Moves to stop the wrong sort of games

20th February 2004 at 00:00
Child protection is everyone's responsibility but sports organisations are hoping to take a lead in good practice as Disclosure Scotland checks become law, reports Roddy Mackenzie

Moves to increase the protection of schoolchildren from sexual abuse and bullying when taking part in sport have been strengthened by news that the Scottish Executive is to provide funding for two more development workers.

At present, there is only one full-time development worker for child protection in sport, Kathleen McInulty, who is based in Glasgow.

However, pound;178,000 from the Executive and additional funding from Children 1st is going to create two further posts, one in Glasgow and one probably in Aberdeen.

"Sport has huge benefits for children and it's important that they are encouraged to take part in it," says Ms McInulty. "This project works to help make sure that they do so safely.

"My role so far has been to assist sports organisations such as clubs and governing bodies to develop child protection policies, to provide consultation services and deliver training to adults in sport, such as club coaches and volunteers.

"I've been working with all sorts of sports, from shinty in Fort William to rugby in the Borders. Having another two development workers will mean we can do a lot more."

The new officers are expected to start work within the next three months, assisting governing bodies to implement the right practices as a matter of urgency.

The development comes in the wake of the Soham tragedy and a number of high-profile cases of sports coaches abusing children in their care.

In one Scottish case, a leading gymnastics coach, Joseph Mills, aged 40, was jailed last month for seven years for sexually abusing three girls aged eight to 14 while they were attending the National Sports Centre at Inverclyde. He admitted four indecency offences committed between 1992 and 2000.

When such a respected coach is convicted, what safeguards can be put in place to protect children?

An estimated 800,000 children in Scotland take part in sport regularly. The Child Protection in Sport project, which is jointly funded by Children 1st and SportScotland, was launched in 2002 to set up a nationwide plan to make sport a safer environment.

Children 1st actively supports the 72 governing bodies of sport in Scotland in establishing child protection policies and procedures.

There is no legal requirement for sports organisations to have a policy in place, but a survey by Children 1st of 122 sports organisations in Scotland revealed that 39 per cent of respondents had a child protection policy and a further 24 per cent were in the process of developing one.

"Organisations increasingly recognise the benefits to children and to their own members," Ms McInulty says. "A child protection policy makes an important statement about the value of children in an organisation, which is very attractive to parents."

From April 1, the Protection of Children (Scotland) Act 2003 becomes law and it will make it a requirement - rather than simply good practice - to carry out Disclosure Scotland checks on coaches and volunteers working with children.

With many sports relying heavily on volunteers, there were fears that potential coaches could be put off submitting their names for increased scrutiny. "We have no evidence of it," responds Ms McInulty. "The organisations we have worked with recognise the importance of introducing safeguards.

"They tell us that they need help and training to put the policy into practice.

"Last year alone, 1,929 people working in sport attended a basic child protection training workshop that we run, that's approximately 600 people more than the previous year. This is surely evidence of a commitment to do the right thing."

Children 1st and SportScotland hope sport can take a lead in establishing good practices and, to an extent, policing itself.

"An additional two posts will be great in terms of the volume of work we can achieve," says Ms McInulty.

"The outcome we're looking for, though - for all children to enjoy sport safely - depends as much on how the training we're providing is put into practice as on how much training we provide.

"We want people not just to learn good practice but actually to promote it."

The hope is that all sports governing bodies will have a child protection officer in place and a communications network established within particular sports.

Ms McInulty emphasises that there is no evidence to suggest sexual or physical abuse is more rife in sport than among other youth organisations and warns that any organisation can be vulnerable if it does not take precautions to safeguard children. There is, however, limited research available. Information from case studies is being compiled.

"Making child protection everyone's business would be the most effective measure that could be achieved," Ms McInulty says.

"Evidence of the extent of the problem will come from good case management systems. Good data will help us to identify areas of risk and to target resources.

"As with the general reports of child abuse over the past years, we know that as awareness grows there are likely to be increased reports.

"This project is all about prevention and reinforcing the message that child protection is everybody's responsibility. Hopefully, it will ultimately reduce the number of incidents in sport."

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