Youth sports leagues not required to do background checks; sex offenders can coach

TOPEKA (KSNT) – In August a 37-year-old Topeka Storm Softball assistant coach, Arthur Sheltrown, was arrested for aggravated indecent liberties with a child and fondling a child less than 16 years of age.

That assistant coach’s arrest raises the question of how youth sports leagues screen the adults who volunteer to work closely with your kids. It’s especially important here in a state that doesn’t require private sports leagues to do background checks.

“I think that every parent should be invested in the programs that their kids are going to be involved in,” Shawnee County Department of Corrections Director and Topeka Select Soccer Coach Brian Cole told Kansas First News.

A simple Google search reveals dozens of cases across the nation where youth sports league coaches have been arrested for everything from physical violence and drugs to child porn and sexual abuse charges.

“A lot of the times our kids are around the coaches as much as they are us, and I want to make sure that my children are safe,” parent Anna Bowers said.

That’s why Cole says screening coaches is a must.

“Most of the competitive soccer premier programs that I’ve been around with or that I know of, specifically with Topeka Select usually they go through three different processes,” he explained.

Topeka Select requires you to sign a code of ethics, have a background check conducted and interview with the president of the club. Soccer moms we talked to say it’s up to parents to ask questions.

“I think you just have to make sure that whatever activities our kids are involved in the screening process is in place,” Sara Rust-Martin, a player’s mother said.

Cole agreed. “They oughta ask specifically who’s coaching? Do you do any type of background checks? Any reference checks?”

Despite Topeka Select’s stringent screening, Cole says other leagues aren’t as cautious.

“When my son first started soccer they didn’t have a coach. I was able to say ‘I’ll be the coach’ and they just let me coach,” he recalled.

Cole highlights some warning signs parents should look for:

  • Is the coach too touchy? Too hands-on?
  • Does he or she want to exchange phone numbers with your child?
  • Do they try to connect with your kids on social media?

In the end, Cole says the coach should communicate with the parents, not the players.

Fellow coach Brett Martin: “It’s probably important for parents to stay around at practices when their kids are on a new team just to sort of get a feel for the coaches philosophy and how they interact with the children.”

According to Cole, coaching is about building good relationships; however, he says there needs to be a very clear line. For instance, when his team travels out of town, Cole says his players don’t need to know what room he’s in. He never gives his room number out to his players. He wants players to feel comfortable coming to talk to him, however he doesn’t “hang out” with his young athletes.

Cole agrees that the system can never be fool-proof.

“I guess if a person’s never been caught and has a pretty clean slate, I suppose somebody could slip through the cracks, but I think it would be highly unlikely.”

In August, our sister station KSN in Wichita reported that a registered sex offender was being allowed to help coach junior football. Harvey County’s sheriff said at that time that although his opinion is the assistant coach shouldn’t be around kids, there is nothing in Kansas law to keep registered sex offenders from volunteering in a private league.

As for the assistant coach who was arrested in Topeka on aggravated indecent liberties with a child, the Topeka Storm Softball League sent us this official statement:

“The Storm organization prides itself in the continuous development and growth of our athletes, our coaches and the great game of softball.  Continuous review and analysis of our rules, regulations, policies and procedures are but one component of this ongoing effort.  As well, we teach and expect our athletes and coaches to respect and honor the sport by doing what is right.  In this same approach, we will reserve public comment regarding personnel related matters.” –Buck Breckenridge, Topeka Storm Softball

We asked the Tampa-based company Protect Youth Sports to offer advice to both parents and youth sports leagues concerning volunteer screening. According to their website, www.protectyouthsports.com, PYS performs background checks for coaches of more than 10,000 youth-serving organizations in all 50 states. The company offers instructional videos as well as online child safety training. The following questions were answered by Ryan Carter, the Director of Sales and Business Development for Protect Youth Sports.

  • What should parents ask their child’s sports league concerning screening/background checks of coaches and other adult volunteers?

The first thing parents should be asking is what is the league policy on child protection. Do they have a written child protection policy? All leagues should have a written child protection policy that covers everything from background screening to coach training on the prevention of abuse and neglect. It is also vital that the league have written standards on exactly what offenses are considered a “fail” when the coach does have a criminal history. All felonies no matter the time frame? No misdemeanors in the past year? It is important to take these things into consideration when selecting coaches.

  • In August we had a Topeka youth league coach arrested on child sex charges. How common is this type of crime by adults working with young athletes?

Unfortunately it happens far too often. Because youth sports leagues are run by volunteers it can easily be considered a “safe haven” for predators. This is especially true when a league does not have stringent screening, training, and accountability in place for all coaches and administrators. Having said that it is important to note that there are millions of upstanding coaches around the country and thousands of leagues that have never experienced any instances of abuse.

  • How often does Protect Youth Sports find red flags in the background checks you do? Do most people pass easily? Or is it rare to find a concern?

Our statistics show that around 12% of all applicants have some “red flag” in their background. Now whether or not it is a crime that would prohibit them from working with minors is a different story. We find that around 5% of applicants have offenses in their history that should keep them from working with children.

  • What type of screening do youth sports leagues need to do in order to ensure the tightest checks possible?

A minimum standard for background check should include:

  • National Criminal Database Search
  • National Sex Offender Registry Search
  • SSN Verification and Address History Trace
  • Local County or Statewide court search

As we contact more leagues we find that many leagues are not doing this level of searching even though the cost is very low (less than $20) and most companies can set up a system for the coaches to pay. We find that almost all coaches are willing to pay the $10-$20 to make sure all coaches are screened.

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