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Colorado Mom’s Work Inspired State Child Abuse Law

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Michelle Peterson (credit: mpetersonconsulting.com)

Michelle Peterson (credit: mpetersonconsulting.com)

LONGMONT, Colo. (AP) — Michelle Peterson’s son is subject to strict rules about his interaction with adults, especially those who are entrusted to coach or teach him.

One of those coaches recently received word from her that he is not to use texts to communicate with her son.

“It is just common sense,” said the Hygiene woman whose concerns prompted a new state law expanding mandatory abuse reporting to paid club sports coaches and officials.

Peterson, though, is more than a strict mother. She is a longtime forensic interviewer who spent a decade interviewing child victims of sexual and other abuses for local police agencies at Blue Sky Bridge in Boulder. Now she works for herself and police departments hire her to conduct the kinds of child interviews where she learned from children how adults would develop relationships that lay the groundwork for abuse.

“You become real aware how these guys operate,” she said.

State Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, sponsored the bill in the House.

“I think this is going to be an important issue to make sure our kids are protected and our sports organizations are doing their best to make sure kids are protected,” he said.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the bill into law on March 22, making a failure to report suspected abuse a third-degree misdemeanor for sports officials now covered. The law does not extend to unpaid volunteers.

Singer, who worked in Boulder County child and adult protective services, said sometimes people need an extra incentive to report suspected abuse because they feel like they don’t want to interfere or aren’t certain. The law, which could be tough to enforce, takes some of that worry away by telling people in certain positions that the position they have accepted includes the expectation that they will report, he said.

“People will talk themselves out of calling instead of talk themselves into calling,” he said.

Peterson said she spoke with officials at her son’s hockey club, Boulder Hockey Club, to let them know her rules limiting coaches’ physical and communications-related contact with her son. She said her rules were initially met with skepticism until Rocky Mountain Rough Riders coach Zachary Meintz, who was also affiliated with the Boulder Hockey Club, was arrested in December 2011 and accused of extensive sexual communication with a number of the club’s players via text and Facebook. He was convicted of Internet exploitation of children and sentenced to 10 years of intensively supervised sex offender probation.

Peterson’s son was not among the victims, she said, in part because of her many rules. Peterson said after Meintz’s arrest, club officials asked her to help develop a policy to protect the players. It was through the process she learned that sports officials outside of the schools were not yet mandatory reporters.

Coaches are in a tremendous position of trust, which allows them unusual access to kids.

“Parents look at these coaches like they are godlike,” she said.

Hours of weekly access to kids and a loophole in the law that didn’t require other coaches or officials to report suspected abuse made club sports easy targets for offenders, she said.

“This is an area where pedophiles kind of flock to,” she said. “I thought, ‘Let’s try to get somebody a mandated reporter from these clubs.'”

She contacted Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, who sponsored her effort. Peterson said she hopes other clubs will adopt policies like those she helped to develop for the local hockey organizations. Those policies can extend mandatory reporting for all of its members. However, she said many adults assume the problem will never surface in their own organization.

“That’s the biggest challenge,” she said.

LINK: mpetersonconsulting.com

- By PIERRETTE J. SHIELDS, Longmont Times-Call

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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