolling their children in athletic programs this fall can take an important step to help prevent sexual abuse.
Austin, the CEO of the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre, is working hard to get the message out this October that parents are the first line of defence in the fight against sexual abuse in sports as many leagues start their seasons.
“It really starts with having open and honest conversations with our children,” said Austin on Thursday. “Being able to talk about their bodies and about healthy relationships and what to do if they ever feel uncomfortable and feel like someone is doing something that’s inappropriate.
“Kids need to know that if something bad happens that they can tell trusted adults. That there’s a difference between good secrets and bad secrets.”
Breaking down the stigma surrounding these difficult discussions is one of the goals of October’s Child Abuse Prevention Month, and topical given the ongoing trial of Dave Brubaker, the former director of the women’s national gymnastics team. He pleaded not guilty to sexual assault and invitation to sexual touching earlier this week at his judge-alone trial in Sarnia, Ont. The charges relate to alleged incidents between 2000 and 2007.
Speaking with children about sexual abuse may be the first step, but Lorraine Lafreniere, CEO of the Coaching Association of Canada, says direct conversations with coaches or other volunteers about what is being done to safeguard the kids in their care is also crucial.
Lafreniere says parents often have no problem asking about physical safety in the field of play but can be reluctant to ask hard questions that can prevent sexual abuse. That includes making sure that sports organizations use the Rule of Two — a minimum of two adults be present for any activity — and that they have background checks on any adult working with the organization.
“We want parents to not just ask what size of helmet or what type of helmet or what kinds of skis, we actually want them to ask: ‘Do you have policies around the Rule of Two? Do you have training and education? What’s your screening policy?’” Lafreniere said. “The biggest factor that will change anything is the parent. Because if the parent goes into the clubhouse and asks about policies, that’s what gets people going.”
Austin says adults have a legal and moral responsibility to report any suspicious behaviour to the police. Although some people might worry about raising a false alarm, Austin says there is no risk and flagging suspicious behaviour to the proper authorities could save a life.
“It’s not your job to solve this problem, it’s your job and legal duty to report suspected abuse and then the police and child protection agencies will do the investigation and ultimately come to a conclusion if the child is at risk,” said Austin. “It’s really important for folks to hear the message that the earlier we end the cycle of abuse the better off the outcomes are for the children.”
Austin and Lafreniere have each seen a shift in how society speaks about sexual abuse, both in tone and in frequency.
Lafreniere points to the 2012 conviction of former hockey coach Graham James as a watershed moment. He pleaded guilty to repeatedly sexually abusing retired NHL star Theo Fleury and his cousin, Todd Holt, when they played for him in the Western Hockey League in the late 1980s and early ’90s. James had already served time and been pardoned after he pleaded guilty to similar charges in 1997 when Sheldon Kennedy and four other players accused him of sexual abuse.
Since then, Canada has toughened the requirements for a convicted sex offender to be granted a pardon.
At the same time, a series of sexual abuse trials have rocked the world of sports. Former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, ex-Canadian national ski coach Bertrand Charest, former USA gymnastics coach Larry Nassar, and most recently Brubaker, have put the issue in the spotlight.
Those high-profile trials, coupled with the #MeToo movement encouraging victims of sexual violence of all ages to speak out, have inspired more people to come forward about the abuse they’ve suffered.
“We believe that the culture is changing. That the stigma and taboo associated with sexual abuse is slowly being wiped away,” said Austin, who notes that the vast majority of cases still go unreported. “It’s still a very difficult subject to talk about for people who survived abuse or for people who suspect abuse, it’s still a really difficult thing.
“And yet, we believe the tide is starting to turn. It’s not necessarily that there are more cases of abuse, but that kids are more likely to reach out for help if they need it and that adults who suspect abuse are more likely to report it.”
According to the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre, signs of child abuse may include: sudden changes in behaviour or performance at school or other activities; unexplained physical injuries or injuries that don’t match the child’s explanation; extreme behavioural reactions such as aggression or withdrawal; sexual knowledge or behaviour beyond their stage of development; a desire to run away from home; and always being hungry, sick or not suitably dressed for the weather.
John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press