Terrified by the Penn State Scandal? Here's How to Protect Your Kids in Sports and After-School Programs

As you’ve probably heard by now, there are some very disturbing allegations of child sexual abuse that took place on the Penn State University campus.

So far, eight victims have come forward (with more expected) claiming that former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky molested them as children with incidents that began in 1998. And the University's president, Graham B. Spanier, and its beloved head football coach, 84-year-old Joe Paterno have been fired because they did not report the suspected crime to authorities.

As upsetting as this is, there is something to be learned here. In about 80 percent of cases, the perpetrators of sexual abuse are often authority figures that a child trusts, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. "Most sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by adults or older children who are known to the victim," says Cindy Christian, MD, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect. "They generally use coercion and manipulation, rather than physical force against the child." 

Sandusky met these children through a charity that he founded to help at-risk youth, The Second Mile. This story has reinforced my worst fears, and it makes me terrified to think about my sons becoming boy scouts or altar servers, attending sleepaway camp or playing for a sports team. But even if I prevent them from attending any of these activities, I still can't be with them 24/7. Follow these tips to help keep your kids safe.

Teach your kids what's private. "Teach your children the name of the genitals to illustrate that while 'private,' they are not so private that you can't talk about them," says Dr. Christian. And then reinforce the point that the child has the right to say no to anyone who tries to touch these private parts of the body that are normally covered by a bathing suit. 

Discuss the ways in which a child molester might try to gain their trust. "A molester might offer a child candy or toys, take the child on 'special' outings, or tell the child they share a special secret," notes Dr. Christian. Some families choose to have a no-secrets policy at home so that kids won't be drawn in to the idea of secret-keeping. Or, a molester may threaten to hurt someone if he or she tells. 

Use opportunities of publicized sexual abuse cases to have a conversation. Constantly remind kids that if there is ever a situation that they feel uncomfortable about, or if anything ever occurs to them, they should confide in you and that you will love, protect and believe in them -- no matter what!

Play a role on the team. One of the most surefire ways that parents can get to know the people coaching their children is by getting involved, says Dr. John Mayer, a clinical psychologist, and vice president of the nonprofit organization The Center for Ethical Youth Coaching -- which offers a certification program and background check service for youth coaches.

Observe what’s going on. Stick around, or drop in early on ocassion, to keep tabs at team practice or band rehearsal. Carefully watch how the teachers and coaches are treating the children. If you work or just can’t make it to practices, keep in touch with other parents that you trust who can be your eyes and ears.

Be strong consumers when it comes to sports programs. Inquire about background checks and certifications, and not just for the paid coaches, but for volunteers as well. To learn more about preventing child abuse, check out these helpful tips for parents from the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

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