‘It’s those who think it will never happen to them who are most at risk ‘. The role that Grassroots Sport can play in combatting Child Sexual Exploitation.
Recently I attended a training session at Rotherham United FC, this time it wasn’t anything to do with football training, but instead helping grassroots coaches and team managers to identify potential child exploitation, and to help young people recognise that they may be a target of a groomer. The dangers of child sexual exploitation are everywhere, any youth, any age, can be groomed. Some may be groomed quicker than others, a few hours in some cases, and over a year in other cases. The whole point of grooming is identifying a person’s weakness and exploiting it. In reality, those most at risk of grooming are young people and their parents who believe it will never happen to them, the youths who have supportive parents and activity filled lives. The reason they are most at risk is exactly because they think it will never happen to them, so they are not looking out for the signs – the supposed football scout who turns up at youth football matches, speaks to parents and gains their trust, or the person who advertises exam tuition classes in the family home. Over time that person gains the trust of the family, and at the same time learns about the youth, and hence can identify their vulnerability, or waits for a vulnerability to show. All it takes is an argument with parents, a broken relationship, or some poor school results, and they then become a shoulder to cry on, a person who understands. It is at this stage the sexual exploitation can start in earnest, and before the youth or parents realise what is happening, it can often be too late. The whole point of the child sexual exploitation grassroots sports training is to help those who work regularly with youths to identify the signs, such as the football scout who is attending youth matches, but who hasn’t previously contacted the local Football Association to arrange their attendance, the child who usually turns up to swimming club on their own but who has recently been turning up with an adult who isn’t a family member or friend, a player who has started to act violently towards other players on the field, or who will no longer undress infront of their team mates in the changing rooms. All of this is placing a big responsibility on sports coaches and managers, and they shouldn’t be expected to do it alone. Parents should also be aware of the signs, not just in their own children, but listen to their sons and daughters when they are talking about the changes they are seeing in their friends. A friend whose parents are on low income, and all of a sudden the friend has a brand new iPhone which he uses at school but which his parents don’t know about. The friend who is wearing new clothes and is talking about the new ‘older’ friends she is chatting to online. The youth who suddenly has new football boots and is being dropped off at training in an unknown vehicle. While we can reflect on how sad it is that we have to be suspicious of others, it is exactly these suspicions which can help to prevent future child sexual exploitation. Just being an extra set of eyes and ears, and if we see something which doesn’t seem right, to challenge it. If the football scout is genuine, they will accept that they have to be listed with the local Football Association, if the person taking an interest in the young swimmer is a family friend they should be happy to provide their name if asked.