Following the arrest of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, parents are wondering whom they can trust and how to protect their children.
Sandusky, 67, founded a charity called The Second Mile for at-risk boys; it is alleged he used the charity to prey upon the children he was supposed to help.
Sandusky has been charged with sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year period.
While millions of young people participate in organized sports under the direction of caring people who would never hurt them, there are sexual predators who use positions of authority to harm children.
According to Lemy Dao, director of the Child Advocacy Center in Johnson City, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by the time they are 18 years old.
Sexual predators, she said, do not fit stereotypes.
“When I was growing up, we were warned to stay away from scary men in the park,” Dao said. “Now, it’s not the scary men, it’s someone these kids know and trust and have relationships with, like a coach.”
Parents who are alarmed by the events at Penn State and worry whether their children are safe, should do some research before they enroll their kids in a sports program or other activity.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has prepared a list of questions parents should ask:
n Are there other adults present, besides the coach, to assist in supervising children during team events and practices, including any off-site travel? The coach should not be alone with children during team events, practices, sleepovers or trips. You should know the names of the others who supervise and have access to your children and meet them in advance of any team activities.
n Does the team use a locker room for children to dress, and, if so, is there more than one adult present in the locker room when children are using it? The team should have at least two adult supervisors, of the same sex as the children using the locker room, present while the locker room is in use. Parents and guardians should have access to the locker rooms. The organization should make accommodations so the children have privacy while still providing appropriate adult supervision.
n Does the team or organization communicate with and notify parents and guardians of the activity schedule? The organization should keep parents and guardians informed of the team’s activities and send timely notification of any changes in the schedule. Practices should remain open to parents and guardians, and the organization should allow for and encourage proper communication between the team’s leaders and participating families. Parents and guardians who are involved with and attend their children’s sporting events not only show support for their children, but also have the opportunity to monitor those interacting with the children. If parents and guardians have a specific concern regarding the team’s activities, they should first speak with the team’s coach. If the issue remains unresolved after speaking with the coach, parents and guardians should discuss their concern with the organization’s management or administration.
n Does the coach pay equal attention to all children? Parents and guardians should be cautious of a coach or others involved with the team who show excessive favoritism towards one child or repeatedly want to spend time alone with a child. Parents and guardians should watch for other potentially harmful behavior such as inappropriate physical contact, comments or jokes, or gift giving. The organization should develop and enforce appropriate boundary guidelines governing the interaction between the child participants and those who supervise and have access to the children.
n Would my child know what to do if faced with an inappropriate or uncomfortable situation? Parents and guardians need to assess their child to determine whether he or she has the self-confidence and judgment skills to know how to effectively handle a potential victimization situation. Open communication and interaction with your child is essential to help prevent exploitative situations from occurring. You should ask your child whether he or she likes the team and enjoys participating in the sport. Specifically ask your child how he or she feels about everyone who supervises the sport and has access to them, and carefully listen to their responses.
If your child says he or she does not like someone or does not want to play the sport anymore, you should discuss it further to determine if it is a loss of interest in the activity or an indication of a more serious problem or concern. Speak to your children about personal-safety issues and reinforce the safety rules with them.
Parents and guardians should reassure and encourage their children to express their feelings and teach them it is OK to say “no” to anyone who makes them feel sad, scared, or confused.