Over the last few months, there have been some explosive revelations of sexual abuse of athletes and organizational coverups coming out of USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming, USA Volleyball, and other sports. Even a cursory review of those situations provides lessons on how we can improve our oversight and remove conflicts of interest. (If you want an insightful view of these events, Craig Lord, Editor at Swim Vortex, has being writing an incredible series of posts covering the coaching abuse issues. You can find links to the complete series at the end of one of his most recent posts here.)
With those lessons in mind, it seemed reasonable for me to look at swimming organizations closer to home. And so a few weeks ago I emailed executives at both Swim Ontario and Swimming Canada with questions related to how they are protecting our athletes from abuse, whether conditions exist that could represent conflicts of interest similar to the USA Swimming situation, and comments on my review of their policies and procedures.
In this post I’ll review my email conversation with John Vadeika, Executive Director of Swim Ontario. I should also mention that I’m the head coach of a swim club that is a member of Swim Ontario.
I’ve include both sets of email questions and answers at the bottom of this post. You can see from the first set of emails that Vadeika was evasive and reluctant to give out information regarding Swim Ontario’s interactions with the Ontario swimming community. In fact, I came out of that set of questions wondering whether Swim Ontario even had a mandate to provide a safe environment for Ontario swimmers. However, the second set of emails were much more productive, and gave a better sense of how Swim Ontario deals with many of the abuse issues that have hit the news in the US.
Based on our conversation, it appears that Swim Ontario is guided by two principles. I’ll call them ‘Stay the Course’ and ‘Don’t Lead’.
‘Stay the Course’ superficially appears to make sense, especially as Vadeika stated that the Ontario Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Sport had reviewed Swim Ontario’s policies and procedures, and they are “a model for all others to follow within the province”. However, the problem with a Stay the Course philosophy is that it doesn’t allow the organization to take into account the lessons we’re learning from the USA situations. And there are clearly some very important lessons to learn.
The ‘Don’t Lead’ principle may be driven more by financial issues than any other reason. In almost every situation we discussed, Swim Ontario appears to be letting other organizations take the lead. You’ll see that in the discussion of the issues below.
One of the first things we had to get out of the way was the issue of corporate conflicts of interest with regard to significant money coming into the organization. For instance, USA Swimming has/had significant bonuses that were uniquely tied to Olympic success, as well as their own insurance company giving them a sizable performance income stream. As expect, Vadeika indicated that Swim Ontario has no performance bonus structure in place for any employees, and has defined procedures and criteria for compensating expenses.
Code of Conduct (here)
Swim Ontario’s Code of Conduct covers the athletes, clubs, officials, parents, spectators, and coaches who are members of Swim Ontario. They look pretty extensive, but nothing unusual.
Based on the lessons learned about the grooming process, I asked Vadeika if they had considered including wording that disallowed one-to-one coach-athlete private time together, including training and travel situations. Strangely, his responses dealt only with Provincial team activities and travel teams, and how they already effectively implement these concepts. He chose not to address the much larger issue of extending these concepts to the 120+ Ontario swim clubs and 1000+ Ontario swim coaches.
I also asked if he had considered including mandatory abuse reporting rules or guidelines into the Code. His response was that this was unnecessary as the Child and Family Services Act [CFSA] already applies to everyone. However, my reading of this Act, which could easily be wrong, indicates that the Duty to Report only extends to children under 16 years of age, and under 18 if they are already under a child protection order.
This is a situation where I really don’t see the downside of supplementing the Duty to Report with some all-encompassing abuse reporting rules or guidelines with the express purpose of protecting our child athletes.
I also raised a point concerning the wording in Section 12, subsection o), which deals with the issue of coach/athlete relationships. It reads as follows:
“must not engage in a sexual relationship with an athlete under the age of 18 years or an intimate or sexual relationship with an athlete over the age of 18 if the coach is in a position of power, trust or authority over such athlete”
The wording disallows intimate or sexual relationships for athletes over 18, but only disallows sexual relationships for athletes under 18. This appears to imply that intimate relationships with those athletes is acceptable. Vadeika responded only that he respectfully disagreed with my interpretation.
