Sports still slipping up over safety nets

20th October 2000 at 01:00
The dependence on volunteers and the close relationships between trainers and athletes can lead to abuse. Alan Jones argues the case for vetting and checks to keep children safe

Detective Inspector Rob Jones of Avon and Somerset Police tells a provocative story. A postcard was put up in the local shop window advertising a football trial for all boys aged under 14 at 1pm on a Saturday. Twenty-eight boys turned up, dropped off by their parents, but no one asked who was running the training session. If the notice had stated 'Please turn up at 1pm on the village green, leave your car doors open and the keys in the ignition', the adults would certainly have thought again.

Child protection is an emotive issue, but what are those in a position of responsibility doing to ensure that the interests of children are protected?

A Children Safe and Secure in Sport seminar was jointly promoted by Sportscotland and Children 1st at the same time as the 2000 Olympic Games were being managed by an army of 47,000 volunteers. Every one of the volunteers had been vetted, registered and trained for the event by the Australian government, and every instructor and teacher working in a school in Australia is vetted and checked for their suitability for working with children. This is not done as a one-off, it's done every year. This is a truly inclusive approach.

The problem is that generally we assume that people who volunteer their services are, by their very nature, good. This is an assumption which has to be challenged.

Margaret MacKay, chief executive of Children 1st, says that few statistics of abuse exist, that most young people are harmed in the home and most offences are not reported at the time they happen.

The sporting world only started to take notice of children's abuse in sport after the much-publicised case of swimming coach Paul Hickson. The British Olympic team's coach for the 1988 Seoul Games was jailed in September 1995 for 17 years - reduced to 15 years on appeal - by Cardiff Crown Court for two rapes, 11 indecent assaults and two other serious sexual offences. Hickson, then 48, had denied abusing girls aged 13 to 20 between 1976 and 1991 while he was coaching in Norwich and Swansea.

Now there is a move in England to set up a child protection in sport unit. Jenny Myres, of the National Society for the Protection of Children, and Dave Renshaw, of Sport England's sports and child protection taskforce, have a vision of what the unit should be about. Underpinning the rationale for it is the United Nations Convention's Rights of the Child legislation. The philosophies are straightforward, but simple:

* Children have the right to have fun and be safe in sport.

* Child protection in sport is about good practice.

* Sport needs to take its responsibilities to children seriously.

* Sport provides easy access to anyone who wants to harm children.

* Close proximity of coaches and intense and competitive atmospheres place children in vulnerable situations.

* Sport is uniquely placed to play a part in the protection of children by the close relationships forged.

Ms Myres and Mr Renshaw state: "Policies should not only be in place, but should be actionable." They accept that it is impossible to make every situation absolutely safe, but their message is clear: we all have a duty to minimise risks.

They see the child protection sports unit as being a one-stop shop approach for the production and provision of information, training and resources, the commisioning of research into best practice, as an agency to assist with the development of cross-sport standards, structures and systems and as a facility which offers specialist support and advice on child protection policies.

Ms Myres and Mr Renshaw contend that the work required to oversee implementation of safety procedures should not be considered as an add-on to the existing duties of teachers, instructors or coaches.

Councils throughout Britian, governing bodies of sport and national bodies such as the Boys Brigade, the Scout Association and Youth Clubs Scotland have all been working towards creating policies for child protection which will suit their organisations. The Scottish Executive has put out to consultation the Statutory Consultancy Index and has hinted that a "disqualified person" offence is being considered.

Paul Bush, the chief executive of Scottish Swimming, contends that while there are problems of abuse in Scottish sport, as a result of some high profile cases, people now feel more comfortable about openly discussing these problems. In the past they rarely saw the light of day, but now reporting of abuse is more prevalent in many aspects of society.

The frequency of detection is increasing, Bush reckons, and on average he has one case per month reported to him. Thankfully, most of these relate to inappropriate behaviour rather than abuse.

Several issues about the handling of such incidents need attention. There should be clearly identified routes to lodging a concern and, once a complaint has been registered, dealing with it. Should it be, for instance, the responsibility of a sports club committee, which itself may be made up from unvetted, unchecked volunteers? Then, who covers the costs of an investigation, legal fees and so on?

The differences between English and Scottish law could complicate matters. What if an incident occurs in a British team with a Scottish coach: who has jurisdiction over the case? But should policies be different either side of the border?

Then there are questions about social service support mechanisms and confidentiality. These issues could impinge on data protection and human rights acts.

Mr Bush advocates the need for a single child protection database and development of club-based resource packs offering enhanced training and support.

This raises questions on whether there is a need to license teachers, instructors, coaches and volunteers. And if they need to be retrained, how will this be done and who will meet the costs?

The Scottish Executive should consider drawing a line under all that has not been done and as a matter of urgency ensure that teacher training and coach developmentqualifications facilities and local authorities put in place meaningful policies to ensure minimum risk for children participating in sports and leisure activities. This could be achieved as a condition of the Scottish Executive's funding arrangements to local authorities via their grant-aided expenditure guidelines, Sportscotland's funding to governing bodies, local authorities' grant-aiding mechanisms to local clubs and so on.

In tandem with this, there is a need to ensure all the right checks are put in all the right places. This could, perhaps, be a National Lottery-funded initiative over two or three years to provide what Australia provides for its citizens: an inclusive safe environment in which children can recreate and play.

Alan Jones is director of cultural and leisure services, Highland Council

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