Sport New Zealand is set to announce sweeping changes to police vetting guidelines in a bid to ensure sport is safe for children and vulnerable adults.
The importance of such checks was highlighted just this week by Netflix documentary Athlete A, which exposed USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s abuse of 500 athletes, including nine Olympians, many of whom were under age, placed in his care by trusting parents.
A 2019 integrity survey that found vetting of volunteers by sports organisations was “patchy”. Only 17 per cent of survey takers said all the sport organisations they’re involved with use police vetting for volunteers.
New Zealand sport has loopholes that allow the same to happen here, loopholes Sport NZ is moving to tighten. Some sports organisations, New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) among them, do not vet volunteers working with children or vulnerable adults.
Sport NZ is expected to announce the new guidelines in early September, with “world leading approaches”, chief executive Peter Miskimmin said.
Sport NZ currently recommends anyone working or volunteering with children to be police vetted, but sports bodies are “independent entities”, so it’s up to the individual sports to create and enact police vetting and child protection policies.
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“It is not Sport NZ’s role to govern these codes, but instead to provide leadership and support through safeguarding provisions such as guidelines and education, and to encourage sports and others to develop and effectively manage their own policies and procedures,” Miskimmin said.
A major barrier preventing sports organisations from vetting was cost, Sport NZ found. Government funding for police vetting of volunteers was withdrawn in 2016. According to police, the cost to vet someone is $8.50 plus GST.
Information released via a police vet can include previous conviction and infringement history, active charges and warrants, charges that didn’t result in a conviction and any interaction the person being vetted has had with police including information on investigations that didn’t result in a conviction.
It could also include information about family violence. Consent must be given by the person being vetted and only registered organisations can apply for a vet.
“In 2018, NZ Police released a public consultation document seeking feedback on a proposed legislative framework for the police vetting process. Sport NZ are taking an active interest in the proposed changes and will do what we can to influence the legislation so that it provides a safer system for all,” Miskimmin said.
“Even without legislative change, we believe the initiatives we are set to announce will provide a set of safeguarding measures which ensure our system remains safe and in line with global best practice.”
NZRL boss Greg Peters is working with Sport NZ on safe sport practices and policies. NZRL currently does not have a police vetting policy “of any substance” in place. NZRL employees are vetted. The sport’s 10,000 volunteers, including those coaching children, are not.
“It’s all very well to have a document … [but] we need to have a full culture and it needs to be embedded into what we do for it to be successful,” he said.
“It’s a process. It will take us some time to get right.”
Those in decision-making positions, including directors on national and regional boards, are not vetted either. NZRL will address that too.
“It’s something we need to look at in its totality,” he said.
“I’d like to see everyone who is coming into the game have some sort of vetting to ensure our people are safe.”
New Zealand Cricket has vetted more than 2000 coaches in the last two and a half years, since enacting a police vetting policy. That equates to 73 per cent of registered junior and youth cricket coaches across the country.
Northland, Horowhenua/Kapiti and South Canterbury have vetted 100 per cent of coaches, while Hamilton and Christchurch Metro have vetted just over 50 per cent.
NZC’s head of community cricket, Kent Stead, said many of those coaches have been vetted by schools and are not required to go through the process again.
“We’ve got an aspiration to have every single coach in New Zealand police vetted,” he said.
Coaches running external NZC programmes are vetted through the organisation’s system. Cricket coaches at private facilities are not. Umpires, administrators and board members do not meet NZC requirements for vetting under NZC policy. NZC employees are.
“If a person is in a position that triggers our threshold for needing a vet, they would be vetted,” he said.
“But someone sitting on a board is unlikely to be in a position where a vulnerable child or adult could be affected.”
A vulnerable adult, according to NZC, is someone who is “aged 18 years and above, who is unable to take care of themselves or is unable to protect themselves against harm or exploitation by reason of age, illness, trauma or disability or any other reason”.
Through the NZC system, serious crimes – including sexual and violent offences – create a “red flag”. The “red flag” is then reviewed by NZC senior leadership.
The decision is then made whether the person being vetted is required to stand down. The person being vetted has the opportunity to appeal, Stead said.
NZC only received one “red flag” during the 2019/2020 season. It was not appealed.
“We consider it on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
“If [the vet] comes up with a red flag we don’t straight away write that person off.
“We have a responsibility to ensure the safety of young people and vulnerable people around the game of cricket.”
For smaller sports bodies that don’t receive a lot of government funding, vetting can be expensive, but Badminton New Zealand chief executive Joe Hitchcock said it’s worth it.
“You’ve got to see it as an investment … in keeping our people safe,” he said.
“We [also] pay for our own drug testing that Drug Free Sport New Zealand provide as well.
“There are certain things as a national sports organisation you have to invest in to keep your participants and those connected to your sport safe.”
Employees and volunteers associated with a Badminton New Zealand programmes involving children are vetted every two years.
Information in police vets are only valid from the issue date.
“[We] have a big connection with young people and their safety is absolute paramount for us to ensure they have an environment they enjoy and feel safe is critical,” he said.
“Police vetting is an absolute must and you should do it, but there has to be a focus also around your checks and balances every week, every month, every year … to keep a temperature of where your programmes are at in terms of potential risk.”
Women in Sport Aotearoa chief executive Rachel Froggatt said it’s critical all sports bodies vet.
“Keeping children and vulnerable people safe and free from any form of emotional, physical and sexual abuse and misconduct should be an integral part of all planning and delivery across our play, active recreation and sport environment in Aotearoa New Zealand,” she said.
Providing a safe sporting environment could also boost participation numbers, she said.
“International research shows that personal safety is consistently ranked amongst the top reasons why women and girls register lower participation rates in sport and physical activity,” she said.
“To ensure that all women and girls gain equity of opportunity to participate, compete and build careers in the sector, Women in Sport Aotearoa agrees with and applauds Sport New Zealand’s intention to bring in … police vets and other safeguarding systems.”
Associate professor Sally Shaw from Otago University said while police vetting may deter those with serious convictions from volunteering for sports organisations, it also stops those with minor infractions too.
“It can potentially put people off from volunteering. It can be seen by some people as a removal or questioning of privacy,” Shaw said.
“They just didn’t want the organisation knowing about their history regardless of the fact that there was probably nothing in there that would make any difference to the running of a sporting event.
“For example, if somebody has a traffic charge or tax evasion charge … and they’re just going to be out there coaching, and not driving and not handling any money, then does that really matter?”
She said people who have seriously convictions are likely to find other ways to engage with sports organisations in roles that don’t require vetting.
“They might be a regular supporter or try to attend social functions at a club,” she said.
But some people will fall through the cracks for vetting – particularly those who have committed sexual offences – because of the low levels of reporting of these crimes.
Statistics from the Sexual Abuse Prevention Network found 94 per cent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police, of those reported 31 per cent result in the perpetrator being charged, 11 per cent result in a conviction and six per cent result in imprisonment.
“Women who have been sexually abused don’t want to come forward, and children who were sexually abused … don’t come forward for years because of the stigma attached to it,” she said.
“Even if you caught everyone who has been charged and convicted … it’s a pretty small percentage of people who have endangered or harmed people.
“But you could have someone turn up to a club who thinks nothing of clipping a kid around the ear or punching someone when they don’t get what they want.
“Vetting is not a bad idea, but I don’t think it does everything it’s meant to do or people expect it to do.”
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