A recent high-profile conviction of a British climbing instructor for multiple sex offences involving a minor has brought the importance of safeguarding young people in outdoor and adventure sports to the fore.
The latest case in Milton Keynes, involving a "sustained period of grooming" leading to the rape and serious physical and emotional abuse of a 12-year-old girl over four years is one of three incidents which have occured in a climbing instruction context and resulted in convictions in recent years.
In January 2020, a 75-year-old man was jailed for two-and-a-half years for indecently assaulting three boys at an activity centre in the Brecon Beacons during the 1980s and 1990s.
One month later in February 2020, a 23-year-old male climbing instructor in North Wales was jailed for eight years and four months for sexually assaulting a toddler and possessing indecent images of children.
The 2020 Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse found that sport can be used as a cover by perpetrators, who may exploit the physical contact that sport enables, or use sport-related rewards — such as selection for a team, or a prize — as a method of grooming or coercion. The report also highlighted abuse occurring in 'grassroots' contexts, in contrast to the high-profile cases in elite sport which attract greater media attention.
Nick Colton, the British Mountaineering Council's Lead Safeguarding Officer, is working with the BMC's long-established Safeguarding Group and providing information for parents and the outdoor industry in response to these incidents.
"The wellbeing of children, and indeed adults at risk, is paramount to the BMC and our partners," Nick told UKC. "In order to take a whole-sector approach to safeguarding, the BMC, along with Mountain Training, the Association of British Climbing Walls (the ABC), and NICAS regularly discuss safeguarding of both children and adults at a formal group known as the Safeguarding Group. A young person, a member of the GB National Development Squad accompanied by a parent, is also a member of that group."
We sent Nick some questions about the prevalence of abuse cases in the climbing and outdoor world and what to do if you suspect a young person may be in danger.
Is it possible to gauge how widespread child abuse is in the walking, climbing and mountaineering microcosm?
We are fortunate that there are not a high number of cases currently seen in walking, climbing and mountaineering. These days people are more aware (either through training or perhaps because of what's been reported in other sports) of what constitutes good practice and are more prepared to speak up and voice a concern. This higher level of awareness has resulted in more reports of concern coming to our attention. It's important to remember that similar considerations also apply to adults who are at risk of abuse.
The very serious criminal cases of abuse that have resulted in prosecution have been handled by the police following allegations they have received. The information that the BMC has published about these cases is information that is already in the public domain in the form of news reports by the press.
Many people would describe the climbing community as 'close-knit', 'friendly', 'welcoming' etc. How might this influence how much trust people/parents/kids place in activity leaders?
The climbing, hillwalking and mountaineering community is very friendly, welcoming and supportive of people from all parts of society. However, our community is broadly representative of society as a whole and that means there are likely to be a small number of people who will seek to harm young people. The high-profile cases that have appeared in the news support that view. Knowing this, the BMC and our partners on the Safeguarding Group work on policies, procedures, advice and guidance to help prevent young people becoming victims in this way.
We have produced straightforward advice for young people on the BMC website here which is also available as a small printed leaflet. There is also clear information including guidance about what sorts of questions parents can ask anyone, or any organisation, offering to take their children climbing. For example:
• Can you explain the sorts of activities you are able to offer?
• Are they suitable for my child(ren)?
• Do you have any information I can read (leaflet, website, etc)?
• Is it a requirement that I accompany my child?
• May I accompany my child if I wish?
• Are the people taking my child on activities competent to do so?
• What child protection procedures are in place?
• What sorts of insurance do you have?
• Do you need to be licensed? Are you licensed?
• Do you have any alternative activities (a plan B) if you need to change your original plans?
• What If I am late? Or what if you are late back?
• How do I maintain contact with you? (phone, email, etc)
• Do you have emergency procedures? – What are they?
For more information, see here.
Such information can empower young people and their parents so that they can feel confident in their choices and decisions as well as in the activity leaders they select.
The majority of these recent high profile cases involved indoor instruction. How does the outdoor nature of some climbing activities — where children are more likely to be away from parents/guardians, with fewer people to witness mistreatment — make safeguarding more challenging in some activities?
In the cases mentioned in the piece on the BMC website, a common theme was that the perpetrator in each case was able to get themselves alone with a young person. This can happen in physical spaces but it can also be done online through chat, emails, social media, texting, messaging – anywhere that an adult communicates with a young person without a parent being aware or copied in.
These channels would apply to all types of climbing or sport in general. All child safeguarding policies state that 1:1 situations should be avoided where possible as these occurrences provide opportunities for someone with bad intent. It is also very possible, with a little planning, to organise outdoor sessions avoiding 1:1s occurring. These are discussed at safeguarding workshops and training.
Competitive sport, where young people are in close contact with (and often easily influenced by) a coach in a position of power, is known for posing risks to vulnerable children. Do the same safeguarding policies apply here, and are there extra protections in place?
In all sports, coaching can present a risk if the wrong person gets into such a position. The same recruitment and employment procedures should apply as they do for any position working with young people while unsupervised: for example employers undertaking DBS checks, taking references, checking on competencies, training and qualification. Additionally, the BMC has developed a workshop which we deliver to coaches and staff about what constitutes good practice and what the risks are — for young people and also the coaches — when this good practice is not followed.
The BMC is very diligent in carrying out safeguarding checks and educating the people we work with, but other individuals and businesses such as some walls, coaches and independent instructors won't necessarily have checks, processes and support in place. Is the BMC able to offer advice or courses to these groups?
The Safeguarding Group has become a very important forum for sharing ideas and concerns, as well as for collaborating and disseminating information and learning within our sector. Like the BMC, our partners understand the importance of having robust safeguarding procedures in places and are working hard on this aspect of their businesses. There are also groups and organisations outside that group of partners. We are very willing to offer advice and support and share our resources with them as we want to make our sector secure and that means making our safeguarding reach as wide as we can. UKClimbing, and other media outlets, using their platform to disseminate this information is one part of that and we are very appreciative of that.
Where can affected or concerned young people look for information and advice?
They can access the BMC's Young Person's Guide to Safeguarding. As an interesting historical aside, Shauna Coxsey produced this when she was a member of the BMC Child Safeguarding Group as the young persons' representative (now called the Safeguarding Group) although it has since been updated.
Where are people best to report suspected cases - the wall, the BMC, the police?
People can reporting concerns at climbing walls to the wall staff, the BMC, the NSPCC and Childline. All these routes work. Very serious criminal cases and allegations are generally reported direct to the police.
People are often afraid to come forward for fear of having misinterpreted something, causing others distress, or being dismissed. What advice do you have for people who may have witnessed something untoward?
People should hopefully see that reporting concerns is a very positive thing to do – it's not making an accusation or an allegation. Often, these concerns only come out after the fact but, if they had been raised earlier, they could have helped build a picture to prevent something from happening.
What signs should you look out for and whom should you contact if you are concerned?
There are many things that might give a child or an adult cause for concern. It could be someone whose work pattern frequently leads them into 1:1 situations with young people, or it could be someone who seems to focus their attention on one particular child. Sometimes you might not know what it is that makes you feel uneasy. Our advice is to speak to someone, ideally someone you can trust, rather than let it pass.
It's better to have something checked out rather than risk a child being harmed. In the first instance that could be by contacting me (email@example.com), Childline or the NSPCC. The BMC always takes reported concerns seriously and has a process to investigate them.
What matters most is that you get advice and support from somewhere rather than doing nothing.
Nick Colton is the BMC Lead Safeguarding Officer, a former teacher and an enthusiastic climber.
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