June 5, 2023
Companies paid to investigate safe sport complaints lack independence, athletes say | CBC News

Companies paid to investigate safe sport complaints lack independence, athletes say | CBC News

Amelia Cline waited years to move ahead with a formal complaint against her former coach, but when the former Vancouver-based gymnast finally spoke to a “safe sport” case manager, she was told to “manage her expectations.”

The 33-year-old was told up front it’s unlikely the coach, who was at the time still training athletes at the highest level, would face anything more than “a slap on the wrist” despite Cline’s allegations of verbal and physical abuse dating back decades. 

“Obviously hearing that as a victim, as a survivor, it’s incredibly re-traumatizing. It’s invalidating,” Cline said.

Cline said she had flagged Gymnastics Canada about the issue for years. In 2021, the national sport organization hired ITP Sport and Recreation, a private Ottawa-based safe sport agency, to handle the complaint.

“To have a case manager who hasn’t even investigated a complaint yet making that determination right at the very first meeting, I was very deeply concerned about how that complaint was going to be handled.”

Cline said she never followed through with her complaint.

She is one of several former athletes calling for change in how abuse is reported in Canadian sports. Since 2018, for-profit companies such as ITP have emerged as an answer to Sport Canada’s mandate that federally funded sport organizations must provide athletes access to an independent third party to manage complaints.

These companies are difficult to trust because they’re paid by the very same national sport organizations they’re tasked to investigate, say athletes who have experienced abuse, which destroys any perception of objectivity or independence. What’s resulted is a complaint process they say is slow, painful and ineffective. 

Multiple ITP officials told CBC the investigative process is informed by Canadian safe sport policies, which are complicated and require patience. They affirm there is no influence by the organizations that pay them, and the mission of their work is for the betterment of athletes. 

“I believe mine and our work is paramount to the progress we are all looking for so I will trust and lean into that,” writes Allison Forsyth, a former Canadian Olympic skier who is ITP’s chief operating officer.

Amelia Cline, 33, says she was told to 'manage her expectations' when she brought forward her story of an abusive coach to ITP.
Amelia Cline, 33, says she was told to ‘manage her expectations’ when she brought forward her story of an abusive coach to ITP. (Nicholas Allan/CBC)

Complaints deemed ‘out of scope’

Myriam Da Silva Rondeau said she competed in a toxic environment for many years, including at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics for Canada.

The former boxer, who maintained a top-10 world ranking throughout her career, was one of 121 boxers who wrote an open letter to Sport Canada last year calling for the resignation of high-performance director Daniel Trépanier. He resigned four days later.

For a lot of athletes, our hopes were shattered.– Myriam Da Silva Rondeau, Former Olympic boxer

Rondeau said it was a long and difficult road to get there.

“I tried multiple times to talk about it and complain about it,” she said.

She and other national team athletes called on Boxing Canada to hire an independent third party to handle complaints. In 2020, the organization signed on with ITP. 

“We were so happy after pushing for two years to have a third party finally in place,” Rondeau said from her home just south of Montreal. 

“We thought, ‘Yes, finally we are safe. Finally someone’s gonna really help us. Finally someone will understand. Finally, someone that is not in the system will be able to understand what is going wrong in this system.'”

Relief was soon replaced by confusion. Rondeau said she and others filed complaints with ITP but communication with the company was sparse. The process seemed to drag on. Eventually, their complaints were deemed beyond the company’s scope to process.

“It was a lot of discouragement. This hope, my hope, was shattered. Yeah, for a lot of athletes, our hopes were shattered,” she said. 

ITP was later hired to do a safe sport culture review by Boxing Canada, and Rondeau realized the company had a larger contract with the sport organization. She began to question how much influence that contract would have over the outcome of ITP’s work.

“What is the level of honesty in that review or of receiving complaints? What really is the level of protection of athletes if you’re paid by the federation?”

in boxing ring, canadian at left is tired and distraught after losing her match to american athlete at right
Myriam Da Silva Rondeau of Canada, left, is seen after losing her final at the 2019 Pan-Am Games to Oshae Jones of the U.S. (Martin Mejia/The Associated Press)

Full independence difficult, says expert

ITP is one of at least half a dozen for-profit firms across Canada operating in the safe sport field — an issue that was raised in a Parliamentary meeting late in 2022.

Former professional soccer player Ciara McCormack told a House of Commons committee in December these companies were “wolves in sheep’s clothing” with “a distorted moral compass” for profiting off of a growing wave of athletes coming forward with stories of abuse.

