I wanted to share below an article I wrote in response of the United States Olympic Committee’s guilt that was revealed in many spaces right before Christmas. As a Gold Level Paralympic sport club, I wanted to share what we do to protect all who are involved in Bridge II Sports. This is sadly an area of vulnerability on many levels. We all need to be able to freely talk about it, educating our communities on best practices.
Ashley Thomas, Founder and CEO
Bridge II Sports
RESPONSE TO USOC NEGLIGENCE
After the announcement of the United States Olympic Committee’s (USOC) inept oversite resulting in 35 years of child molestation within the organization, my heart grieved as my mind battled to understand how an organization known for leadership, integrity, and goodwill could cover up years of devastating hurt to so many athletes and families who had talent and drive to become a reflection of the mission.
Leadership of all organization are responsible for protecting those within and those they serve from abuse and harm. As a “Gold Level” Paralympic Sport Club, I would like to share what we do to protect the people we serve, the people who serve, the mission, and the leadership.
Bridge II Sports foundation was built on a commitment to protecting those who play at risk, children with disabilities. This included having safe sport programs as well as proactively looking at the issue of sexual abuse and molestation. This was an early discussion with the Board and Staff. Why? Children born with some forms of physical disability, are not able to void typically. By that I mean, they must use a catheter as the nerves that control the urinary system do not work. Likewise, a bowel program must be implemented for the same reasons. A system that is often taken for granted by those who freely pee and poo, becomes a space where children who need assistance are set up for risk of predator behavior. If leadership does not think through the process and develop systems that create accountability, all are at risk.
In my years of personal experience, as well as learning the stories of others, sexual assault does occur both within the medical community, schools, and within homes for individuals with disabilities.
The question becomes how do we protect a group that is vulnerable?
First, we need to educate both families and children on body part names, how the parts function, and why one needs to use assistive devices to void their system. Children need to be taught what is an appropriate touch regarding voiding when being assisted by another person. Children need to understand that they can talk about any concerns they may have with specific people. “You can talk with Mommy or Daddy.” “If you feel afraid to have help by anyone, you can tell Grandma.” Be specific who are the safe adults that can be confided in. Parents, when at school, children need to know who they can talk to if they have concerns with help in the bathroom. “When at school, if you do not like the way your assistant helps you in the bathroom, you can talk with Teacher X or Nurse Y.” The conversation needs to be matter of fact. In order to have this conversation, inform the Principal or Nurse of the school that you have instructed your child to voice concerns if they feel they are not happy with the help they receive in the bathroom. Finally, Parents, do not feel afraid to ask your child, “Did you feel okay about the help you needed today in the bathroom?”; “Did everything go okay?” This does not need to be alarming. The fact is, as parents, you do need to know if your child went to the bathroom regularly or if there were any accidents. By asking, a door is left open to have a child share any concerns.
The next piece that empowers safety and independence is to teach your child how to independently void their bladder as soon as possible. Girls can learn and be independent by age 6. Boys at age 5. For obvious design of the anatomy, one is easier than the other. For many parents this seems young, but teaching how the anatomy works, and with practice these skills can be achieved. There was a time when there were no products to support bladder leakage. I had a dear friend who was born with Spina Bifida. She also was born with only one hand. Her other arm was missing a hand just under the elbow. It was often common at that time for children to have long-term stays in the hospital setting to learn how to catheter (early 1960). With a longing to be at home and leave the children’s hospital, she was determined to learn to independently catheter herself with one hand at age 4. In her words, “I was able to do the task because I was taught how my vagina was designed and how to use the catheter and practice.”
From the perspective of organizational leadership, are we talking about it?
Do we have policies on Child Safeguarding? Do we implement regular training on what is child sexual abuse? What are signs of child sexual abuse? What do we do if we suspect child sexual abuse? Do we build within our organization a designated person or persons who we are to report to should we see something? Do we educate our parents and guardians who to talk with within the organization about concerns with child sexual abuse?
I have found that organizations will have “policies”, but they live in a document that has long been forgotten. Can the organization report they have a policy about child sexual abuse? “Yes”, but, in action and in process, the answer is “No”. I think the USOC is an example of this fact, even with the “SafeSport Training” concept and years of believing they had the best of supports, they failed. This comes back to leadership of an organization to make the policy a living document that the entire team knows, understanding the process, and how to guard against predators, creating safe programs.
Background checks are a must. For the USOC to delegate this to a “SafeSport” program, I call foul again. There are national organization that are connected to National, State, County networks (In the group we use, now includes international) that identify and monitor far and wide for predators who often change locations. It is a “REAL” job that takes work to monitor. Working with a national company that monitors deviant individuals should be utilized in any program offered to children, youth and adults. Adding an ineffective layer to “pretend” one has a plan (“SafeSport”), only shows once again the leadership was ignorant and removed.
Bridge II Sports, utilizes a training called Darkness to Light (https://www.d2l.org). This program is a two- hour training that we implement twice a year for onboarding of designated staff and volunteers. This training is done in person. They have an on-line training; I do not recommend using it. I believe that looking one another in the eye, discussing the definition of child sexual abuse, is a way to ensure all are engaged and investing in the safety. It is our policy to do this training in person. Second, we invite parents and Board member to be part of this education. This allows our eyes and ears to extend, offering wider protection. We have designed a flow-chart that shows the action required and who to report to if concerns come up. In our organization we assigned a person who is the reporting officer. It is not the Executive Director or head of organization. The reporting officer is to report to the Executive Director or head of organization. Why? To keep accountability and not cover up an issue for the sake of image. Also, there are two people who collectively report misconduct to the appropriate authorities.
In some states, mandatory report laws require that people in certain professions report child abuse and neglect to a proper authority, such as a law enforcement agency or child protective services. In other
states, the mandatory reporting laws require that any person who suspects child abuse or neglect report any such instance. Get to know the laws within the governance you operate.
Lastly, Organizations should have a photo Identification of the program leader to include the organizations logo showing families, children, etc., they are part of the program staff.
Quick Summary: Do Background checks on all members of the organization’s team, including the Board of Directors; Have clear policies on expectation of performance of Board, staff, and volunteers. Educate families and children on areas concerning vulnerable places, giving them words, boundaries, and directions on what to do “If”. Have a “Child Safe Guarding Policy” that is a living document that all members of the organization know and understand. Know your state and legislative laws governing your area to ensure appropriate action to ensure accountability and safety.
From my perspective, when years of sexual abuse that took place under the neglectful eye of the USOC, the organization did not fail…. the leadership did, they turned a blind eye. Let us all commit to be part of the solution to end the lethargy of poor leadership and secure the safety of our children and the strength of our future.