Youth sports programs act to protect players from preying adults

PLAYING AROUND

Howard At Play

October 13, 2002|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

LITTLE LEAGUE Baseball Inc., which claims more than 2.7 million players and 1 million volunteers, made a news splash last week by announcing that it will require, starting next year, screening for sex-abuse convictions for all adults in any of its affiliated programs.

The idea by the world's largest youth sports organization, which has no affiliates in Howard County, is to ensure the safety of young players from pedophiles, who turn up with distressing frequency in any child-oriented program, be it sports, Scouting or church activities.

If a sampling of Howard groups is any indication, the huge Little League Baseball splash is simply one visible edge of a wave enveloping all youth sports. Examples:

The Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks is actively talking about instituting a related policy, although details remain to be worked out, for teams and organizations that use its facilities, said Mike Milani, a sports supervisor whose job includes working with various community-based sports programs and leagues.

"I think there's a great need," said Milani, "and anything you can do to protect children, it's worth it."

Milani said he didn't know specifics but was sure that "several" examples of abusive behavior have occurred in the county in recent years.

Coaches, both paid and volunteer, in county high schools undergo background checks - including fingerprinting - for criminal convictions, a statewide policy for all in public education, said Donald Disney, who supervises sports at that level in Howard.

The Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County, easily the county's largest youth sports organization, has begun this year randomly checking some of the 700-plus coaches, managers and volunteers for abuse convictions, said David Procida, its president.

For several years, he said, the club has required adults to sign a document saying they had no such convictions - an approach that relies on honesty and that will be strengthened in the future.

"We've been fortunate so far," Procida said, "but you have to have a firm policy in case you have to deal with a situation. Coming up with a policy after something's happened is too late."

The Thunder Soccer Club, a Western Howard County-based travel organization, began dealing with the subject at its last board meeting, said its president, David Gould, and is likely to have some kind of policy in place for its fall season.

The Savage Boys and Girls Club, a five-sport club in the county's southeastern corner, will deal with the topic at the director level this week, said Mike Cameron, a former president, now working on other issues for the group.

"We've been working on this for nearly the past two years, with various policies and now are working with our insurance carrier to formulate a policy," Cameron said. "It's unfortunate that clubs have to go that way, but it's a fact of life."

Several of those interviewed thought the new Little League Baseball policy is limited. It concerns sex abuse, making it easy for anyone with Internet access to tap into the Sex Offender Registries maintained for public viewing in 43 states, including Maryland.

Registries, available via any Internet search engine or on Little League Baseball's Web site, can be searched by ZIP code.

The Little League program does not, however, include other criminal activity involving children, assault and battery being an obvious missing element.

But thorough police checks can cover other types of crimes, although their cost, about $40 a search, can be an impediment to clubs trying to screen their adults.

The school system's Disney also pointed out that "no system is foolproof, because anyone who wants to can become a first-time offender."

Smart move

Award: The new (can it really be 8 months old already?) Volleyball House in Elkridge has received a Smart Growth Award from the Glendening administration's Economic Growth, Resource Protection and Planning Committee.

The program is intended to encourage redevelopment of facilities and communities, and by converting a former warehouse that had been on the market four years into a privately run sports business, Volleyball House qualified.

Call the writer at 410-332-6525 or send e-mail to lowell.sunderland@baltsun.com.

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