By S. Barot
For The Star
Youth sports leagues and other youth organizations are designed to keep children away from certain dangers including underage drinking, smoking, gang-related activities and violence. They encourage mentorship and youth are engaged in growing, learning and are considered a safe past time for children.
Parents want to have the peace of mind that their children are being coached by someone who has their safety and well being at heart.
Unfortunately, not all coaches and league volunteers have the well being of children in mind. In fact in the recent past, two men in Fort Bend County, who were once involved in youth sports, have been arrested for crimes related to children.
This poses the question – is a conviction and being placed on the sex offender list the standard for termination? Is an accusation enough? Or should youth leagues be pro-active and suspend on arrest, much the way the NFL has suspended players who have been arrested for domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse, until their trial is completed.
“I think that if someone is convicted, then yes, they should be terminated immediately,” said Fulshear Police Chief Kenny Seymour, who has also been a league coach for 25 years. “If it’s just an allegation, it’s still serious, but law enforcement can’t act on an allegation and go around notifying people that allegations have been placed on someone. Once it goes to the courts, it’s public information.”
Seymour added that there are several sources for the general public to use to get a better understanding of someone’s criminal activity record – including websites like Watchdog.
“Many of these sites are accurate in content, but you never know when they’ve been updated – and with situations like this, timeliness is a critical factor,” Seymour said. “Our department uses the Texas Crime Information Center and the National Crime Information Center to get information on individuals – but databases like those are only available to law enforcement, not to the public.”
Many youth sports leagues in the area conduct background checks on prospective coaches and volunteers, but such checks are not required by law. It’s unclear, however, what happens in the event of an arrest after a successful background check has been completed.
According to the city of Sugar Land, there is no policy regarding notification of arrests, but there is a formal process for sex offender registration after conviction.
“There is a Code of Criminal Procedures in Texas,” Seymour said. “It lists the mandatory things we have to do in any situation. For a sex offender who has been convicted, we must notify the superintendent of schools with generic information including the name of the convicted and date of birth – but that is after a conviction.”
ADDRESSING THE PROBLEM
Concerns of child safety in youth sports is deep-rooted around the nation and not discussed by many. Fort Bend County is also not immune to it. The aforementioned two cases opened up discussion among parents and leagues around the County and the cities within.
The National Center for the Victims of Crime reports that one in five girls and one in 20 boys will be sexually assaulted. And research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that approximately one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. Unfortunately, no child is immune to being sexually assaulted – they can be impacted regardless of age, ethnicity, or socio-economic status.
Seymour said that there is a large presence of law enforcement on local league teams.
Seymour coaches for the Fort Bend Youth Football League in Pecan Grove. He said several law enforcement officers from the Houston Police Department and the Fort Bend area police departments participate as volunteers. They are very active in conveying sports skills to the youth.
He said that although the presence of law enforcement who coach may be a deterrent for sexual predators, those coaches cannot be everywhere all the time.
“Predators are looking for opportunities,” Seymour said. “With sexual predators, if there’s no opportunity, there will be no crime. Parents should control as many factors as possible to keep their children safe.”
John Lowrie, league director with the Fort Bend Baseball League, echoed Seymour’s sentiment. Lowrie has been involved with high school-level baseball leagues for 30 years.
“We haven’t had a reported incident – not one,” Lowrie said. “There might be a situation where a coach might take a child home or something like that and there could be a possibility of something going on, but you can’t do everything and you can’t be everywhere.”
Lowrie also added that he hopes parents use common sense when it comes to the safety of their kids.
“If something isn’t a league event or is off the ballpark, I can’t control it,” Lowrie said. “There is no league dos and don’ts list, but common sense does enter into a lot of the decision making process. If a coach was having a party that’s going on until 11 p.m., I would hope that parents would say that’s too late for a high school student to be out.”
Lowrie said that his league shies away from overnight games and out of town events. He said the league does not want to supervise what kids, coaches and volunteers are doing overnight. He said that outside of his own league, he has seen problems – coaches didn’t do the right thing or they were caught drinking.
“Our league is different than regular little leagues,” Lowrie said. “The kids are older and much more independent. They are more ‘street smart’ and we don’t have to hold their hand. At the younger level, the kids’ age, size and naivety might make predators target them.”
