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The Blackhawks Sexual Assault Case: What to Do When You Receive an Allegation

As part two of a three part series with Durant Barristers, this post is authored by Leslie Anne St. Amour and Erin Durant.

For more information, Durant Barristers and Gillian Hnatiw & Co. will be leading a webinar on Safe Sport on December 14, 2021 at 12:00 PM EST. Using the Blackhawks case as a starting point, this webinar will offer valuable insights into how we can make sports in Canada safer for all, as well as how to appropriately handle allegations of assault, abuse and harassment when these arise in sport or other forums. Sign up for the webinar here.

You’ve received a report of abuse, now what?

Handling Complaints on the Ground

In Canada we are moving towards a new independent safe sport mechanism that will be operated by the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada. This is a very welcome development and will provide greater independence and consistency in the handling of Safe Sport complaints in this country.

However, one comment that we have heard on more than one occasion from members of the sports community is relief that the SDRCC is taking over much of the work in this area. We want to stress that the hardest work is still going to be the responsibility of sports associations and “on the ground” workers and volunteers. Allow me to explain.

In our experience, the first point of contact a person has regarding a safe sport matter is a trusted individual within sport: an administrator, a coach, another athlete, a volunteer. What happens at that initial point of contact and subsequent points of contact is very important from an investigative, discipline and liability perspective. Ideally, when the event is first reported, notes should be taken and the individual immediately directed to the appropriate location to make a formal complaint.

This is an area where the coaches and officials within the Chicago Blackhawks organization fell short. A complaint was made to individuals who should have known that there was a policy that applied to abuse and that it had to be followed and investigated promptly. It was not. The team was in the midst of an important playoff run and the issue was set to the side to be dealt with by human resources later. We could imagine the same situation playing out in an amateur sport context at a major event or leading up to an important competition. However, this is unacceptable. The policies in place need to be known by all members of the organization and need to be followed. At all times. Even if it is inconvenient, could cause controversy or could interrupt the training and preparation required to compete. We all have an obligation to put health and safety first.

Luckily, in most cases, we do not see sports organizations outright ignore a serious complaint. More often, we see well-meaning individuals trying to handle complaints outside of the formal policies and it takes several discussions before someone points the victim in the right direction. This creates delay in the process as well as compromises confidentiality. It also leads both victims and respondents to lose faith in the system and question why things are taking so long, why it is disorganized, and why everyone seems to know about the issue before anything has even started. It can be very challenging to manage a Safe Sport investigation or discipline process when parties have lost faith in the process due to early interventions not occurring in accordance with policies.

When receiving an allegation of any type of misconduct it is important to act quickly and in accordance with the applicable policies. Notes need to be taken and resources should be easy to access. As we move towards the next step in the development of Canada’s Safe Sport infrastructure, the focus at the national, provincial and local levels needs to be on how to react upon receipt of the initial knowledge of a potential code of conduct violation and how to get potential victims to the right place to make a formal complaint: whether that is within the SDRCC system or within the individual sports process. We need to ensure that there is no confusion at the intake stage and that the individuals receiving the complaint know where to send potential victims for assistance.

Mandatory Reporting:

Another aspect to keep in mind is that you or your team may be mandatory reporters under different child welfare legislative schemes. It is recommended that you familiarize yourself with relevant child welfare rules which may apply. Generally in Ontario, any person (including an organization) who has reasonable grounds to suspect that a child is or may be in need of protection must promptly report the suspicion and the information upon which it is based to a Children’s Aid Society.

We will discuss these issues, and more, at our upcoming Webinar on December 14. We hope to see you there. Sign up for the webinar here.


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