Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman filed a lawsuit March 1 against the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics, saying the organizations "knew or should have known" about team doctor Larry Nassar's longstanding, widespread sexual abuse of the young gymnasts he was meant to be caring for and failed to act.
As horrifying as Nassar's deeds are, the case raises a question just as troubling: If Raisman's claims are correct – neither group will comment, but both have undertaken major leadership shakeups – why would these organizations fail to protect their young stars? Some may argue greed or self-protection. Others will argue that the officials receiving the complaints just couldn't believe them; after all, had anyone ever heard of a team doctor sexually abusing hundreds of young athletes?
Whatever the cause of institutional inaction, the fact remains that parents have a critical role to play in holding institutions accountable, and here are some ways to do that.
Believe your child: I recall a conversation with a friend who grew up in the 1960s. We were discussing the then-breaking story of pedophile priests, and he said that when he told his parents about what he now jokingly called a "Father McFeely" he was harshly punished for disrespecting a priest. In his book, Killing Willis, former child star Todd Bridges alludes to being silenced by his parents when he tried to tell them his publicist sexually abused him; the publicist was key to keeping Bridges working. Parents can learn from these mistakes and resolve to come to all conversations about their child's feeling of safety and security with an open mind.
If your child shares a concern, stay calm, express your support for their feelings and belief in their report, then listen carefully. Resist the urge to repeatedly question your child; the science of forensic interviewing has taught us that frequent questioning can cause a child's narrative to change, which can be a problem if a criminal charge is later filed. Open-ended questions about how a child feels are much safer then demands for times, dates, and places.
Young athletes, especially when they reach levels of elite competition, can be trained to ignore their own instincts. While most people respond to such feelings as pain and hunger, athletes with a training regimen and weight requirements are trained to power through. We do not want our children powering through any feelings of any nature that make them uncomfortable around their coaches, trainers, or others who have a role in their success.
Speak truth to power: When you sign your child up for a sports team or other organization, learn its process for hearing complaints. Be fair and open-minded as it reviews your concern and keep your child away from the suspect circumstance. If after a week or two you feel as if your complaint is being ignored, consider contacting higher authorities.
If you are unsure whether the issue is serious enough for legal intervention, consider speaking to an expert, such as staff from a child advocacy center. Once you call the authorities, a serious investigation will proceed, so checking with an expert beforehand can be helpful.
Perhaps the worst reaction I've heard was from a summer camp where my child was enrolled years ago. When I contacted the director after another parent contacted me about an allegation her son was making about a staff member, the director told me that I was welcome to remove my child if I didn't think the camp was safe. I can still recall my anger as I responded that if the camp wasn't safe enough for my child it wasn't safe enough for any child. Parents owe it to each other to consider the safety of all children and not just their own.
We shouldn't let the fear for our child's safety keep us from enrolling them in beneficial activities, but we can be mindful of our role in keeping them safe.