Preventing Child Abuse in Children’s Sport: Gymnastics Australia leading the way in responding to the Royal Commission

Child Safety Sport

Gymnastics Australia is the provider of one of the top five most popular sports, according to the Royal Commission, and has recently announced its appointment of a national Child Safety Coordinator. As we have stated in our previous article, it is important that organisations other than schools prioritise the application of child safe laws and principles to all activities that involve children. Each of the top five organisations providing sporting opportunities for children in Australia has responded with the development of relevant policies and procedures for child protection, codes of conduct and complaints handling, in order to promote a child safe culture.

Summary of the Royal Commission’s Recommendations

The Royal Commission handed down its Final Report on 15 December 2017. The report contained four broad recommendations for sport and recreation institutions to improve the child safe culture within Australian sporting institutions providing children’s sport and recreation. According to the Royal Commission, 3.2 million children participate in some form of organised sport or physical activity outside of school hours, with the most popular sports being swimming, soccer, Aussie Rules, gymnastics and netball.

The Royal Commission definition of “sport and recreation” is extremely broad, and includes:

  • sport
  • recreation
  • exercise groups
  • dance
  • martial arts
  • cadets and other defence force activities for children
  • outdoor adventure groups
  • Scouts and Girl Guides
  • hobby groups
  • community groups
  • arts groups
  • crafts groups
  • cultural pursuits
  • musical pursuits
  • tuition groups.

The risk factors identified in sport and recreation associations included:

  • grooming through coaching relationships, erosion of interpersonal boundaries, targeting vulnerability and valuing performance over child safety
  • club and association cultures which normalise violence, harassment and sexualisation e.g. in some dancing environments
  • physical and emotional maltreatment being considered normal e.g. inappropriate or physique inappropriate training, forced activity when athletes are in pain or injured or forced doping.

The Royal Commission’s four recommendations for improvement across the sport and recreation sector were to:

  1. Implement and incorporate any of the recommended Child Safe Standards, or incorporate the Child Safe Standards identified by the Royal Commission.
  2. Have national leadership, capacity building and support in the area of child safety through a child safety advisory committee for the sport and recreation sector with membership from government and non-government peak bodies to advise the national office on sector-specific child safety issues.
  3. Expand and fund resources for the Play by the Rules free online materials, including child focused complaints processes and codes of conduct which communicate appropriate and inappropriate behaviour to all parents, coaches, volunteers and other members of the club or association.
  4. Improve state and territory support and guidance including free email support for all clubs and associations, irrespective of size.

Implementing Child Protection Measures: Approaches of the Top Five Sports Associations:

According to the Australian Sports Commission, in 2017, 3.5 million children aged 15 and under (74 per cent) participated in some form of organised sport or physical activity outside of school hours. The majority of that sport participation fell within the five following sports associations, so it is important to look at their approaches to a child safe culture:

All organisations have a few elements in common regarding the creation of child safe environments. These include having national member protection policies and a commitment to a safe sport environment including specialised policies and procedures for child protection, recruitment and screening for new employees and volunteers, codes of conduct and complaints management.

But one has stood out above the rest. Gymnastics Australia’s recent appointment of its first Child Safety Coordinator, whose principal responsibility is “to educate clubs, coaches, parents and gymnasts about what constitute[s] abuse in a sport that require[s] coaches to touch children in their charge” is a role not yet replicated by other sports organisations. One of the findings from the Royal Commission was that those in sport needed to be better at identifying abuse and reporting it, and the risks are acute in gymnastics where 90 per cent of all registered gymnasts are under the age of twelve. The appointment by Gymnastics Australia should help address this issue.

Additionally, Gymnastics Australia has also released a National Child Safety Commitment Statement and developed a National Child Safety Working Group, to ensure that any incidents, like that of USA Gymnastics team doctor, Larry Nassar, who was jailed for molesting more than 200 young female gymnasts earlier this year, are prevented from occurring again.

The Type of Organisation Matters

According to the Royal Commission, organisations in the sport and recreation sector are generally divided into one of two categories:

  • federated institutions with an understanding of their compliance obligations including well-developed management structures that operate at a national level e.g. Football Federation Australia, Swimming Australia, Scouts Australia, or
  • unaffiliated institutions with minimal understanding of their compliance obligations with generally underdeveloped management structures and usually operating in isolation e.g. not for profit institutions, small businesses or sole traders.

Unaffiliated institutions were identified as the key risk in the sector, with a reliance on unchecked volunteers, or exposure to private homes due to the size and nature of the business e.g. private music teacher studios. Many unaffiliated institutions had little understanding of their child safety obligations, little or no policy or procedures regarding child abuse and faced challenges in reporting, storing and sharing information when necessary. Hopefully, if the Royal Commission’s four recommendations are implemented, the risk profile of unaffiliated associations can be reduced.

What Improvements Can All Organisations Make?

Any organisation involved in providing sport and recreation services for children, regardless of size, should have an established child protection program which sets out work systems, practices, policies and procedures designed to not only ensure legal compliance, but also to develop safe and supportive environments and a child safe culture. This may include:

  • a child safety code of conduct
  • clear guidelines for reporting child abuse or suspected child abuse
  • a holistic policy for a child safe culture
  • policies which cover bullying and harassment of children
  • a robust complaints policy to allow family and the community feedback
  • family and community support through a comprehensive communication and consultation processes.

Above all, all organisations should adopt a risk management approach to child protection and establishing staff training to ensure a child safe culture.

About the Author

Lauren Osbich is a Legal Research Consultant and School Governance reporter. She can be contacted here.

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