January 2019 marked the one-year anniversary of the trial of Larry Nassar, where his terrible crimes against hundreds of young women and girls were revealed. Our country watched in horror as over 150 victims testified and gave public statements detailing the abuse they suffered, sometimes for years on end.
I was one of those victims. Actually, I prefer the term “survivor.” The courage it took for my Sister Survivors to publicly speak out about what happened to us was enormous. And even though we can’t change what happened to us, we now know that we were a part of justice being served. Through my healing process, many of my Sisters and I have been truly blessed to have found purpose: advocating for the protection of our children.
What happened to us should never have occurred and allowed to escalate in the way that it did. Those in charge of protecting children from abuse turned a blind eye. Even though concerns were raised, senior leaders at Michigan State, USA Gymnastics, and the United States Olympic Committee put the reputation of their institutions ahead of the health and well-being of all of us. Unfortunately, this is all too common: time after time, well-intentioned people don’t recognize the signs and fail to report suspected abuse. This must change—it is the responsibility of adults to protect children from dangerous predators.
Luckily for children and parents alike, this is changing, thanks to organizations like the Beau Biden Foundation for the Protection of Children (BBF). They believe that child abuse can be prevented through effectively educating adults and children, developing the next generation of child welfare professionals and strengthening child protection laws around the country. For them, filling the gap of abuse prevention for children with disabilities is a logical—and crucial—next step in the fight to protect our kids. To better address this vulnerable population, BBF has partnered with Special Olympics to launch Operation Safeguard.
This new partnership will focus on meeting the moral and legal responsibility to protect athletes who participate in Special Olympics programs. For 50 years, Special Olympics has transformed the lives of children and people of all ages with intellectual disabilities. Their work has meant always implementing the most robust child protection policies, so it is only natural that they should continue to further strengthen their defenses against those who would cause harm to children and all people with intellectual disabilities.
Through Operation Safeguard, the BBF will partner with Special Olympics to improve best practices for screening and training volunteers, developing an online case management system, and expanding trainings for staff and volunteers on recognizing and reporting child abuse, predator awareness, and online safety. Children with disabilities are at high risk of abuse, with three in 10 suffering some form of abuse before they turn 18. This makes it even more crucial that we use every available resource to protect them.
As the mother of a child on the Autism spectrum, I want my son to have the same opportunities as any other child. Sports help children develop important skills like teamwork, discipline, and perseverance—skills they need for a successful future. The triumphs bring them great joy and the losses teach them important life lessons; we are proud of them no matter if they win or lose. But to ensure the experience of being a Special Olympics athlete remains a safe and rewarding one, we must do all we can to prevent abuse.
As a former MSU gymnast, I want to ensure that no child ever experiences what I went through.
The public testimonies my Sister Survivors gave in Michigan last year are still ringing in the ears of everyone who heard us. People all over the country have asked, “How did this happen?” If a partnership like this had existed then, perhaps it wouldn’t have. If USA Gymnastics had put this much focus on educating their coaches and caregivers on the signs of abuse and how to report it, this would have never happened.