County urges coaches to be part of program to prevent child abuse

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
“Children can’t protect themselves against an adult,” said Karen Ziegler, director of the county’s Crime Victim and Sexual Violence Center. “That’s our job … We come together as a community to protect our children.”

ALBANY COUNTY — Any athletic program for youth in Albany County can be part of a new initiative to prevent child abuse.

“We want to teach children what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate but, even more important, we want to work with those adults that are in the children’s lives, to help protect those children,” said Karen Ziegler, director of the county’s Crime Victim and Sexual Violence Center.

“Coaches … dance teachers, karate teachers — those are the adults that children trust,” she went on, during a Friday morning press conference. “They’re in their lives on a daily basis.”

The program is called “Athletes Are Children First.”

A year ago, Ziegler secured a $10,000 grant to protect young gymnasts from abuse. The grant is sponsored by The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which was founded in 1875, the first child protection agency in the world.

The application for the grant said, “The Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal sent shock waves through the sports community and the United States.”

Nassar, a former gymnastics national team doctor, was accused of assaulting over 200 young women and girls including Olympic and women’s national gymnastic team gymnasts; he admitted to 10 of those accusations. In 2017, he was sentenced to 60 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to child pornography. In 2018, he pleaded guilty to 10 counts of sexual abuse and was sentenced to additional time in Michigan state prison.

On Friday, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy referenced Nassar without naming him, calling his crimes horrifying. McCoy said the program was the first of its kind in the state, and the county would be using it for all of its sports “from our fishing club to our running club.”

“Any athletic organization that wants a contract with the county will be required to include a curriculum that teaches coaches, staff, children, and youth about the dangers of abuse, how to recognize it, how to prevent it and create an open dialogue between athletes and adults,” he said in a statement.

McCoy also said this initiative is particularly important after more than a year under pandemic restrictions during which reports of child sexual abuse were down “because kids weren’t in the classroom.” Teachers, he said, in the front lines, are mandatory reporters of abuse.

It is important to “change the culture,” McCoy said.

The “Athletes are Children First” grant last year allowed for a pilot program in which the Crime Victims Center and the county’s Department for Children, Youth and Families and the Children’s Advocacy Center offered training to club staff, coaches, and parents on best practices to prevent abuse, as well as providing outreach and support.

“We’re expanding that to any sanctioned sports,” said Ziegler on Friday. This includes Amateur Athletic Union sports, athletic clubs, and the county’s summer programs at Lawson Lake.

Ziegler said she’d be happy to work with organizations from dance studios to karate dojos. “You have it, we want to work with you,” she said.

Anyone who is interested may call her at 518-447-7100.

Coaches, teachers, and parents will be trained on how to identify and prevent child abuse.

“Children can’t protect themselves against an adult,” said Ziegler. “That’s our job … We come together as a community to protect our children.”

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