Are your kids safe in team sports?
Foster parents, teachers and school volunteers are all required to pass criminal background checks under Arizona law, but coaches and volunteers who work for youth sports leagues aren't.
That leaves a lot of latitude for athletic organizations to decide who should work with kids, including in sports that may involve close physical contact or one-on-one practice.
In the wake of revelations of sexual abuse of hundreds of teen athletes in USA Gymnastics and USA Swimming, as well as recent prosecutions of Valley coaches for inappropriate behavior with students, many parents are concerned about safety.
Checking Arizona organizations
The Arizona Republic asked more than two dozen youth sports organizations in the Phoenix area about their screening standards.
All but one said they background check their coaches, but several said volunteers who aren't coaches may participate without being screened.
The outlier was Team Arizona Basketball.
Josh Gonzales, co-owner of the club, said five coaches have undertaken background checks to meet requirements of Amateur Athletic Union and NCAA-certified tournaments.
But the club does not require parent volunteers who are co-coaches to be background checked.
Co-coaches attend all practices and games and fill in when another coach cannot make a game, Gonzales said. He declined to comment further.
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National Youth Soccer, one of the largest organizations in the state, did not return multiple calls seeking information on its policies.
The Arizona Scorpions Futbol Club is like many sports leagues The Republic talked to.
All coaches, assistant coaches and team managers are background checked. But parents who do minor tasks or don't work directly with children are not.
"We have parents that help set up and break down (the equipment)," said head coach Jorge Ramirez. "They don't really have any interaction with the kids so we don't background check them."
"Anybody that's going to be more hands-on with kids, they're going to be background checked," he added. "It's a pretty intense check."
After a newspaper investigation revealed USA Swimming coaches had abused hundreds of athletes and a Sun Devil Divers Club assistant coach was arrested for child porn, Pitchfork Aquatics President Rob Richardson emailed parents to reassure them of the club's screening policies.
"From day one, our organization has always held a high standard of ethics and behavior - and I require that from our swimmers and families as well," he wrote. "All of our staff and members complete the non athlete requirements for background checks and Athlete Protection Training. We have a zero tolerance policy regarding any behavior, actions, or words that would contradict a Safe Sport environment."
Richardson told The Republic that he is reviewing the club's policies to see if any changes need to be made.
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Other sports organizations are even stricter, requiring frequent screening for every adult who takes part.
Glendale's recreation department conducts background checks of every coach and volunteer monthly through the National Alliance for Youth Sports, said spokeswoman Kim Larson.
"Youth sports and volunteer coaches are the foundation of sports in the United States," Larson said. "With proper training and education, we hope we can enhance the experience for our youth and provide the participants with a fun-filled, safe and rewarding experience that will help shape their future and other life experiences."
What do parents think?
Tara Bohlander, 48, a Chandler mom whose son and daughter play soccer, softball, baseball, swimming and track, said she grew up in the Midwest where families didn't lock their doors.
"I want to be able to trust people," she said. "Unfortunately, the more you hear on the news, it makes it harder and harder. ... That does make me nervous."
The family takes comfort in the fact that Bohlander's husband, a former University of Arizona track athlete, often coaches the children's teams. When they have a different coach, Bohlander said, she attends more practices.
Her husband, the owner of a kids' fitness company who carries a background check clearance card, is careful about how he interacts with young athletes, Bohlander said.
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He gives side hugs, is cautious about his words and never touches the kids while teaching sports skills, she said. Instead, he performs techniques as they watch.
"He's ultra aware of not having anything be misinterpreted," Bohlander said.
Karen Nelson, watching from a lawn chair as her son played Little League at Tempe Sports Complex, said she's on the fence about background checks.
People with serious histories of violence or sexual abuse should be prohibited from coaching children, she said, but some conflicts that go to court may be disputed.
Nelson said she trusts the league to hire reputable people and also believes her son will tell her if something is wrong.
All Arizona State Little League coaches and volunteers are background checked each year, a league spokesperson said.
"Most of the people out here are parents. I think they have the best intentions," Nelson said. "If I'm not here, I have a family member here. He's not alone with the coach."
Are background checks necessary?
Recruiting unpaid coaches and volunteers can be difficult for sports leagues.
Not only do team staffers spend hours on the field, they may be required to dedicate time to fundraisers, competition travel and communicating with parents, the league and other teams.
The hurdle of background check paperwork may dissuade some people from applying to help, but most coaches appreciate the safeguard, Glendale's Larson said.
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"The saying that a 'bad volunteer is better than no volunteer' is untrue and dangerous," the National Recreation and Park Association states in its guidelines. "While park and recreation departments depend heavily upon volunteerism, failing to take any steps to screen volunteers places organizations, volunteers, and participants at greater risk."
Dr. Edward Dragan, a longtime New Jersey school administrator who now advises districts on policies to protect students, said background checks are essential for organizations to administer to anyone interacting with minors.
"I absolutely recommend that youth organizations and leagues conduct background checks on people who will work as a coach, assistant coach, etc. Anyone working with children," Dragan wrote in an email. "Will background checks prevent inappropriate relationships from happening? No. But it should be used as a deterrent."
Background checks aren't fail-safe
Background checks don't prevent all incidents of abuse.
In 2016, a former teacher and track coach for the Scottsdale Unified School District was sentenced to 10 years in prison for sexual conduct with a student who was 17 at the time.
That same year, a former Mesa coach at Diamondback Gymnastics was sentenced to 23 years in prison and lifetime probation for sexual acts spanning two years with an athlete, starting when the boy was 13.