Complaint, Discipline and Appeal Procedure (here)
For the purpose of this post, we’re only going to deal with abuse-related complaints and hearings. I understand that these complaints are both rare and serious, and are a stark contrast from the mostly mundane administrative and procedural complaints/issues.
While not explicitly included in this Procedure, Vadeika said that the first move with any reported abuse is to notify police, other public authorities, and the parents (assuming that the parents are not subjects of the complaint). This certainly handles one of the key USA Swimming problems in that they were sitting on abuse complaints without adequately informing local authorities. However, Vadeika also stated that Swimming Ontario, Swimming Canada, Canadian Swim Coaches and Teachers Association [CSCTA] and Coaches Association of Canada [CAC] are only involved ” after any investigation by the appropriate public authority.”
This response presents us with the following possible problems:
- While the investigation is ongoing, do they suspend the coach based on a single allegation? Or do they let the coach continue and possibly expose the athletes to further abuse? This appears to be why some organizations use investigators to provide them with a relatively quick assessment.
- The bar for criminally abusive behaviour is most likely much higher than that which would causes a swimming organization to ban or warn a coach. In addition, the legal issue of a consensual relationship between an adult coach and an adult swimmer may cause the police to back off. In those cases, the results of official investigations may not be useful to Swim Ontario.
In the event that Swim Ontario must deal directly with an abuse complaint, then Swim Ontario’s Complaints, Discipline and Appeal Procedure springs into action. This is another area where USA Swimming and USA Gymnastics have provided us with some very important lessons regarding the hidden dangers involved.
Briefly, the stated Swim Ontario procedure works as follows. A Swim Ontario employee called a Dispute Resolution Officer [DRO] screens the complaint and decides if it will be accepted based on jurisdiction, timeliness, sufficiency of evidence and other criteria. This decision is NOT subject to appeal.
If the complaint is accepted, the DRO will mediate the complaint with the parties. If successful, the proposal goes to the Executive Director [ED] for approval. If unsuccessful, all evidence and DRO recommendations are turned over to the ED for a hearing. The ED has extraordinary powers in this hearing, including determining the format of the hearing, choosing to invite other parties to participate, making the final decision, and determining any sanctions.
On a very good note, all decisions from this procedure will be considered to be a matter of public record unless decided otherwise by the Swim Ontario Board of Directors.
Given the abuses of specific abuses of power by Susan Woessner and Chuck Wielgus at USA Swimming while in very similar roles, I had a number of questions.
- Is it a good idea to have the screening decision not subject to appeal?
- Do you have conflict of interest guidelines for the DRO or ED concerning their roles in this procedure? And if there are conflicts of interest, who then takes over the procedure as the Policy doesn’t allow for anybody else to take on these roles.
- Given the lessons learned from USA Swimming, have you considered moving these roles outside of Swim Ontario to remove even the perception of potential conflicts of interest?
Vadeika effectively dismissed all of these concerns.
Regarding the inability to appeal DRO decisions according to the policy, he stated that the DRO decision may indeed be appealed to Swimming Canada, and then to a special Dispute Resolution Centre as “is clearly set out within the appeal policies of the various bodies”.
So why have a written but incorrect procedure? A simple solution would just be to amend the wording to indicate that decisions can be appeal to Swimming Canada.
Regarding the issue of conflicts of interest that caused such huge issues with USA Swimming, Vadeika stated, “When a conflict of interest arises an independent adjudicator is appointed.” While this is an effective response, this option is NOT included in the written procedure. And the problem with unwritten procedures is that they aren’t clearly defined, and can be altered without notice. I suggest this unwritten aspect of the process be formalized and included in the procedure.
Or even better, automatically move all abuse hearings outside of the swimming organization. This removes any perception of conflict of interest.
From our discussion it appears that Canada has a banned coaches list which in some ways is vastly superior to the US system.
According to Vadeika, the Canadian Council for Ethics in Sport [CCES] maintains a list of banned individuals, including coaches, officials and athletes. This central database is available to all national sports organizations so that every coach in the country can be checked against the list. This prevents the horrible scenario present in the US where a banned coach could potentially just start up again in another sport.
However, the CCES banned coaches list is not public. And the downside of not publishing the list is that these individuals can carry on their own coaching business outside of official channels, and nobody would ever know.
