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‘It isn’t up to children to protect themselves’: How to keep kids safe from sexual abuse in sports

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This story is the third of a three-part series by CBC News and Sports on abuse in amateur sport in Canada. Read the first and second stories in the series.

As the scope of the problem of child sexual abuse in Canadian amateur sports becomes clear, the sports world is left playing catch-up as it tries to revamp safety policies and provide parents with the tools they need to better protect young athletes.

A CBC News and Sports investigation found at least 340 coaches across Canada have been charged with sexual offences against minors in the past 20 years. Of those, 222 coaches have been convicted.

There are currently at least 34 trials against coaches before the courts.

“It breaks my heart that my sport has been looked at in the way that it has. It breaks my heart that there are kids who are hurting,” said Calgary gymnastics mom Kim Shore.

The trial of former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was the tipping point for Shore. A competitive gymnast herself while growing up, Shore watched many of the harrowing stories of abuse shared by more than 150 victims of Nassar. She says it was gut-wrenching but propelled her into action.

But it wasn’t just Nassar’s case that had Shore worried about the future of her sport. Canada was grappling with its own issues — three gymnastics coaches were suspended for sexual assault charges within the span of a few months.

Kim Shore, left, pictured here with her daughter Addison, a competitive gymnast, wasn’t impressed with the resources online for parents looking for tips to keep their children safe in sports. (Jill English/CBC)  

Shore, whose 12-year-old daughter, Addison, is a competitive gymnast, went in search of resources to try to arm herself with information on how to detect potential predators.

“To be honest, I started Googling and looking for advice for parents on how to raise an athlete and what initiatives need to be taken to make sports better,” Shore said.

What she found is there wasn’t a lot of information on how a parent should confront coaching abuse.

CBC asked some child protection advocates and sports experts about what local and national sport organizations — and parents — can do to protect children.

Watch Kim Shore discuss her tough conversations with young athletes on The National:

Kim Shore, Director At Large with Gymnastics Canada, speaks with the CBC’s Devin Heroux about the difficult conversations parents and administrators are having with young athletes about sex abuse. 8:20

Watch for transgressions

In the era of social media, experts say parents need to be aware of who their child is communicating with online. CBC’s investigation found many cases where abuse was initiated by a coach online.

In Nova Scotia, for example, volleyball coach Joseph Potvin pleaded guilty in September 2011 to sexual exploitation, sexual assault, luring a child and producing child pornography. He was sentenced to four years in prison.

Potvin admitted to grooming a 17-year-old girl he was coaching in Dartmouth using electronic communication, including having sexually explicit webcam chats with her.

This chart shows findings from CBC’s investigation into charges and convictions against Canadian coaches for sexual offences against minors. The breakdown is based on the sports in which the charged coaches were involved. (CBC)

Potvin’s techniques of online manipulation aren’t uncommon, says Noni Classen, director of education at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. She says coaches are turning to text messaging and social media with more regularity to prey on young athletes.

“If a coach starts to text a child individually 50 times a day and the parent is not clearly on those and is not aware of the correspondence that’s happening … That’s a transgression,” she said.

Classen suggests parents create a joint email address with their child for all communication with a coach. She also says parents should initiate a conversation with coaches early on about proper coach-athlete boundaries.

Toxic power imbalance

When it comes to trying to build young children into sports superstars, parents can sometimes be reluctant to question a coach’s behaviour.

Lorraine Lafrenière, chief executive of the Coaching Association of Canada, says coaches have a privileged position over athletes, which can lead to a toxic power imbalance and potentially even abuse.

“We think a coach has the gold dust to performance and so therefore we confer all of this trust … that they must be good or that we can’t challenge their authority outside of that, and that’s not OK,” Lafrenière said.

Lorraine Lafrenière, head of the Coaching Association of Canada, has a list of questions she says parents should ask of sport organizations. (CBC)

She says parents can become too focused on their child’s athletic performance and neglect to pay attention for signs of misconduct.

She says parents need to start asking sport organizations questions that go beyond what happens on the field of play. What is the screening process for coaches and staff? Who is responsible for overseeing and enforcing the rules? And what is the policy for reporting abuse?

Background checks not enough

Most sport organizations implemented background checks in the wake of the notorious Graham James case 20 years ago. James is a former junior hockey coach in Western Canada who was convicted of abusing six of his players hundreds of times, including future NHLer Theo Fleury.

But CBC’s analysis of court records found that even in the early 2000s, coaches were still slipping through the cracks.

Take, for example, the case of Gilbert Dubé. He’s a former Montreal North minor league hockey coach who was sentenced to five years in prison for sexually abusing four players on his teams between 2002 and 2009.

