Detecting child abuse among elite child athletes

Awareness is growing of how to spot potential signs of abuse in elite child athletes. Louise Hunt reports

Awareness is growing of how to spot potential signs of abuse in elite child athletes. Louise Hunt reports

Elite child athletes are not often considered as a vulnerable group in need of safeguarding. But in the run-up to the London Olympics recent research has found that many are being abused.

The Brunel University study Elite child athlete welfare: international perspectives, published in August, looked at the types of abuse elite child athletes were suffering, using examples from UK and international research.

While the main types of abuse were common to those dealt with by children’s safeguarding teams – physical, sexual, emotional and neglect – in a sports context they included cases of over-training and risk of injury, demands of sex in return for team selection or privileges, weight-loss regimes leading to eating disorders and physically injurious or sexually degrading initiation rituals known as “hazing”.

What makes this abuse different is that it can be overlooked when seen as part of sports culture, says the report’s co-author Dr Daniel Rhind.

“There is an attitude of ‘no pain, no gain’ in sports. When you talk to athletes about their experiences abuse is often not detected because it is not seen as abuse, which prevents it from being referred to the authorities,” he says.

“This could be because elite child athletes are seen with a halo effect,” suggests Rhind, using the example of young diver Tom Daley, who was one of Britain’s medal hopes, but suffered bullying from pupils at school after the Beijing Olympics. “People don’t necessarily think of elite child athletes as vulnerable, but they are still children.”

The study found that abuse occurred across sports, but there was more concern for children involved in sports where there is early specialisation, such as gymnastics and tennis.

“Abuse tends to happen as athletes go up the levels,” says Rhind, describing those at pre-peak performance, when children are being pushed the hardest and have the most at stake, as most at-risk.

The extent of the abuse of elite child athletes is difficult to assess because there has not been a prevalence study in the UK, but Rhind hopes this will be the next step for research.

The NSPCC’s Child Protection in Sports Unit (CPSU) has been striving to break down the culture of acceptance since it launched in 2001. Its director Anne Tiivas says the national sports governing bodies have made great strides in changing the no pain, no gain culture since they began adopting the CPSU’s standards for safeguarding children in sport.

These were developed to provide a system recognised by the home nations for assessing sports organisations’ commitment to safeguarding and are an audit tool to help them provide a safe environment for children and a benchmark to promote best practice and challenge harmful practice.

Most of the English national governing bodies and county sports partnerships (which are bodies to promote involvement in sports at a local level) will have achieved the advanced level of standards that is a condition of Sport England funding by this December. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are adopting slightly different approaches.

The standards have been further reinforced by the introduction of lead child protection officers within the national governing bodies and welfare officers at county level.

They ensure coaches are aware of their roles and responsibilities in safeguarding child athletes and that the governing bodies ensure children know where to go if they have a concern.

As a result of this work, Tiivas believes more victims of abuse are likely to come forward and be referred to local authorities.

“Historically, this has been a hidden problem, and the cases you heard about were in the past, but now people have more confidence in complaints procedures I would expect there to be an increase in referrals before, hopefully, a reduction,” she says.

“We are seeing a big shift in culture as sport has bought into the wider safeguarding rationale influenced by the Every Child Matters policy. There is still a long way to go, but I have been really impressed,” she adds.

The focus of the CPSU’s work is moving on to look at how to develop better links between sports and statutory authorities, including raising awareness among social workers of how best to handle the issues specifically affecting elite child athletes.

“There is currently a very mixed approach to investigating problems. Some do treat the problem seriously, but we have had examples of behaviour such as initiation ceremonies involving sexual humiliation where the authorities have accepted the explanation. Sport should not operate in a separate arena.”

The CPSU has made a commitment to consult with the statutory sector on how to improve awareness of abuse of elite child athletes, which it plans to start after the spending review. “There is a huge amount of awareness raising to do,” adds Tiivas.

Detecting abuse

● Social workers need to be aware that there are specific risks with pre-peak performance child athletes. The NSPCC’s Child Protection in Sports Unit director, Anne Tiivas, says: “The risks mirror what you would see in institutional abuse inquiries where you have young people dependent on carers. There may be issues with pushy parents. Also, because children are away from home a lot they become more isolated and the intensity of the relationship with coaches can be used for good or bad.”

● It is important to understand the context when making an assessment in a suspected abuse case, says Tiivas. Social workers can approach the lead safeguarding officer of the national governing body for the sport in question for advice on what is and is not expected behaviour.

● In some areas local safeguarding children’s boards have sport and recreation sub-groups, which are working with sports bodies in the area to improve protection for children. They should be able to offer advice and possibly training on the specific issues.

● Welfare officers within county sports partnerships are also useful contacts for concerns over children at local and club level sports.

Safeguarding and the London Olympics

The London Safeguarding Children Board will have a pivotal role in protecting elite child athletes at the 2012 games, as part of a broader remit that includes safety at events and trafficking.

The Olympics sub-group is working with the CPSU to adopt its welfare plan model, used at the UK School Games 2010, that is designed to ensure everyone responsible for children at the games is aware of their safeguarding role and responsibilities. It includes a checklist of good practice and indicators for risk and the procedures for responding to concerns about children’s welfare.

The sub-group is also working with the host authorities, local safeguarding children boards and police to develop a rapid response team, comprising children and family social workers, that can be called upon during the games to act on any concerns for athletes’ welfare. At past international sporting events this has included incidents of young athletes going missing after involvement with suspected people traffickers.

A further strand of activity is looking at access to child athletes to ensure that people who accompany them have not been convicted of any offences. “There are clear procedures in the UK, but it is very difficult to do background checks for those abroad, so we are working with the UK Borders agency and talking to the Olympics delivery authorities to develop a system to have clear protocols in place,” says Cheryl Coppell, chair of the London Safeguarding Children Board.

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This article is published in the 21 October issue of Community Care magazine under the heading The game’s up for child abuse in sport

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