IMPORTANCE OF BACKGROUND CHECKS
Both Seymour and Lowrie agree that background checks are necessary.
“The prerequisites for coaching with the Fort Bend Youth Football league include background checks, certain certification programs such as First Aid certification and coaching clinics where coaches are taught how to deal with kids with regards to conflict management and other things,” Seymour said.
Lowrie added that as a league, they do have mechanisms in place when people express interest in coaching. They must fill out a volunteer form and a background check is mandatory.
He added that the league is specifically looking for anyone who has had any kind of felony convictions and anyone who has had a child predator accusation or claims that are substantiated. The league also looks to restrict prospective coaches who have DUIs or DWIs. Lowrie made it clear that during registration, league officials tell prospects to not even bother applying if they have anything on their public record that would be frowned on.
In addition, the league carries sexual predator liability coverage. They added it in the last few years to insure the league and administrators in case there is an issue. A critical part of the insurance is administering background checks.
Fort Bend Sheriff’s Office Major Chad Norvell, also a youth sports volunteer, said that volunteer coaches in the league where he coaches are required to complete the necessary form for the given league and then the league will run a background check through DPS. The background check is actually a criminal history and sex offender check.
Even though these resources are available for leagues, volunteers, coaches and parents, Chief Seymour believes that true education starts at home. He marked that parents should educate and prepare their children regarding sexual abuse.
“Parents have to train their children and communicate with them about these issues,” Seymour said. “It’s in our society and it’s something we have to address. Children are taught to be courteous to adults. There is a difference between courtesy and inappropriateness. I’ve taught my children, if someone is behaving inappropriately, you ask them to stop and walk off. If they are persistent, you run.”
The National Alliance for Youth Sports’ (NAYS) original purpose was to train parents how to be youth sport volunteers. Since its inception in 1981, the organization has trained more than three million volunteers. Today, the organization has educational programs for everyone involved in youth sports including administrators, officials, coaches and parents.
“Regardless of who runs a program, it’s important that organizations have written policies and procedures to hold everyone associated with the program accountable for their behavior and actions,” said Lisa Licata, Director, Professional Youth Sports Administrators at NAYS. “The first thing to note is that background checks are just one piece of the screening process.”
Licata added that the screening process starts with a policy that is already implemented and includes providing job descriptions to volunteers. To screen volunteers, they should be required to complete applications, provide references, submit to a criminal history background, receive training and be held accountable for their actions.
She also added that there is not a national system for screenings in place and the ease of gathering information varies from state to state. Regardless of how the information is gathered, one thing is for sure – every organization should be checking their state’s Sex Offender Registry because they are public and free of charge. Licata also believes that parents should take an active role with getting informed about their child’s sports league and asking tough questions.
There are several national resources for leagues, coaches and parents to turn to if they want to learn more about youth sports and sexual abuse.
The Centers for Disease Control has a document for leagues that highlights an organizational process for developing and implementing child sexual abuse prevention policies. The report discusses best practices for screening applicants including open-ended application and sample interview questions, reference checks, and criminal background checks. The report highlights six major components of the prevention of child sex abuse: screening and selecting employees and volunteers, guidelines on interactions between individuals, monitoring behavior, ensuring safe environments, responding to inappropriate behavior, and training employees/volunteers, caregivers and youth about sexual abuse.
MomsTEAM is an online youth sports resource, provides information to 90 million parents looking for advice. One of the topics the website covers extensively is sexual abuse. MomsTEAM relies heavily on parents conducting their due diligence and being pro-active about their children’s safety in the leagues.
An article on the website by MomsTEAM Publisher and Founder Brooke DeLench asks parents to demand that their child’s program conduct annual background checks on ALL adults involved in the youth sports. There should be no “grandfathering” and no exemptions. A “two-adult rule” should be implemented for away games and tournaments. Parents are encouraged to know the warning signs of abuse and establish appropriate sexual and physical boundaries at a pre-season meeting attended by all adults. Finally, parents should be vigilant about educating their children about the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior and teaching them how to protect themselves against sexual predators.