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Background Checks

Recreation directors, take note of the following:

Several months ago in Illinois, a gymnastics coach with Special Olympics was charged with abusing two girls with disabilities—ages 13 and 10—while in Georgia for a competition.

Special Olympics Illinois conducts background checks on all volunteers who register to coach, and the report on this 48-year-old woman revealed no criminal history.

In Minnesota in 2014, a 23-year-old softball coach was arraigned on six felony charges after being accused of taking two 13-year-old girls to his home and engaging in sex acts. He was charged with two counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct, two counts of kidnapping, and two counts of soliciting a child to engage in sexual conduct.

According to published reports, he had passed a couple of background checks—one to become a part-time high school volleyball coach in Minneapolis, and the other to serve as a volunteer junior-varsity baseball coach in another city in the state.

And in Pennsylvania in 2013, a girls’ fast-pitch softball league manager was charged with possession of child pornography after a woman found the 46-year-old man’s flash drive in the parking lot next to a youth softball field and gave the device to authorities.

The drive contained more than 1,000 photos of child porn, as well as the man's resume, letters, girls' softball team rosters, and notes on each player.

The man had passed a background check to become one of the coaches of the organization’s eight teams.

So, three different states, three different sports, and three different coaches—yet one glaring and oh-so-scary similarity: All of these individuals passed background checks and were welcomed into their respective organizations to work closely with children.

Look Closer

Sure, it sounds good when leagues announce they perform background checks on all of their coaches, but what happens when organizations rely solely on background checks and then have the misfortune of dealing with individuals who harbor sordid pasts and simply have never been caught?

Here’s what Certified Youth Sports Administrators (CYSA) across the country had to say about the subject:

Rick Bruya, recreation coordinator for the city of Auburn (Wash.): “I feel like background checks are one of the most important aspects of what we do as a provider of youth-sports programs for our community. I believe when parents sign up their child for one of our programs, they assume we are providing a safe environment.  Since many offenders have not been caught, background checks do not protect a child from those people. We also need to make parents aware of what coaches should and should not be doing in their role to help parents keep their child out of any potential grooming by a coach or other parent.” 

Lacy Bienkowski, recreation programmer for the city of Mesa (Ariz.): “Child predators are definitely a huge problem in the youth-sports field. Unfortunately, many organizations do not take the proper measures to ensure those working with kids are appropriate and safe. Within my own programs, volunteer coaches are required to complete an application, do a background check that consists of both a web-based and fingerprint check, and attend a three-hour coach training prior to the start of the season. We also do periodic and unannounced check-ins at practices.

“I think it continues to be a problem for several reasons. One is that organizations are not taking the time to properly screen and train their volunteers. They use the excuse of not enough money, not enough time, too large of an organization, etc., to justify not providing proper screening and training. Another reason is that many sexual predators are not actually in the system because they haven’t been caught. This is why teams should practice with other teams, and staff should check in on practices periodically, to ensure a person is behaving appropriately. The final reason is that organizations need to do a better job of educating coaches, players, and staff members on the policy regarding touch, one-on-one situations, reporting, troubling signs, etc. The more you talk about the issue, the more people are on alert.”

Georgeanne Soberay, park manager for the city of Phoenix Parks and Recreation (Ariz.): “This issue is a concern for all recreation professionals. The department conducts background checks for all of our volunteers and staff members. These screenings include FBI fingerprint and criminal-history checks. We also conduct trainings for our staff, contracted instructors, and volunteers in order to familiarize them with proper procedure, common signs of suspicious behavior, and reporting protocol. In 2013, the department instituted the “Children and Vulnerable Adults Safety Guidelines” field-operation procedure. These guidelines outline our department’s expectations and the state statutes on mandatory reporting. They also arm our staff members and agents with the tools to carry out those expectations. All staff and volunteers must study these guidelines and sign a form acknowledging their review.”

These comments should serve as a strong reminder to everyone to be vigilant and diligent when screening volunteers. There are a lot of young lives at stake.

Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via email at fengh@nays.org. To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS chapter, visit www.nays.org or contact Emmy Martinez at emartinez@nays.org or (800) 729-2057.  

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