Both coaches had previously passed background checks.
But experts maintain that screening volunteers is still an important step in protecting children.
Background check policies for youth sports in the Phoenix area:
All-Stars Basketball Academy & Club: All coaches are background checked through the Amateur Athletic Union. Volunteers involved with a club team going to out-of-state tournaments are background checked, but not volunteers who work with teams in-state.
Altitude Volleyball Club: All coaches pay $20 to be background checked through Arizona Region of USA Volleyball. Adults who are not background checked are not permitted to help at the club.
American Sports Center Avondale: All coaches, staffers and volunteers are background checked through S2Verify, a service provided by the U.S. Indoor Sports Association.
American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO): All adults who register to be volunteers must consent and complete a background screening through the organization's Safe Haven program.
Arizona Academy of Youth Soccer: All coaches, front office staff and anyone else who works with the league are background checked through the Arizona Youth Soccer Association.
Arizona Elite Girls Basketball Club: All coaches and some volunteers are background checked, though anybody can volunteer at an event without a background check. Background checks are performed by the club, not by an outside organization.
AZ Ice Gilbert: All coaches and volunteers who work directly with children are background checked through a third-party organization. But volunteers who do minor tasks, such as handing out jerseys, are not.
AZ Ice Peoria: All coaches are background checked and required to go through a program called Safe Sport. Volunteers who work directly with children are background checked, but volunteers who do minor tasks, such as handing out jerseys, are not.
Arizona Scorpions Soccer (Futbol) Club: All coaches are required to pay $25 for a background check completed by the Arizona Soccer Association. Volunteers are not.
Arizona State Little League: All coaches and volunteers are background checked each year.
Arizona Youth Soccer Association: All referees, coaches, assistant coaches, team managers and anyone who applies for a player pass to be on the sidelines is background checked each year.
City of Glendale: All coaches and volunteers are background checked through National Alliance for Youth Sports, which includes Social Security Trace, Government Watch List, 50-state DOJ Sex Offender Registry, Nationwide Database Search, Current Count/State Residence Search and provides monthly updates of the registrants.
City of Mesa: All parks, recreation and community facilities seasonal staff older than 18 who interact with minors, as well as all registered adult volunteers, go through a web-based background check and fingerprints each year, facilitated by the city's human resources department.
City of Phoenix: Anyone who registers to volunteer with youth sports is background checked following the National Recreation and Park Association guidelines for credentialing volunteers.
Ice Den Chandler: All adult coaches must be registered with USA Hockey, U.S. Figure Skating or the Professional Skating Association, which perform background checks. In addition to head coaches, assistant coaches, team managers, team parents, teens training to be coaches, and anyone working directly with kids on a regular basis are background checked. Referees are background checked through Arizona Amateur Hockey Association. All staff who work at the rink are background checked, but volunteers who take tickets or serve food are not.
Ice Den Scottsdale: Same as Ice Den Chandler.
Jump Athletic: All coaches are background checked by the organization. Officials said they don't use parent volunteers.
National Youth Soccer (NYS) West Valley/North West Valley: All head coaches for the Northwest and West Valley branch of National Youth Soccer are background checked through Protect Youth Sports. If a head coach needs help at practice, they may utilize parents of children on site without a background check.
National Youth Soccer (NYS) Ahwatukee, Chandler, Kyrene, Tempe: Referred questions to their national headquarters, which did not respond to multiple calls requesting information regarding background checks. Their West Valley/North West Valley branch said all head coaches for the Northwest and West Valley branch of National Youth Soccer are background checked through Protect Youth Sports. If a head coach needs help at practice, they may utilize parents of children on site without a background check.
National Youth Soccer (NYS) Central Tucson, East Tucson, Northwest Tucson, Sahuarita, South Tucson, Vail: Referred questions to their national headquarters, which did not respond to multiple calls requesting information regarding background checks. Their West Valley/North West Valley branch said all head coaches for the Northwest and West Valley branch of National Youth Soccer are background checked through Protect Youth Sports. If a head coach needs help at practice, they may utilize parents of children on site without a background check.
National Youth Soccer (NYS) Gilbert/Mesa: Referred questions to their national headquarters, which did not respond to multiple calls requesting information regarding background checks. Their West Valley/North West Valley branch said all head coaches for the Northwest and West Valley branch of National Youth Soccer are background checked through Protect Youth Sports. If a head coach needs help at practice, they may utilize parents of children on site without a background check.
National Youth Soccer (NYS) Paradise Valley/Scottsdale: Referred questions to their national headquarters, which did not respond to multiple calls requesting information regarding background checks. Their West Valley/North West Valley branch said all head coaches for the Northwest and West Valley branch of National Youth Soccer are background checked through Protect Youth Sports. If a head coach needs help at practice, they may utilize parents of children on site without a background check.
Pitchfork Aquatics: All coaches, employees and volunteers of USA Swimming and its affiliates, including Pitchfork Aquatics, who interact directly and frequently with athletes as a regular part of their duties and individuals with any ownership interest in a member club are background checked regularly. This does not apply to volunteers such as timers, marshals or computer operators who only have limited contact with athletes during a meet, according to the USA Swimming website.
Team Arizona Basketball: Five coaches have received background checks to meet requirements for Amateur Athletic Union and NCAA-certified tournaments. Parent volunteer coaches are not background checked.
Xtreme Gymnastics: All coaches and paid employees are background checked through USA Gymnastics. The gym does not have volunteers.
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