SportsSignup Interviews Michelle Peterson, National Expert on Child Abuse

2013-04-17T16:41:14-04:00Expert Interviews, Protecting Your Kids|

SportsSignup is committed to keeping youth athletes safe from abuse of any kind. Thatdescribe the image is why we offer KidSafePlus® coach and volunteer background checks to all our customers. While we never want to think a predator could come into our community the truth is you can never be too careful when it comes to protecting our kids. That’s why we’re honored to bring you the expert advice of Michelle Peterson M.Ed., of Michelle Peterson Consulting. Michelle is a national expert on child abuse and currently works with youth sport organizations on creating child abuse prevention policy and procedures. She can be reached at 

In the wake of the Sandusky trial, do you feel that youth sports organizations taking more serious measures to protect their players from sexual abuse?

I wish I could say yes. Unfortunately many youth sport organizations believe they are immune to this issue for various reasons, despite all the credible information that shows how youth sports clubs are vulnerable to sexual predators as well as all the media coverage exposing coaches who abuse.  Clubs believe that they know their coaches well, have done background checks, the kids would tell the coaches…and other myths that are associated with child sexual abuse.  Clubs that have had an issue with a coach are much more likely to implement child safe policy and procedures. It also takes a leader on the BOD who understand the issues of abuse and who can get policy change to happen as well as make the financial resources available. Many NGB are adopting programs at the top level but they seldom get to the local clubs, where training and abuse education is lacking, therefore implementation and buy in from all members is challenging.

What are some guidelines and protocols youth sports organizations should create to protect their youth athletes from abuse?

My first piece of advice for clubs is to have an expert create the policies, not coaches or parents. Experts are objective and understand how sexual predators operate and know what situations put players at risk. It is impossible for parents to imagine their child’s coach as a predator and to place restrictions on someone they would never suspect in committing child abuse.  Therefore, policy’s created by Boards, staff or parents are likely to be incomplete, inaccurate and fail to protect players from abuse. An example of this was a conversation I had with the director of a soccer program who created an abuse prevention policy of his own that required only male coaches travel and stay with male players and the same for female coaches and players…this coach clearly is not knowledgeable around sexual abuse as many male predators abuse male children and females abuse young girls as well. 

Clubs are all unique and it would depend on what services, programs and age groups as to what policies they would need to address. I would highly recommend policies that address reporting abuse, physical contact guidelines, social media, locker room and travel guidelines are just a few…

How good are volunteer background checks at weeding out potential predators?

Background checks are just a part of abuse prevention policies and should never stand alone. Sexual predators have hundreds of victims before ever getting caught.  So sexual predators can and do pass background checks therefore your hiring process should have other screening techniques such as  various questions that address the issue of child abuse and  go beyond background checks. Questions about their interest in youth, how they view their role with youth players plus other questions can help employers listen for concerning statements. Screening process should always include reference checks and questions to previous employers about the potential employee’s conduct with youth, and questions about any concerning behavior.  Clubs need to have policies for when background checks do come up with concerning issues and what is acceptable and what is not, for employment.

Should a sports league run volunteer background checks on everyone (office staff, field maintenance crews, etc) or focus primarily on the coaches and volunteers?

Background checks should be done on all employees, staff, volunteers and others who will have responsibility for players.

What are some of the tell-tale signs that a child is being abused?

Depending on the type of abuse there are many behaviors that victims of abuse my exhibit:

Physical Abuse; unexplained injuries, depression, behavior problems, fear of a parent or another adult

Sexual abuse: sexually acting out, increased sexual knowledge  or behavior, drug and alcohol abuse, poor grades, eating and sleeping disorders, refusing to change or undress in front of others.

What should a parent or coach do if they suspect a player is being sexually abused?

Report it. Period. They are not to think about it…or discuss it with others, investigate it or sleep one it…they are simply asked to report it. Many youth sport organizations are now requiring all employees, staff and parents to report any suspicion of abuse. Here in Colorado I initiated a bill that requires paid club coaches to be added to the list of mandated reporters of child abuse, the bill was signed by the Governor on March 22, and is now Colorado law. This supports coaches in making that call and protecting the youth in their organizations.

What steps should a youth sports organization take should one of their coaches or volunteers be accused of abusing (verbally, physically, sexual) an athlete?

Report it and remove the coach from interactions with players immediately. The club should have policies on how to respond and investigate concerns of abuse and misconduct. The organization should fully participate with the law enforcement investigation and conduct one of their own that does not interfere with the criminal investigation. Clubs should have a zero tolerance for abuse and misconduct violations…this is why child abuse prevention policies are necessary so all members of your organization know what behaviors are acceptable and what behaviors would lead to a firing. During these investigations club need to keep confidentiality in mind when it comes to youth who may have been a victim of abuse.

Could the abuser ever be another player? Would that affect the way the league should respond?

1/3 of all sexual abuse cases are perpetrated by a juvenile. So yes, this is a big concern for youth sport organizations. Many sexual predators begin abusing at the age of 14.  This would not necessarily change the response. Depending on local laws on age of arrest for juveniles, clubs may still report to law enforcement or Department of Social Services and remove that juvenile from contact with other youth.

Have you ever dealt with a situation where a coach was falsely accused of abusing a player? What can coaches do to protect themselves from being accused of misconduct when they are, in fact, not guilty of anything inappropriate?

False allegations are rare. They can happen but kids don’t tend to lie about abuse, especially sexual abuse. Child abuse prevention policy and procedures are created to protect players AND coaches.  Having rules around behavior and interactions can keep coaches out of compromising situations. For example, coaches should never be alone with a youth player, having another adult present protects coaches from false allegations or a parent from misunderstanding a situation. Coaches should not text or be friends with players on Facebook®…these are simple steps a coach can take to limit their vulnerability toward false allegations. Policies can help address these issues and provide coaches the support they need to be an amazing coach.

If a coach believes they are wrongly accused of abusing a player I would recommend they hire an attorney and take all necessary steps to avoid contact with the alleged victim and to remove themselves from contact with youth until the investigation is complete.