But this wasn’t the first conviction for the hockey coach. In 1993, Dubé was convicted of sexual touching. During his second sentencing in April 2011, he suggested Hockey Quebec was to blame for not checking his background thoroughly before allowing him to coach several hockey teams.

At the time, Hockey Quebec said it did have a background-check policy in place, but it was left to the discretion of each local club to implement.

A look at data from CBC’s investigation of charges and convictions against Canadian coaches for sexual offences against minors in the past 20 years. (CBC)

Background checks are essential, but experts say they can’t be the only safeguard.

“We cannot rely on the criminal justice system to be our means of how we’re protecting children,” Classen said.

She says predators are able to slip through the cracks because many victims don’t report abuse until years later. In such cases predators can go undetected because they don’t have a record that would be flagged in a criminal background check.

CBC’s analysis found that one-third of the 340 criminal cases against coaches were brought forward at least a decade after the alleged offences occurred.

WATCH | Former Olympic gymnast Kyle Shewfelt discusses what can be done to reduce the risk of abuse in sport:

Former Olympian, gym owner and CBC commentator Kyle Shewfelt tells Devin Heroux how high profile sexual offences have rocked the gymnastics community and explains what’s being done to stop it. 5:16

Need clear policy

Classen says if a sport organization lacks a clear, formalized conduct policy, it leaves parents in the dark about how to address potential abuse by coaches. She says some parents and athletes may be afraid of retribution because they don’t know where or how to report misconduct.

“It creates silencing,” she said. “It creates problems and it breeds environments for abuse to occur, where people aren’t comfortable with bringing forward concerns.”

Noni Classen, director of education for the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, suggests parents create a joint email address with their child for all communication with a coach. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Nearly every national, provincial and local sport organization in Canada is responsible for conducting its own internal investigations before deciding how to move forward, CBC’s investigation found. The problem with this model, Classen says, is parents don’t have full confidence in a sport organization’s ability to thoroughly investigate its own coaches.

Children can’t protect themselves

Finally, experts say, parents need to speak up immediately when they feel their child is in a compromised spot.

Too often, they say, parents may not notice there is a problem and the onus is then put on the vulnerable athlete to come forward and report their abuser. Classen says there needs to be an ongoing conversation between the child and parent about the young athlete’s relationship with their coach.

“It isn’t up to children to protect themselves,” Classen said. “They can’t compete with an adult who is potentially looking to exploit them or misusing their relationship with them or betraying their trust. It has to be other adults who are questioning what’s going on.”

Here is a list of questions Classen and Lafrenière say parents should be asking when enrolling their children in a sport:

  • Does the club have a standalone abuse policy?
  • What is the screening process for coaches and staff?
  • Do they have a social media policy?
  • Who is enforcing the rules?
  • What is the policy for reporting abuse?
  • Is there a list of coaches who have been suspended or banned?

— With files from Jamie Strashin


Editor’s Note: CBC Sports acknowledges that it has ongoing contractual agreements to produce, broadcast and stream various events with several national sport organizations.

​For readers under the age of 18, if you have questions or have ever felt uncomfortable, talk to a parent, guardian or adult you trust. If you don’t have someone you can talk to, call KIDS HELP PHONE at 1-800-668-6868 or live chat them at KidsHelpPhone.ca.

If you have information to share on this story, please contact Lori Ward at lori.ward@cbc.ca or Jamie Strashin at jamie.strashin@cbc.ca. You can also send anonymous tips through CBC Secure Drop.  

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Ottawa sets monthly record for total COVID-19 cases with 99 new cases on Friday

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Sixteen days into October, Ottawa has already set the record for most cases of COVID-19 in a single month.

Ottawa Public Health reported 99 new cases of COVID-19 in Ottawa today, and three more deaths linked to novel coronavirus.

Ontario’s Ministry of Health had reported 108 new cases of COVID-19, but there is sometimes a lag in COVID-19 case reporting between Ontario and Ottawa Public Health. On Wednesday, Ontario reported 39 new cases in Ottawa, while Ottawa Public Health reported 45 new cases.

There have been 1,511 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Ottawa in October, surpassing the September record of 1,413 new cases.

Since the first case of COVID-19 on March 11, there have been 5,908 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Ottawa, including 301 deaths.

Across Ontario, there are 712 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday. Health Minister Christine Elliott reported 213 new cases in Toronto, 135 in Peel Region and 62 in York Region.

HOSPITALIZATIONS IN OTTAWA

One more person was admitted to an Ottawa hospital with COVID-19 related illnesses on Friday.

Ottawa Public Health reports 47 people are currently in hospital with COVID-19, including eight in the intensive care unit.

ACTIVE CASES OF COVID-19 IN OTTAWA

The number of active cases of COVID-19 increased on Friday.

There are 792 active cases of COVID-19 in Ottawa, up from 777 active cases on Thursday.

