In March 2017, the United States Senate introduced Senate Bill 534 (S.534) aimed at preventing child sexual abuse in youth sport contexts. Two months later, the United States House of Representatives introduced House Bill 1973 (H.R.1973), virtually identical to its sister bill in the Senate, but more expansive.
Both pieces of legislation seek to broaden existing federal statutes. Though not yet law, each bill received near unanimous approval in respective chambers. It can be reasonably anticipated, therefore, that congress will pass the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse Act of 2017 in a form incorporating the identical provisions from each bill.
The catalyst for the proposed pieces relates to recent failures to report child sexual abuse in gymnastics. Clearly, the challenges faced in gymnastics are not unique; child sexual abuse in youth sport is widespread. Creating a uniform mandatory reporting requirement has value, but this requirement, alone, does not solve the problem.
Both bills include a requirement that all adults working with a National Governing Body (NGB) immediately report suspicions of abuse to appropriate law enforcement agencies, as determined by state and federal law. Both bills extend the mandatory reporting requirement to covered individuals, interpreted broadly as adults authorized to interact with minor or amateur athletes.
In essence, the anticipated legislation creates a mandatory reporting obligation in youth sport.
Essentially, reporting statutes require if you see or suspect something — say something. In many youth sport scenarios, however, the problem is not that an individual failed to say something, rather that the person failed to see or suspect. In other words, youth sport personnel must be trained to recognize and understand suspicious behaviors: specifically, the grooming process of the sexual offender. The grooming process is the method utilized by an offender to gain access to a child within the offender’s age and gender of preference, groom that child for sexual interaction, then keep the child silent.
When coaches, referees, umpires and parents understand an offender’s grooming process, common grooming behaviors, and how these behaviors might manifest in youth sport – they will begin to recognize behaviors before a child has been sexually assaulted. In the state of Texas, a state-approved version of Sexual Abuse Awareness Training is required in various child-serving industries.
Relevant training should include facts vs. misconceptions about sexual abuse and sexual abusers, abuser characteristics, the grooming process, common grooming behaviors, peer-to-peer abuse, impact of abuse on children, reporting requirements and what to do if a child makes an outcry. When all adults working with an NGB learn the facts, they are better equipped to protect young athletes in youth sport programs. The proposed mandatory reporting requirement mandates reporting of abuse – after the fact.
Important? Yes, but prevention is the key; and prevention starts with awareness.
Youth sport stakeholders should be aware of these new requirements, assuming the legislation passes as expected, and respond appropriately. Though the proposed House and Senate bills specifically identify NGBs, other sport organizations (leagues, school associations, unions, teams) should take note of the proposed legislation. The proposed legislation creates an industry-wide standard of care for youth sport: a reasonable standard or practice for a particular activity or industry.
With the passage of these bills, all youth sport organizations are on notice that child sexual abuse is a real risk in youth sport, and reasonable steps should be taken to protect young athletes – including mandatory reporting, effective training, tailored policies, oversight practices and periodic safety system reviews.
Involvement in youth sport provides enormous benefit to young athletes. The Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse Act of 2017 will attempt to preserve those benefits by addressing the risk of child sexual abuse inherent in youth sport.
Gregory S. Love and Kimberlee D. Norris are partners at the law firm of Love & Norris, a national sexual abuse litigation practice, representing hundreds of victims of child sexual abuse, and co-founders of MinistrySafe, a consulting organization designed to help churches and Christian ministries understand and address the risk of child sexual abuse.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.