Another question I posed was what I call the Dr. Nassar question. Dr. Nassar was not a coach, but rather part of USA Gymnastics’ Integrated Support Team [IST]. As such they aren’t covered by the coaching lists. Vadeika pointed out that every coach, official, chaperone and IST member in a club affiliated with Swim Ontario is required to get a Vulnerable Sector Check every 3 years. Any IST member with a relevant criminal record would not be allowed to work with that club.
However, this indirect approach of using the VSC to assess suitability still isn’t perfect. The three-year window means that an IST member could continue working for another 2 years before being discovered and disallowed. Perhaps this is a good time to have all IST members go through the same annual checks as coaches.
Swim Ontario could take the lead in this area.
There is no question that Swim Ontario has a good set of policies, if we consider both written and unwritten. However, the unwillingness to change in the face of the USA Swimming lessons, and unwillingness to be proactive in protecting athletes are my biggest concerns.
Despite the heightened negative attention that swimming has received, Swim Ontario is not planning on changes to any policies, procedures, or even correcting possible errors in policy or Code of Conduct wording. Swim Ontario even seems uninterested in formalizing some useful but unwritten aspects of their policies.
Swim Ontario also seems strangely reluctant to take the lead in any important areas of athlete protection. Complaints are turned over to police or other authorities to be fully investigated before action is taken. CFSA’s Duty to Report is the sole reporting standard, when it would be easy to supplement that with more useful and wide-ranging abuse reporting guidelines. There is reluctance to providing anti-grooming rules or guidelines in the Code of Conduct. And to truly lead, they could insist that IST members go through the same annual scrutiny as coaches.
First Set of Questions and Responses
Q1) First off, you have a clear statement that decisions will be considered a matter of public record unless decided otherwise by the SwOn BoD. Excellent! That was a major issue in the US
JV: Thank you
Q2) At a high level, USA-S have significant bonuses related to international success, significant salaries, close ties to USOC and the associated politics, and they own their insurance company that provides major income to USA-S. Is there any similar situation within SwOn where decision making could be influenced by the financial impact of that decision?
JV: Swim Ontario does not have a performance bonus structure in any employment agreement for any of its staff, or any contractor. Even our funding though based on performance swims for selection, also requires the submission of receipts and pays expenses with a defined procedure and criteria.
Q3) SwOn has the usual list of policies, but there are some questions that can arise.
a) 12 o) provides restrictions for relationships between coaches and athletes. Excellent. But it is worded very strangely. “must not engage in a sexual relationship with an athlete under the age of 18 years or an intimate or sexual relationship with an athlete over the age of 18 if the coach is in a position of power, trust or authority over such athlete” The odd wording suggests that a coach could have an intimate relationship with an athlete under 18.
JV: Respectfully I do not agree with your interpretation.
b) Given the apparent importance of the grooming process, have you considered indicating that one-to-one coach-athlete meetings behind closed doors is not allowed?
JV: This is already an internal procedure on all of our Provincial Team activities
c) have you considered indicating that at least one other qualified (parent or chaperone/coach with Criminal Record Check) adult must accompany a coach and athlete when travelling to an away meet.
JV: With respect to our Provincial Team programs, we endeavour provide our athletes a safe and welcoming setting where more than one adult is present at a time. This can be accomplished in any combination of the following: (Coach/Team Manager/Sport Science Staff) – Where the sport Science staff are not employees for Swim Ontario, they are all required to certified members of CSIO and are subject to those professional standards and vetting procedure which includes background checks. In order to be appointed as a Team Manager for our provincial team activities, applicants are required to have PRC’s. Most of our regular TM’s have VSC’s. All of Swim Ontario staff, who may have a chance of working with athletes are required to have VSC’s
Q4) Regarding your complaint process, there are similarities with some problematic aspects of USA-S complaint procedures.
a) The SwOn Dispute Resolution Officer makes a decision whether a complaint will be accepted, and that decision cannot be appealed. Given the abuse of power, mainly by S Woessner and C Wielgus within USA-S, do you see any problems with that aspect? Also, do you have any guidelines to assist the DRO in recognizing any potential conflicts of interest that should disqualify that individual from carrying out that role?
