Independent agency makes recommendations to USA Swimming to protect youth

By Joe Paisley Published: January 27, 2014 | 5:40 pm 0

USA Swimming will review 39 recommendations made by an independent child abuse prevention center aimed at better protecting its youth swimmers.

The report, commissioned in August 2013 for $25,000 with Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center, and released Monday came three years after the national organization based in Colorado Springs was beset by allegations and media reports of child and sexual abuse by dozens of coaches around the country.

The report found that from 1980 to 2009, USA Swimming had a number of child protection policies but they fell short of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2007 guidelines. The organization has been involved in numerous lawsuits since allegations surfaced.

"There were an undetermined number of children that have been abused and some happened in plain sight of others," said Victor Vieth, executive director of the Gundersen center. "The reforms have been substantive and benefitted many children."

But those subsequent improvements fell short. According to the report, policies adopted with the creation of USA Swimming's Safe Sport program in 2010 often proved ineffectual.

Vieth focused on four main recommendations for immediate approval during the announcement.

First is to require all adult members to report any abuse to Safe Sport representatives. In that regard, the second suggestion would allow "reliable hearsay" so allegations made by victims unwilling or unable to testify before the organization's review board can be investigated.

Third is to have a baseline study to determine the extent of abuse in the sport. The fourth is to develop a victim assistance fund to provide counseling.

The Safe Sport program requires training and criminal background and employment reference checks for all new club hires and volunteers. USA Swimming has similar policies.

It also publishes a list of coaches banned for life or ineligible for USA Swimming membership because of rules violations, which are not limited to abuse. Of the 99 listed, 34 were added since January 2010.

Safe Sport received more reports of abuse in its three years than the previous 20 years combined. Of the 150 cases Vieth reviewed, one-third did not go forward after being reported to Safe Sport because there was insufficient evidence or the case was unfounded.

"Our goal is to eliminate abuse within USA Swimming, and we recognize that even one case of abuse is too many," Safe Sport director Susan Woessner said. "This report will help us continue to strive for the goal."

The changes will not be immediate. A task force was established to whittle down recommendations for the May 3 board meeting of USA Swimming, which employs about 75 people.

USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus said some changes may be implemented quickly while others will require rule changes that must be approved in the annual September meeting of its House of Delegates representing the organization's 400,000 members, most of whom are children.

He did not say which reforms would move quickly, saying the task force will help determine that.

"We don't know how many at this point," USA Swimming president Bruce Stratton said. "We think the recommendations made are good."

Change hasn't come easy.

A 2012 proposal prohibiting sexual relationships between an athlete and a coach, a trainer or any person in authority over that athlete, even if both parties were consenting adults, failed. The measure passed in September 2013 without discussion since a potential conflict loomed regarding funding as well as USA Swimming continuing to be certified as a national governing body by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Wielgus expects more cooperation from delegates now that they are better informed.

"There is a very high level of interest among our volunteer leadership to make Safe Sport a model for all sports," Wielgus said. "I am extremely confident we will make enormous headway."

Who are the experts?

The Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center is a program of Gundersen Health System, based in La Crosse, Wis. The nonprofit center trains approximately 15,000 child protection professionals each year.

For the full report, go to: gundersenhealth.org/ncptc/usa-swimming

Task force members

The task force that will review the findings and make recommendations for implementation will be chaired by Jay Thomas and will include Dave Anderson, Rachel Stratton-Mills, Cecil Gordon, Megan Ryther, John Morse, Malia Arrington, and one other outside member who will be named later this week.

USA Swimming assistant executive director Mike Unger and Safe Sport director Susan Woessner will serve as staff liaisons.

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