Warning: this story contains firsthand accounts of sexual assault.
RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — With the warmer weather, schools reopening and more people getting vaccinated, children are returning to sports. However, two former athletes warn that youth sports can present opportunities for predators.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Child Abuse Prevention Month and it’s prompting the local women to share their experience in a virtual event later this month. The public is invited to attend a virtual event titled, “When Trust is Exploited in Youth Sports: Healing after Sexual Assault & Abuse,” on April 14.
One those women is Henrico resident Fatima Smith. She remembers her competitive cheerleading coach walking into her bedroom in her Virginia home when she was sleeping. “I wake up to him touching me,” said Smith.
She was just 12 years old when she says he sexually assaulted her.
The other woman sharing her story is Virginia resident Abbey Philips. She says she just turned 13 when her karate coach in Florida at the time sexually assaulted her. “He took me back to his bedroom, put a chair in the middle of the room, closed the door and locked it and started kissing me down the side of my neck,” said Philips.
Philips told us she was so confused by it. She said, “We trusted him, my parents trusted him.”
Both women say they didn’t speak up about the abuse at first because their coaches had become trusted members of the community.
They also say their coaches made them and their parents feel like they were always looking out for them. So, it was hard to imagine their coaches were hurting them or doing anything wrong.
“There’s a grooming process that also takes place with parents,” Smith said.
Within the last few years, sexual assault in sports has come to light with USA Gymnastics and convicted sex offender Doctor Larry Nassar and U.S. Olympic Coach John Geddert, who killed himself this year, after being charged with turning his gym into a hub for human trafficking and abuse.
Locally former softball coach Cathy Rothgeb was sentenced in 2019 to nearly 300 years behind bars for sexually assaulting players in Orange and Spotsylvania counties.
The increased reports of abuse combined with their personal stories prompted both Smith and Philips to hold the free virtual event. “Abbey and I are really just trying to raise awareness,” said Smith. “As a survivor, I want other survivors to know they are not alone,” said Philips.
The panel will include survivors, parents and therapists. The event will offer parents resources, prevention tips and some red flags to keep an eye out for. “Look out for person who is going above and beyond. Find out what are the organizations policies,” said Smith.
This event has been organized in collaboration with the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance, YWCA of Richmond, Hanover Safe Place, Henrico CASA and FMS Speaks.
FMS Speaks is Smith’s consulting and public education agency that helps individuals and businesses create safer environments to have conversations that are traditionally taboo.
The virtual event is open to the public and free on April 14 from 7 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. Registration is required and limited to the first 100 attendees. You can register here: Webinar Registration – Zoom
Both women have been working to shape legislation in several regarding the statute of limitations for child sex abuse crimes. They say crimes are often not reported until the children grow up and feel safe to speak up.