As a parent, you've probably heard enough stories about child abuse in sports teams and youth organizations to make your head spin. A study published online today in JAMA Pediatrics offers both good news and cause for some concern when it comes to the rate of abuse in these groups.
This good news is that this study, whose authors are among the most respected names in child abuse research, finds sexual abuse in youth-serving organizations to be relatively rare. The researchers combined data from three national population telephone surveys to create a sample of 13,052 children, ranging from infants to age 17.
Less than 1 percent of all children report any type of abuse in "youth-serving organizations such as schools and religious/recreational groups" and only 6.4 percent of that number report sexual abuse. While this is a thankfully low percentage, it tells us that as many as 100,000 kids may experience sexual abuse in a youth serving organization and that prevention efforts by these organizations and all parents must continue.
Results from this study left me with an unanticipated area of concern: Of the children who reported abuse in a youth-serving agency or organization, 64 percent of the abuse by an adult was verbal or emotional. Based on this study, it's estimated that up to 1 million kids could answer yes to the question: "Did you get scared or feel really bad because grown-ups in your life called you names, said mean things to you, or said they didn't want you?" Emotional abuse, or bullying by an adult in a youth-serving organization, is 10 times more prevalent than sexual abuse, and the scars can be deep and long lasting. This is unacceptable, and is a call to action for parents.
Parents should consider action on two fronts: with their children and with their youth organizations. First, open communication with their children should include a conversation making it clear that coaches and other adults may say things are difficult to hear sometimes, but remarks from a good coach make a child want to work harder and do better, not make them feel bad or unwanted. Parents should encourage their children to share any concerns about a coach or staff members' behavior or language.
Secondly, parents and caregivers should also investigate the policies and procedures of any organization serving their children. Learn the basics like how staff and volunteers are screened and trained, but don't stop there. Most youth sports teams have specific volunteer or required roles to help the team operate, like "snack parent" or "equipment parent." As the next team season approaches, think about collaborating with other parents to develop a rotating schedule for a "stand parent", an adult to attend each game or practice to watch from the stands and cheer for each player, while keeping an eye and ear open for inappropriate treatment of kids by staff and volunteers.
This study makes another point worth taking to heart: children are more than 10 times more likely to experience abuse as defined in this study in their home than they are in a youth serving organization. While continuing to support efforts to recognize signs that a predator may be operating anywhere in the community, we must maintain our efforts to support parents to keep children safe and healthy at home.
Child abuse statistics are notoriously inexact for many reasons, including difficulty identifying people to count, and wide variations in definitions. Last week, the federal government released its major annual report which shows a much lower count of all types of child abuse than the estimates reported in the JAMA Pediatrics article. The federal report only counts children where the abuse is both known to the public child protection agency, and if the abuse appears to be serious enough to meet each state's legal definition.
The study reported in JAMA Pediatrics this week uses a very different, but critical definition: does a child feel as if they have been abused. There are hundreds of thousands of children who feel the scar from some type of abuse and there's no public agency on the way to help. Every caring adult can do their part in counteracting that by being a loving, respectful, and trustworthy presence in the lives of all children about whom they care.
All children deserve great childhoods, and all adults have a role to play in making sure that happens. These two reports remind us just how much farther we have to go to ensure safe and healthy childhoods for all.
Rosenzweig is also author of The Sex-Wise Parent and The Parent's Guide to Talking About Sex: A Complete Guide to Raising (Sexually) Safe, Smart, and Healthy Children. For more information, read her blog and follow @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter.