Childhelp Speak Up Be Safe For Athletes

A note from Founders Sara O’Meara & Yvonne Fedderson:

At Childhelp, we have always believed that sports help children heal. The psychological and physical benefits of fitness are well documented, and there are so many areas where organized sporting activities allow children that have been abused and neglected to work through obstacles. Accomplishments on the field raise self-esteem, problem-solving on the court can renew confidence and teamwork rebuilds trust.

“Trust” is a key word in recovery and the relationship between a child and his or her coaching staff should be based on the essential belief that an adult authority figure is someone of understanding, integrity, and security. At our residential treatment facilities, staff members work closely with our little survivors to help them kick the soccer ball farther (as their troubles roll away from them), toss the football a little straighter (while learning they can visualize their lives going any direction they please), swim an extra lap (because through hard work anything is possible), and shoot the basketball a little higher (hopefully closer to their dreams). Through trust, the children in our care believe their futures can be brighter.

Recent high-profile news reports have shown what happens when that trust is broken and we expect more stories will emerge as young athletes come forward to report abuse and adult victims recount tales of past trauma at the hands of predatory coaches.

Prior to these revelations, we had been working with our friends at the Foundation for Global Sports Development to create services aimed specifically at youth athletes. What began as a long-range proactive plan has now been shifted into overdrive as we work diligently to consolidate our research and extend our reach so that children (and parents) participating in sports have the prevention education they need to play safely.

As we develop our safety kit and hotline modifications, we want to ask family members and community volunteers to act as referees for our children. A Childhelp Ref makes the critical split-second calls that save lives, a Childhelp Ref is a vigilant observer and a Childhelp Ref is a person of trust that ensures children can do what they do best: just have fun!

R.E.F. also stands for Report, Educate and Fight. Only through reporting abuse, learning the signs of trauma and being actively involved in calls for legislative change can we create a winning team.

Report: Blow the Whistle

  • If you hear of or suspect abuse call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).
  • Should a child describe scenarios that strike you as odd or leave you feeling uncomfortable, REPORT (This could range from excessive or prolonged touching, to a coach showering with students, to provocative language).
  • If a coach targets a child for secret extracurricular visits, practices, phone calls, sleepovers or other one-on-one activities, REPORT (this may be part of the grooming process and there is no reason contact should be private or secret).
  • When you think something might be wrong but you are worried to “cause a scene” or think “what if I’m mistaken,” REPORT (we have seen too many children molested and murdered while well-meaning bystanders deliberated over making a phone call).
  • To report with maximum efficiency, thoroughly document the event, time and place it occurred and any other relevant details.

Educate: Learn the Signs

  • Learn the physical signs of sexual abuse: Difficulty walking/sitting, torn/stained/bloody undergarments, pain/swelling/itching in genital area, pain while urinating, bruises/bleeding/tears/discharge around genital area, and sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Learn the behavioral signs of sexual abuse: Unwillingness to change for gym or participate in physical activities, sexual behavior/knowledge inappropriate for a child’s age, excessive masturbation, sexual acting out on younger children, poor peer relations, delinquent/runaway behavior, and drastic change in school performance This also includes sleep disorders/nightmares, eating disorders, aggression, withdrawal/fantasy/infantile behavior, self-abusive, lack of concern for personal safety, repetitive behaviors (hand-washing, pacing, rocking) and substance abuse.
  • Before effective therapy or self-advocacy, adult survivors may exhibit some of the following: flashbacks, depression, anxiety, self-destructive thoughts/feelings, anger, shame, eating disorders, dysfunctional relationships, dissociative episodes, drug use, poor decision-making skills, poor ability to set limits, trust issues and violence/criminal behavior.


Demand prevention education in all team sports that involve kids. Childhelp Speak Up Be Safe™ is an example of a curriculum available in schools across the country and it offers lifesaving tools to keep children free from harm.

Call or write to your elected officials and ask what they are doing to prevent child abuse in your community. has a simple site that provides all the contact information for representatives in your area:
Practice makes perfect in sports and it is important to practice prevention education with children to keep them safe. By fighting for their rights, teaching them what abuse is and actively reporting suspicious activities in youth sports, we can create a community of trust. In real life, there is no instant replay and often only one chance to make the right call. Please join us as Childhelp Refs. With observant eyes and open hearts, you can blow the whistle on abuse!

For the love of a child,

Sara O’Meara
Chairman & CEO

Yvonne Fedderson