COVER

VOLUNTEERS UNDER SCRUTINY

Youth leaders warn that an atmosphere of suspicion makes it difficult for them to function

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER February 10 1997
COVER

VOLUNTEERS UNDER SCRUTINY

Youth leaders warn that an atmosphere of suspicion makes it difficult for them to function

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER February 10 1997

VOLUNTEERS UNDER SCRUTINY

COVER

Youth leaders warn that an atmosphere of suspicion makes it difficult for them to function

Out on the soccer field, the boundaries are clear: if the players touch the ball with their hands, they can expect a penalty. And on the sidelines, coaches are finding that almost any physical contact with young athletes carries a similar risk. “I’m the kind of person who touches when I talk,” says Hew Morris, who has coached elite girls and boys soccer teams in Saskatoon for nearly a decade. “If a kid was hurt, I used to put my arms around him and say, ‘Hey, let’s get going here,’ but you can’t do that anymore.” Now, if a player is injured, Morris calls on an assistant to help or to stand as a witness while he examines the casualty. “I make sure I don’t touch them in a way that can be perceived as wrong,” says Morris, whose two daughters play on his teams. ‘Today, if a kid says a coach did something to them—whether he did or did not—people will definitely look at him in a different light.” The chilling effect of sexual abuse extends far beyond a single soccer field in Saskatoon. The climate in hockey rinks, gymnasiums and classrooms across the country is changing as volunteers and professionals who work with children—from coaches to boy scout leaders and teachers—reassess their interaction with their young charges amid a spate of sexual assaults against children and adolescents. Last month’s conviction of Western Hockey League coach Graham James for sexually abusing two of his players hit many parents with the force of a slap shot. “My little boy is 9 and he wants to be involved in hockey,” says Judy Halliday, a Marysvale, Nfld., mother. “But we are too afraid of something like that happening.” In an effort to ease such fears, and to fend off lawsuits, many organizations are scrambling to introduce screening programs and police checks for those in positions of trust. At the same time, conscientious, dedicated children’s workers are feeling increasingly beleaguered by the atmosphere of suspicion. “I’ve been in situations where I’ve had an athlete in my car,” says Ottawa-area teacher Don Morris, who coaches his teenage daughter’s soccer and crosscountry ski teams. “You wonder, should I even be giving them a ride home? Everybody is starting to look over their shoulder.” Some experts suggest that parents’ fears may be misdirected. “From the perspective of sexual abuse,” says University of Toronto social work professor Nico Trocme, “it is much more dangerous for children to be at home than at hockey practice.” For every coach or teacher that assaults a child, he says, “you have hundreds of fathers, stepfathers, brothers, cousins and uncles molesting their children.” Statistics show that in more than 90 per cent of child abuse cases, the perpetrator is a parent, relative or a family acquaintance. As few as three per cent of cases investigated by children’s aid societies involve teachers, coaches, day care providers and others outside the family circle. Still, many advocates insist that intensive screen-

ing is required to protect children from offenders—even if their numbers are small. “Sure, for every Graham James there are lots of hardworking, well-meaning coaches,” says Paddy Bowen, head of Volunteer Canada. “But do you want to play the odds?”

Some sports organizers fear that screening may not only prove ineffective, it may drive away volunteers. Says Dave Hudson, an Edmonton businessman who coaches his 11-year-old daughter’s ringette team: “You try to help out by coaching your kid’s team, and they tell you that you’ll have to go through an application process and wait weeks for security checks. It just isn’t worth it.” Like many volunteers, Hudson believes that organizations who long turned a “blind eye” to abuse are overreacting. “It’s just like government,” he says. “Make rules to cover 100 per cent of the people to catch the bad one per cent. Why don’t we sensitize the kids to abuse and crack down when it is reported?”

Now, many volunteers are altering their behavior to protect themselves as much as the children. Scouts Canada is among the numerous organizations that advise leaders not to spend time alone with a boy or girl. “The greatest fear all of us have is false accusation,” says Trevor Joice, a veteran Toronto scout leader. “Whatlfind even scarier is that false accusations can occur 20 years from now. What protection does anybody have?”

But some experts say those fears are largely unfounded. “It is extremely unlikely a child would intentionally make a false allegation because they didn’t get a badge or make it onto the hockey team,” says Trocme, pointing to studies that show that about one per cent of child abuse allegations prove to be malicious. Sadly, the realities of sexual abuse mean that adults must find a delicate new balance between protecting a child and offering a relationship of trust. “I hope we are not entering a period in our society where we can’t develop friendships with people who are 20 years younger or can’t drive a kid home without feeling uncomfortable,” says Joice.

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER