The NSPCC is today calling on The Northern Ireland Executive, on its return, to act quickly to close two legal loopholes that leave the door open for child abusers to target young people in sport and beyond.
Revelations about sexual abuse in football shook the UK in November, leading the NSPCC to set up a dedicated football hotline, funded by the Football Association. NSPCC counsellors have heard from callers how adults working with children had abused their trusting relationship to groom and abuse young players.
The scandal has highlighted gaps in child protection which could make children vulnerable to being abused in sports settings and in other children’s clubs too.
The NSPCC’s #TrustToLead campaign wants to increase the number of children being protected and to extend the most stringent checks with AccessNI to cover more adults working with children.
The NSPCC is concerned that while it’s unlawful for certain professionals such as teachers and care workers to have sex with 16 and 17 year old children in their care, this does not apply to sports coaches or other youth workers.
This must be put on equal footing so that adults who have considerable authority and influence over young people are not able to prey on them once they turn 16.
An NSPCC survey has shown that 60 per cent of adults in Northern Ireland didn’t know that it is illegal for someone in a position of trust to have sex with 16 and 17 year old children in their care.
A change to the law would make clear that children must be protected in sport and other activities right up to adulthood.
Currently it is illegal to hire someone to work with children regularly* if they are barred from doing so – but only if that person would be working with children unsupervised.
This creates a loophole meaning children’s clubs can only find out if someone is barred – using what’s called an AccessNI enhanced disclosure with a barred list check – if they would be working alone with children, and individuals applying for roles to work alongside other adults cannot be checked in this way.
This means people who are barred from working with children are able to take up assistant or support roles in children’s clubs completely undetected, creating opportunities for them to abuse children within the club or to build up trust and abuse them outside of that setting.
This loophole should be closed to better protect children not just in sport, but in other activities too. From toddlers to teenagers, whether they’re on the pitch, on stage, or in a place of worship, all children need the best legal protections to keep them safe.
Neil Anderson, Head of the NSPCC in Northern Ireland, said: “It makes no sense for the law to potentially give abusers who are barred from working with children, the opportunity to do just that.
“And it is remarkable that the roles like sports coaches are not considered to be a position of trust by law, given the significant amount of responsibility, influence and authority that an individual in this role can hold in a young person’s life.
“Sadly, we know that this trust can be abused and it is therefore vital that this legal definition is widened to include sports coaches and other youth workers, bolstering protection for teenagers at risk of grooming once they pass the age of consent.
“This is not about demonising certain jobs, but about protecting young people from a small minority of adults only too happy to take advantage of their standing in society to groom and abuse vulnerable children.”
To contact the NSPCC about abuse within football, its dedicated hotline can be reached 24 hours a day on: 0800 023 2642. Young people can contact Childline on 0800 11 11. Adults with concerns about child protection in sport or any area can contact the helpline 24 hours a day on 0808 800 5000.