Abuse Reporting: What to Do When Your Organization Has an Incident

Every youth organization has a duty of care to protect the young people it serves. Abuse reporting is a crucial part of that. Despite taking every precaution to prevent abuse, incidents can still occur, and the quicker they’re reported, the more effectively damage can be minimized.

For your abuse reporting procedures to work, everyone in the organization must know what to do if someone comes to them with an allegation of abuse or if they witness misconduct. In this guide, we’ll dig into everything you need to know about reporting child abuse in youth sports.

We’ll cover:

  • The different types of abuse and what incidents need to be reported
  • Who is legally required to report abuse
    • Mandated reporters under the Safe Sport Act
    • State mandated reporters
  • What to do when someone approaches you with suspicions of abuse
  • How to ensure smooth incident reporting at your organization

Reporting Child Abuse in Youth Sports

Youth sports provide incredible benefits for children. Unfortunately, they can also be fertile ground for abuse. The competitive pressure, the power dynamics between coaches and athletes and the limited supervision in many sports environments create opportunities for abusive behaviors to occur.

It’s vital for any youth sports organization to be proactive and implement steps to prevent abuse, such as abuse prevention training. But if it does occur, knowing how to respond and report any incident is crucial for both athlete safety and legal compliance.


What Types of Incidents Need To Be Reported?

The reality is that there are many different types of abuse — some are more obvious than others. This can make it difficult to know which incidents to report.

“Not all forms of misconduct rise to the level of abuse that must be reported to child protection agencies or law enforcement,” says Gregory Love, co-founder of Abuse Prevention Systems. “Behavior is abuse or abusive when it causes physical or emotional harm to a child.”

Let’s look at that definition again: Behavior is abuse or abusive when it causes physical or emotional harm to a child.

So, in short, if a child is being harmed in any way, you have a duty to report it.

Because abusive behaviors can take many forms, it’s helpful to be aware of the most common types. Here are eight types of abuse and misconduct that happen in youth sports:

1. Sexual Abuse

The CDC defines sexual abuse as “the involvement of a child (person less than 18 years old) in sexual activity that violates the laws or social taboos of society and that he/she:

  • does not fully comprehend
  • does not consent to or is unable to give informed consent to, or
  • is not developmentally prepared for and cannot give consent to”

In a youth sports context, this can include sexualized touching (for example, groping instead of a simple pat on the back for good play), touching a child’s private parts under a false medical pretext, performing sexual acts in a child’s presence, forcing a child to perform sexual acts and anything else that fits the definition above.

2. Peer-to-Peer Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse can also happen between players — especially where there’s a power imbalance, such as one child being older, physically larger or of perceived higher social standing. Wherever there is sexually harmful behavior between an aggressor child and a non-aggressor child, it constitutes peer-to-peer sexual abuse.

3. Physical Misconduct

This is any behavior done with the intent to cause injury. Examples include physical aggression like punching, choking or slapping, throwing objects, supplying drugs, enforcing extreme diets or pushing an athlete to return to play too soon after an injury.

4. Emotional Misconduct

This is a pattern of deliberate, non-contact behavior that has the potential to cause psychological harm. Examples include verbal attacks, physical behaviors intended to scare or intimidate (such as throwing things) and deliberately ignoring or excluding an athlete from activities.

5. Bullying

Bullying is defined as “an ongoing and deliberate misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behavior that intends to cause physical, social and/or psychological harm.” For example, teasing, ridiculing or spreading rumors. Bullying can happen in person or online and is most often between peers.

6. Neglect

Withholding food, water or medical care in a way that threatens a child’s health.

7. Hazing

Any humiliating, unpleasant or dangerous activity that serves as a requirement to be accepted into a group.

8. Harassment

Making negative comments or gestures about an athlete based on a discriminatory bias such as gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, etc.

Regardless of the type of abuse, it’s helpful to go back to the rule of thumb mentioned above: Report any behavior that causes physical or emotional harm to a child.

Also note that some states have their own definitions of what constitutes abuse, so always check your local laws to ensure you meet reporting requirements.

Who Is Legally Required To Report Abuse?

You may have heard the term mandated reporter. A mandated reporter is a person who is legally required to report known or suspected abuse. Adults working with or involved in youth-serving organizations may be considered mandated reporters under federal laws, state laws or both.

Safe Sport Act

At the federal level, you may be classified as a mandated reporter under the Safe Sport Act. This act was introduced in response to high-profile sexual abuse cases involving Olympic athletes. It aims to “prevent the sexual abuse of minors and amateur athletes by requiring the prompt reporting of sexual abuse to law enforcement authorities.”

This act directly applies to youth sports organizations that are governed by a national governing body (NGB) or Paralympic Sport Organization (PSO) and to all members of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC). It also covers all amateur sports organizations which participate in interstate or international amateur athletic competitions.

Under the Safe Sport Act, all adult members of an NGB, PSO or a facility under the jurisdiction of either must immediately report any allegation of child abuse of an athlete who is a minor to: the U.S. Center for SafeSport and local law enforcement.

Reports to the U.S. Center for SafeSport can be made 24/7 online or by phone. Visit this page for details.

> Related: Who is required to complete SafeSport training?

State Mandated Reporters

All U.S. states and territories have laws dictating who is required to report abuse, when and how. Many state laws specify a list of professions that constitute mandated reporters. In approximately 18 states and Puerto Rico, any person who suspects child abuse or neglect is required to report it, regardless of their profession.

Always check the laws in your state for information about mandated reporting requirements. You can visit this resource on the ChildWelfare.gov website for a list of toll-free numbers and websites of the agencies that receive and investigate child abuse reports in each state.

What To Do When Someone Comes To You With a Suspicion of Abuse

If a child opens up to you about inappropriate behavior or a parent approaches you with suspicions of abuse, it’s important to know what to do. In either of these situations, the first thing to remember is to take all allegations seriously.

  • Stay calm and listen attentively to what the person has to say.
  • Ask open-ended questions. Don’t “lead” the person by making suggestions or, if it’s a child, introducing them to concepts they may not understand.
  • Report to a supervisor immediately, even if the allegation doesn’t involve a level of abuse that requires reporting to authorities.
  • If appropriate, report to authorities. This may include the U.S. Center for SafeSport, local law enforcement or child protection agencies, depending on the type of organization and state regulations (see above).
  • Do not confront the alleged abuser. Doing so could make the situation worse for the child.

Remember that it’s not your job to investigate or verify any claims. Whether abuse is confirmed or suspected, it needs to be reported. You should report abuse as quickly as possible — ideally on the same day as it comes to light.

Reporting immediately to an appropriate supervisor at your organization means they can work quickly to remove the child from harm’s way and minimize risk to other participating children.

Ensuring Incidents Get Reported at Your Organization

Failing to report abuse to the appropriate authorities isn’t just detrimental to the children in your care; it’s also a crime. Depending on which state and federal laws your organization falls under, failure to report suspected abuse can result in penalties including fines and jail time.

To ensure incidents are reported efficiently, take the following steps:

  • Require everyone in your organization to complete abuse prevention training. This training teaches people how to spot signs of abuse, what to do if an incident occurs and what their reporting requirements are.
  • Put solid policies and procedures in place that comply with appropriate state and federal laws.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Make sure all staff and volunteers know your specific protocols and what channels they can use to make internal reports of incidents.
  • Review regularly. Check periodically for changes in state legislation and update your policies as required.

These measures will help you stay compliant with the law, protect your athletes, and create a safe, positive sporting environment where young people can thrive.