JV: A point of clarity. The decision to reject a complaint by the DRO is premised upon a lack of jurisdiction not a lack of evidence. The decision of the DRO may not be appealed within the Swim Ontario Appeal process. This decision may be appealed to SNC and the SDRCC.
The DRO is not part of the Swim Ontario office (he is in Ottawa).
Should a complaint be made about a Swim Ontario employee then he is instructed to retain an independent investigator or to have SNC investigate the complaint.
b) SwOn Executive Director has sole power during a hearing, including who to involve, and format of the hearing. Given the abuse of power, mainly by C Wielgus within USA-S, do you see any problems with that aspect? Do you have any guidelines to assist the ED in recognizing any potential conflicts of interest that should disqualify them from carrying out that role? And in that event, who takes over that role?
JV: Any complaints about Swim Ontario employees are heard by an independent adjudicator – not the ED.
The decision of the ED is subject to appeal to the Swim Ontario Board or an independent adjudicator.
The decision of Swim Ontario Board is subject to appeal to SNC and the SDRCC.
Q5) One of the many things being discussed in the US is whether complaints or actions which could negatively impact the perception of the sport, should be adjudicated within the sport governing body. There is clearly a perception of conflict of interest. USA-S handled that aspect very poorly. And I should also point out that Skate Canada makes it clear that the investigator may be retained from outside Skate Canada, and the Hearing Panel members may include people from outside Skate Canada. Is there any thought to moving the complaint Screening and Hearing processes outside of SwOn?
JV: Complaints of the nature as you have described are typically heard by SNC not Swim Ontario.
Q6) John you alluded to the need to contact local law enforcement immediately if any behaviour is perceived to jeopardize the safety of a minor. But I found no such policy within the documents. Are there mandatory reporting rules or guidelines in place? I spoke to a few coaches at a meet on the weekend, and none were aware of any mandatory reporting rules.
JV: We do not have a specific policy as it is a legal requirement to contact the authorities. The reporting is mandatory under the Child and Family Services Act. This information is made available to coaches through training with CSCTA and Coaches Association of Canada (NCCP & MED).
Q7) This is going to sound silly, but do you have any rules that prevent any SwOn staff or BoD members from providing references for coaches who have had disciplinary action taken against them? (This is related to the firing of USA-S’ Pat Hogan for providing a reference for banned-for-life coach Everett Uchiyama.)
JV: Swim Ontario staff do not give references for coaches. Further as any discipline by Swim Ontario is made public, anyone hiring a coach could simply find the information on the Swim Ontario website.
Q8) Lastly, in the spirit of getting in front of this, is SwOn considering any type of communications to its member teams and even to the public regarding the abuse issue, and in particular how you are learning from the USA-S situation. For what its worth, my team (Mighty Tritons) have a team meeting this evening to address the abuse situation and what our team is doing about it. Not sure how many parents are coming out, but all are invited for our explanation, and then open to questions and suggestions.
JV: SNC is about to launch such an initiative which we will communicate to our registrants.
Second Set of Questions and Responses
Thanks very much for the reply. I will certainly include your note that the Ministry considers your policies best practice in comparison to other PSOs in Ontario.
JV: To insure we quote our ministry accurately we were told our policies are a model for all others to follow within the province.
Now, I have to note that based on your answers, it seems clear that I don’t understand the mandate of Swim Ontario, and how coaching abuse factors into that mandate. I’d like rectify that situation. For instance, in many of my questions, I was asking about protection of athletes and the allowable actions of coaches across the province, while your answers were focussed on Provincial team activities, and SwOn staff members.
Q1) What is your stated mandate?
JV: Our Mandate at its most basic is to promote the sport of swimming. It certainly includes promoting it within a healthy and safe environment.
Q2) a) Does protecting athletes from abusive coaches and officials fit into that mandate?
JV: It is absolutely part our of our mandate and role.
b) If not, who takes on this protection role? As an example, what role did SwOn play in the Matt Bell situation?
JV: Please see the answer to A. As to the Matt Bell situation we interacted with the police, public authorities and parents of swimmers where and when appropriate. I do not feel it appropriate to provide specifics.
c) What is your process if someone comes to SwOn with an abuse complaint or suspicion?
