Talking to your young athletes about sex abuse
This week, former U.S. gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar, who has been accused of sexual assault by more than 150 women and girls, faces at least an additional 25 years in prison after pleading guilty in November to 10 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct. He was also sentenced in December to 60 years in federal prison for possessing child pornography.
The Nassar case has been horrifying to watch, and is just the most recent example of a predator who was allowed access to kids for far too long. Kimberlee Norris, an attorney who specializes in these cases, said sexual abuse of youth by adults other than their parents is frighteningly prevalent.
"Across the board, one in four girls and one in six boys under the age of 18 will be a victim," she said. "The highest risk areas are those that allow for one-on-one adult-child interaction, often at the elite level. Those activities that involve body positioning, such as swimming or gymnastics, exacerbate the risk because touching is a part of the training."
If someone is taking a special interest in your child, you have to question why.Abuse survivor Elizabeth
With abuse occurring at such an alarming rate, parents must remain vigilant, educating themselves and their children about the danger signs, said Marcie Owrusky Lovell, a Maryland-based clinical social worker.
"When kids have a role model outside of their parents with whom they spend a great deal of time, they trust them and also feel pressure to stay in their good graces," she said. "They are in situations where they feel it is necessary to do what they are asked."
This was certainly the case for Natalie, whose name has been changed to protect the identity of a sexual assault victim. She was abused by her gymnastics coach from age 14 until she was 20. (She detailed her story for espnW last year.) Natalie remembers how much she feared telling her parents about her situation.
"The coach impressed upon me that if I told my parents, they would be mad at me, and I believed him," she said. "He used his power over me."
She didn't confide in her parents, and in fact might never have. It wasn't until a teammate told her own therapist about what had happened to Natalie -- and that therapist insisted Natalie report it to the police -- that she finally talked to her parents and pursued criminal charges. In 2010, Natalie and another victim, Elizabeth (whose name has also been changed here), testified at the abuser's trial. He is currently serving an eight- to 10-year sentence on three counts of rape of a child and two counts of indecent assault and battery on a person over 14.
We talked to Natalie and Elizabeth about what they'd want other parents of athletes to know about sexual abuse and got advice from experts in the field, too. Here's what they had to say about the steps every parent should take to protect their kids.
Talk to your kids, a lot.
Lovell said she encourages parents to open the lines of communication early with their children and work hard to keep the dialogue going.
"Talk to your kids about good touch and bad touch and make sure they feel comfortable coming to you if something doesn't feel right," she said. "Regularly check in with your kids: Ask them what was good and what was bad about practice and if anything made them feel uncomfortable."
Red flags that all is not well, Lovell said, include a child shutting off communication if it had been the norm in the past.
"Also look for a change in clothing or if their hygiene drops," she said. "This can indicate that they're trying to deflect attention from themselves."
Educate your children to question authority if something feels amiss, said Jodi Aman, a psychotherapist with 20 years of experience.
"A child can still respect an adult while questioning him or her if they feel uncomfortable," she said. "Teach your kids to find that balance."
Elizabeth is now a mom with a young son and had this to add about communication: "I will educate him to use the right words with his body parts, because that helps me help him. If a child uses different words than those you have taught him or her, it's a sign that something might be amiss."
"Don't drop your kid with the coach and drive away," Norris said. "Offenders look for trusted time alone with children, and this makes them a target. Don't communicate that you aren't engaged -- show up when unexpected."
The more you are present at practices and competitions, the less likely it is that someone will target your child. These parent-coach interactions also allow for the parent to get a sense of who the coach is and what he or she is all about.
"Ask questions," Norris said. "If you don't get good answers, don't stay with that organization unless you are willing to be extremely involved."
Natalie and Elizabeth's coach would create opportunities to get the girls alone and away from parents' inquisitive eyes.
"They would have team sleepovers at one of the coach's houses and held summer camps that were 'closed' under the auspices of allowing us to be fully immersed in our training," Natalie said. "The reality is that they were giving us alcohol and showing us soft porn in the evenings."
Watch the interaction between the coach and your child.
Natalie said that hugging between coaches and athletes was run of the mill in her gymnastics experience.
"There's never a need for hugging," she said. "A handshake or a high-five will do."
Natalie and Elizabeth's coach would also make the occasional off-color comment that crossed the line, too, to test the reaction of both parents and the athletes.
For parents, acknowledging an instinct can be important as well.
"I know there were parents from our team who probably felt a little off about things sometimes, but as adults we tend to reason things away," Natalie said. "Parents should trust their guts on coaches."
Elizabeth added, "If someone is taking a special interest in your child, you have to question why."
Finally, know that a sexual predator isn't going to necessarily seem like one. For Natalie and Elizabeth, the abuser was a charismatic coach who made them feel special.
"People wanted to be around him," Natalie said. "He was funny, and he treated us like adults, which was nice."
Remember that older kids are as much at risk as younger ones.
As children get older, it's easy for parents to assume they know enough to ward off offenders. In reality, Natalie said, it's adolescence that often proves the most vulnerable time.
"This is a confusing time -- kids are more adult, but they are not adults," she said. "It's a time when an athlete might even have a crush on a coach. That's OK, but a relationship is not, and adolescents need reminders of this."
Natalie also pointed to the fact that in many sports, kids are asked to shoulder adult-like responsibilities in their training, so they might feel like this is something else they should be able to take on, or view a relationship with a coach as consensual. During the years of abuse, Natalie recalled that her coach repeatedly reminded her that if she "couldn't take it," they could stop.
"As gymnasts, we're trained to handle discomfort and face challenges, so even though I was upset and crying, I didn't feel like I could stop anything," she said.
Norris recommended staying on top of athletes' social media and texts to ensure appropriate interaction with coaches.
"You have to remain vigilant and address issues in a proactive manner," she said. "This is a time where the coach/athlete relationship might start out flirty and relational, especially with girls, and that's a warning sign."
When Natalie thinks back to her years of abuse, she has one final thought for parents who want to keep their own kids safe.
"Parents need to constantly remind their children to trust their bodies and minds when something doesn't feel right," she said. "And kids need to understand that they are never to blame."