With so many creepy coaches, how do you molester-proof your child?
I don’t make a habit of highlighting every sex-related arrest involving a youth coach, mostly because it would be too depressing, and because I would have to quit full-time work to have time to track them all. Just in the last few days, there have been arrests involving a guidance counselor and basketball coach in Lassiter, Ga., a girls’ high school coach in Indianapolis, an ex-girls’ soccer coach in Wright Township, Pa., a basketball coach in Ashland, Miss., and in what local police called the most gruesome case they had ever seen, a 53-year-old tween-age girls’ softball coach in Taylor, Mich., who allegedly had naked pictures of girls all over his bedroom wall, with head shots of his fiancee’s 15- and 12-year-old daughters superimposed. (The fiancee hadn’t seen the room because she was in prison for armed robbery.)
For all the hoops leagues make coaches jump through — justifiably — to make sure known child predators don’t get close to coaching your kid, it’s clear the problem is this: you don’t know your kid’s coach is a creep until an arrest has been made. (I should say alleged creep, what with this case in Texas where a teacher and coach is trying to get his school board to pay his legal fees after he was acquitted of groping a teenage girl in the library.)
Even a sweeping plan in Great Britain, which makes everyone working with children pay to get in a national not-a-child-molester database, fails because it can’t catch people who are targeting young children, but who themselves have not yet been caught. (It’s been pointed out that the school employee whose murder of two girls inspired the British law was not on any child predator list.)
So as a parent, what are you supposed to do? Other than lock your children in your house?
My best, knows-enough-to-be-dangerous guess comes in the form of a list below. This is gleaned from reading over law enforcement sites, child protection sites, my Catholic church Virtus training, and my own past experience as a journalists covering cops and courts:
1. Don’t assume your child could never be a victim. This does not mean be paranoid and assume every coach is a child rapist. But it does mean taking some basic precautions that ensure their chances of being a victim are reduced.
2. Background checks aren’t always effective, but at least they’re some sort of minimum. If your league doesn’t do them, look for another league.
3. Don’t assume a child molester looks or sounds creepy, or that someone who sounds creepy is automatically targeting your child. The numbers show that those convicted of sex crimes against children pretty much hew to demographics on race, education and religion in general. That’s the danger — that the creepy coach lurks among us in the most banal of existences.
4. Make sure your child’s league has policies that prevent any adult from being alone with a child or children at any time. Heck, even my church requires an adult chaperon when the children’s bell choir rehearses, and there’s one adult leader with 15 kids. The more-than-one-adult-in-the-room rule does two things: minimizes the chances an adult could put a child in a compromising situation, and minimizes the chance that anyone could falsely accuse anyone of anything.
5. Get to know your coach a little bit. Talk to him or her after practice. Email or call from time to time. This is a good idea in general as a way to build a relationship with the coach, and a good coach will appreciate it. Be friendly. If the coach is a potential child predator, he or she will at least get the message that you’re watching. Not that it would prevent everything, but the classic molester MO is to groom victims who have little or no parental involvement, or come from troubled homes.
6. Don’t tell your kid, “Do whatever the coach says.” Children, even teenagers, are literal. You might unwittingly be setting up your child for disaster if you make the coach into an all-powerful authority figure.
7. Talk to your kids about what happened at practice. You don’t need to be at every practice — that just makes everybody, your child included, unnecessarily nervous. But get some details on what happened. You should let your child know you’re watching.
8. Make it clear to your child that you’re willing to listen to them. This isn’t something that’s just about fending off creepy coaches. If you make a habit of listening to your child — not interrupting with a lecture, but listening — your child might come to you if there’s a problem. Also, by listening, you’ll know enough to hear the alarm bells ringing in your head if something just feels wrong with your child or the team situation.
Actually, a lot of these rules have more to do with everyday parenting than they do with sports alone.
Despite the sheer number of coaches that get popped for sex crimes, it’s safe to say that in the vast, vast, vast majority of cases, your child will be coached by someone who, if he or she says has a team of good-looking kids, is talking about their athletic ability. I’m not going to offer my tips as foolproof, because you never know what can happen, and all it takes is one bad coach to ruin lives. But if you keep your antenna up and stay involved, at least there’s demonstrated evidence that any dangerous coach will keep his hands to himself when your child is around.
Oh, by the way: as a coach, I would not be offended if you did any and all these things with me. I would probably thank you for being such a good parent.