JV: The matter is reported to the police and other public authorities. The parents are notified providing they are not the individuals who are the subjects of the complaint.
Q3) How do SwOn, SNC, CCES, CSCTA and SDRCC all work together to protect athletes? Which organizations have the lead in which areas?
JV: I am not certain why you have included the SDRCC as they are an administrative/appeal tribunal. Who leads is unimportant, as we act collaboratively to address the situation.
Q4) I asked some question about the complaint process, with the intent to address Ontario swim coaches and athletes, and not just coaches and swimmers involved in Provincial team activities, or SwOn staff members. So I’d like to clarify:
a) Do you use the complaint process to address abusive actions and behaviour by Ontario coaches and athletes?
JV: Yes, in conjunction with SNC, CSCTA and CAC (where appropriate). This is after any investigation by the appropriate public authority.
b) In your response concerning the lack of appeal on a decision by the DRO, you mentioned that those decisions are appealable to SNC or SDRCC. And yet the Complaint, Discipline and Appeal Procedure in clause 4.2 explicitly says “The decision of the Swim Ontario Dispute Resolution Officer to screen out a complaint is not subject to appeal.” Should this clause be amended to reflect the ability to appeal the DRO decision?
JV: The right to appeal to SNC and then to the SDRCC is clearly set out within the appeal policies of the various bodies.
c) As I suggested in my last email – question 4 – clause 4.3 of the Complaint, Discipline and Appeal Procedure indicates that the SwOn ED has significant power in a hearing, including being the sole person to issue a decision, and indicate any sanctions to take place. And yet there is no provision for anyone else to take on this role in the event of any potential conflict of interest. In light of the USA-S problems with conflict of interest, do you think this role should go to an outside adjudicator in order to remove even the perception of conflict of interest?
JV: When a conflict of interest arises an independent adjudicator is appointed. Having an independent adjudicator review every complaint would not be an efficient use of resources, Fortunately the vast majority of our complaints do not relate to abuse allegations but are procedural in nature; failure to register swimmers, failure to pay monies etc. They require someone familiar with SO policies and procedures and the sport of swimming.
Q5) You indicated that there are no SwOn-based mandatory reporting rules as there are legal requirements already in place in the Child and Family Services Act. However, if I read the Act correctly, a 2008, c. 21, ss. 3 (3), 6. clarification says that “3.1, Subsections (1) and (2) do not apply in respect of a child who is 16 or 17 year old” although a person may make a report. Do you feel that this legal requirement is sufficient to protect our athletes, or should we provide additional mandatory reporting guidelines?
JV: I do apologize but I am unsure what section or subsection of the Act you are referencing in your question. I can tell you that my review of the Act is different than yours but I will certainly review with counsel in view of your comments. My understanding is that the Act defines a “child” as any person under the age of eighteen years” (S.3(1)). The Act provides a positive “Duty to Report” any abusive behaviour or suspected abusive behaviour of a child (S.72). Abusive behaviour would appear to include physical, sexual or emotional abuse (S.72 (1) 1-13). This section does not appear to modify the definition of child as previously stated. As indicated I will review with counsel. Would you be so kind as to provide me with some clarity regarding the section number you have referenced in your question. It appears to be Section 3(3) but that relates to the definition of a “Child’s Community” as defined by the Act which does not relate to this matter.
Q6) Do you maintain a banned list of Ontario swim coaches, officials and IST personnel, and is this a public list? If not, do you know of any organization that does maintain this list?
JV: The CCES maintains a list of banned individuals. The CSCTA would keep list of coaches who are allowed to coach (if you are not on the list then you cannot coach). I do not know of any organization that would have the capacity to address IST members only.
Q7) Dr. Larry Nassar was not a coach or official, but rather a member of the USAG national team IST. I’m not aware of any mechanism for Ontario swim teams to report the names of IST members. Assuming you feel this is within SwOn’s mandate, do you have any plans of developing a mechanism for collecting the names of IST personnel for each Ontario team?
JV: We are aware of the name of every IST member who is involved with a Swim Ontario team. If you are referring to our member clubs than I can tell you that Swim Ontario requires a VSC for any individual who would work directly with an athlete in a sanctioned Swim Ontario activity. This includes but is not limited to coaches, officials, chaperones and IST personnel.