Football has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently, with allegations that coaches of junior teams in the past managed to abuse children without the authorities doing anything about it. Since the first adults came forward in November to tell their stories, hundreds more have told Police across the UK about their experiences, and investigations are ongoing. The one question most people have is about how on earth this situation was allowed to happen.

Safeguarding, Disclosure and Police Checks

In 2016, parents who send their children to school, sports clubs or other voluntary groups such as Scouts or Guides routinely expect that the leaders are checked by the Police and found to be suitable people to be working with children. This process is often referred to as DBS Checking, the DBS standing for the Disclosure and Barring Service. In Scotland, a similar scheme is PVG (Protection of Vulnerable Groups). Sometimes, people talk about a Criminal Records check (CRB), although this terminology is old. This system of routine checks of all people working with children or vulnerable adults only goes back to 2002, and before that Police checks were only carried out on a smaller number of occupations, and not volunteers.

Public Awareness

It’s also worth remembering that over the past 40 or 50 years, British society has changed considerably. We’re much more open now about child abuse issues, and things which would have previously been swept under the carpet are now discussed openly. Children are actively encouraged to speak about what is happening to them, and tell someone in a position of trust if they have any worries or problems at home. In the 1970s and 1980s when children were being abused by their football coaches, there was no discussion about these issues and children felt unable to tell anyone what was happening, so the abuse persisted. Matters were made worse by clubs becoming aware of issues and “paying off” the member of staff concerned, in an attempt to get rid of them quietly and to pass the problem on to someone else.

Current Situation

Since the early 2000s, matters have improved considerably. Although there is no law forcing volunteers and coaches to undergo police checking before starting work, all reputable organisations will have Child Protection or Safeguarding policies which will set out how they check their volunteers and staff, and what checks they should undergo. Usually, a full DBS or PVG check will be carried out, and until the paperwork is received from the checking body, staff will not be allowed unsupervised access to children. The type of check carried out will depend on the type of role being done, and whether there are other adults around. If the role concerned is a paid position, the employer usually covers the cost of having the DBS check done. The system also recognises the valuable contribution of volunteers, so people applying to be checked for voluntary roles within sporting or other organisations do not have to pay to have their checks done.