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We support our children’s participation in sports and other activities because we think the activities and leaders will help them grow.  It’s awful to think that sometimes those trusted adults don’t have our children’s best interests (or even basic rights) at heart.

The good news is that the vast majority of coaches, teachers, volunteers, and church leaders are wonderful, caring, dedicated people.  I can personally think of many from my own childhood who made a significant positive impact on my life, and I see it every day in the adults who work with my children now.  So how does a parent tell the difference?  Surely there are some signals, some signs?

Yes, there are.  To keep it simple, I will list the two most significant red flags that a parent should pay attention to when interacting with the people to whom you entrust your children.  If you see (or even feel) that an adult is doing either of the things below, you need to pay extra attention, get more information, and possibly take action.

  1.  Secrets.  What your child is giving you for Mother’s Day is a fine secret to keep with Daddy, her teacher, or Uncle Harry.  But there aren’t many more secrets that adults and children can share appropriately.  What they are doing, where they are going, gifts given from the other adult to your child—those things should never be kept secret from the parent.  Do not trust an adult who excludes you and keeps secrets with your child.
  2. Grooming.  I learned this awful term many years ago when I worked with sex offenders.  Basically, grooming is what a predator does to ‘test out’ and prepare a child to be a victim.  In other words, the predator needs to know that the child will trust him, will value or be dependent on him, will not tell on him, will not expose him.  Grooming can look many different ways, but it is basically a manipulative, secretive growing relationship.  It often has a “specialness” about it—as in: the relationship is special and the child is made to feel special in it.  There may be gifts, privileges, or unusual perks to being in the relationship with that predator.  (For example, traveling with the Penn State football team.)  Do you find yourself asking “Why is he being so nice/generous to my child?”  That question is a red flag.

So, while secrets and grooming do not necessarily mean that a child is being sexually abused, it does mean that a parent needs to get more information.  Do not ignore what your gut is telling you.  When these two unhealthy relationship traits are present, there may be more.

One last thought: what should you do if you suspect sexual abuse?  You should call the police or your state’s department of children and family services.  It is not enough to simply tell another adult, another coach, a supervisor, or just to leave the group.  By not reporting suspected abuse to the proper authorities, you are permitting the predator to simply move on to his next victim.  Stop sexual abuse by reporting it.  You can find out more about how/where to report on this webpage:

© 2012, Katie Malinski, LCSW. All rights reserved.