A total of 4,806 people have recovered after testing positive for COVID-19.

The number of active cases is the number of total laboratory-confirmed cases minus the numbers of resolved cases and deaths. A case is considered resolved 14 days after known symptom onset or positive test result.

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Ottawa mayor rejects possible return of Ottawa-Gatineau border checkpoints, ‘I really don’t think they work’

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Mayor Jim Watson does not want to see police checkpoints return to the five interprovincial crossings between Ottawa and Gatineau, saying “I really don’t think they work.”

Earlier this week, Gatineau Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin told the Ottawa Citizen that police checkpoints could return to the Ottawa-Gatineau border at “any time,” with the final decision in the hands of the Quebec Government. Earlier this month, Dr. Brigitte Pinard of the Centre Integre de sante et de services sociaux de l’Outaouais said border checkpoints were “possible,” adding “right now, our message is to limit large gatherings.”

When asked by CTV Morning Live host Leslie Roberts about the possibility of police checkpoints returning to the Ontario-Quebec border, Watson said he did not think they worked back in the spring.

“There were so many gaps when the police were not there, and people just figured out I’ll go at an earlier time or a later time. We saw police officers sticking their heads in the car with no masks, so that was not healthy for those individuals,” said Watson Friday morning.

“It’s a costly expense when our police are stretched already to the limit trying to do the work, to have them set up at five different bridge points potentially 24 hours a day would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars every month and I think the money is better spent.”

On April 1, Gatineau Police and the Surete du Quebec set up checkpoints along the Ottawa-Gatineau border to limit non-essential trips into Gatineau. Gatineau Police estimated the random police checkpoints between April 1 and May 17 cost the service more than $400,000.

Mayor Watson tells CTV Morning Live that the Quebec Government’s decision to move Gatineau into the “red zone” two days after Ontario moved Ottawa to a modified Stage 2 should help.

“We are a close relationship and when things happen in Gatineau there’s often a trickle effect over here and I think the fact that we’re both in the red zone, and Quebec of course is the worst hit province, at least levels the playing field for our restaurants and bars,” said Watson.

“I think in the past what had happened was our restaurants and bars would close and then the ones in Gatineau would stay open, and then people from Ottawa would go over there irresponsibly, in my opinion, and then come back potentially with the virus and spread it here.”

While border checkpoints would limit the non-essential travel across the Ottawa-Gatineau border, Watson says that’s not the way to beat COVID-19.

“The message is very clear, stick to your household. This is not the time to have an AirBNB party or a keg party in your backyard, or have 20 people or 30 people in for an engagement party. I know a lot of these get-togethers are important socially for people and emotionally, but we have to ask people to be reasonable and responsible, and this is not the year to do those kinds of things.”

Roberts asked the mayor if he would have a conversation about border checkpoints with Gatineau’s mayor.

“I had it the first go-around, but at the end of the day I also respect their jurisdiction and their autonomy. It is the province that would have to impose that, not the municipality,” said Watson.

“From our perspective, we don’t think it’s an effective use of resources. We want to continue to get the message across that we can win this battle against COVID-19 if we socially distance, we wear a mask, we actually follow the simple rules that are put forward.”

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Ottawa woman breaks 14-day quarantine rule to work at long-term care home: police

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OTTAWA — A 53-year-old Ottawa woman is facing charges under the federal Quarantine Act after Ottawa police say she failed to self-isolate for 14 days after travelling abroad and returned to work at a long-term care home.

Ottawa Police say information was received indicating that an Ottawa woman had travelled abroad. She returned to Canada on Sept. 26, so she was required under federal law to quarantine for 14 days, until Oct. 9

“The woman decided not to respect this order and went to work on Sept. 30 at a long-term health facility in Ottawa,” police said in a news release. “When management was apprised of the situation, she was immediately sent home. The facility immediately activated mitigating self-isolation and cleaning protocols and informed all persons that had been in contact with the subject.”

Police say none of the residents of the long-term care facility have tested positive for COVID-19 as a result of the woman attending work.

Ottawa police say this is the first person they have charged under the Quarantine Act during the pandemic.

The woman is charged with failing to comply with entry condition under section 58 of the Quarantine Act and cause risk of imminent death or serious bodily harm under section 67 of the Quarantine Act.

The maximum penalty for causing risk of imminent death or serious bodily harm is a $1 million fine and three years in prison. For failing to self-isolate for 14 days, she faces a $750,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

Police did not release the name of the woman, nor where she worked. The woman is due in court on Nov. 24.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson’s office issued a statement following the announcement of the charges.

“Mayor Watson was disturbed to learn about the alleged carelessness of the individual in question. This type of reckless behaviour could have harmed their colleagues, and more importantly, the residents of the long term care home. We must all do our part to limit the spread of COVID-19 in our community.”

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