“In our current system, an investigation is not independent if it is paid for by the very institution that has something to lose,” McCormack testified.

McCormack said she shared personal details of her own abuse with someone who presented themselves as a concerned ally. She later learned the individual worked for a company contracted by Soccer Canada to investigate abuse complaints from her team at the time, the Vancouver Whitecaps.

“It’s exhausting to go through when you’ve been harmed, but then to just be re-victimized, and it’s like a punch in the stomach honestly, because it’s not something you expect,” she later told CBC from her home in Vancouver.

Ciara McCormack says no company who is paid by the sport organization they're hired to investigate can remain objective.
McCormack says no company who is paid by the sport organization they’re hired to investigate can remain objective. (Nicholas Allan/CBC)

McCormack is also one of many athletes calling for a judicial inquiry into abuse in Canadian sports and for a separate independent body — one completely removed from sport — to handle complaints.

“We should have a system that, if you come forward, you’re protected and we try to make it better, instead of just again perpetuating the harm,” said McCormack.

According to one expert, the issue of independence is complex and nuanced.

“When any type of monetary distribution is happening, then there is a relationship that exists. And I think it’s a legitimate question to look into that relationship in sport,” said Eric MacIntosh, a professor at the University of Ottawa currently researching safe sport in Canada.

He said establishing an independent third party mechanism is “a progressive step” in addressing a long-standing crisis of abuse in sport but “it’s really difficult to establish a level of independence.”

‘We’re here to change the system’

ITP has taken on roughly 1,000 safe sport complaints across various organizations since it formed in 2018, according to its leadership team.

Its website describes ITP as “Canada’s first full service and programming safe sport agency,” with nearly three dozen clients — mostly high-level provincial and national sporting organizations including Soccer Canada, Boxing Canada and Gymnastics Canada. 

Ilan Yampolsky founded ITP in 2018 but officially incorporated the business in 2021, bringing on Forsyth as his partner. ITP now employs more than 30 people from case managers to legal support. Yampolsky said the team has worked hard to address “a gap in the system.” 

“We’re here to change the system. We’re not here to grab a piece of a pie. We’re not here to grab money. We’re here to change lives and save them,” he said.

Forsyth is herself an outspoken advocate for safe sport and a survivor of sexual abuse. 

“The sport system cannot afford to not have a survivor in this work with our organizations,” she wrote in a statement to CBC. “I simply would ask who better to help organizations make changes and shift than someone who has lived abuse and lived and breathed the high performance environment?”

There’s two sides. We need to understand both of them– Ilan Yampolsky, ITP Sport and Recreation

Forsyth and Yampolsky both acknowledge the challenges and complications of the safe sport process. It’s also why, like in Cline’s case, they try to manage expectations.

“What my company tells individuals is based off [of] years, sometimes decades, of experience of dealing with this, of seeing what is the outcome if a person goes through this, what I’m sure is a re-victimization process and [a] very difficult process for them to go through,” he said. 

“There is a due process. There’s two sides. We need to understand both of them.”

Yampolsky said the average complaint now takes about a month to resolve, “which is significantly less than [it] used to be.”

WATCH | We’re not here to grab money,’ ITP CEO says

‘We’re not here to grab money,’ ITP CEO says

Ilan Yampolsky,founder and CEO of ITP Sport and Recreation, said he supports the regulation of his company and those like it that manage athlete complaints for sport organizations.

Work is objective, company maintains

All this said, Yampolsky said his team is working to improve communication with complainants and being more transparent about its process. He said he would like to work with athletes like Cline, McCormack and Da Silva Rondeau to improve the complaint process.

ITP operates under the framework of the Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport, which was first published in 2019 through the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, a not-for-profit advocacy organization.

There’s no influence for the individuals who pay us.​​​​​​– Ilan Yampolsky, ITP Sport and Recreation

The framework provides definitions for grooming, neglect, physical, sexual and psychological abuse, as well as retaliation, failure to report maltreatment, false allegations and misuse of power.

Yampolsky said complaints sometimes fall outside of the centre’s code of conduct definitions. He said an organization’s policies can work against each other or, in some cases, not exist at the time of someone’s abuse. National sport organizations are also disconnected from provincial or grassroots counterparts, he said, which can deem complaints like Da Silva Rondeau’s out of the company’s scope. 

ITP does not impart sanctions or conduct mandatory investigations, he added, but rather triages cases by conducting an initial review of the complaint and recommending next steps. 

Yampolsky said contracts with sport organizations involve “very minimal” amounts of money. The company charges a retainer fee, which is paid per case. In some cases, that’s less than $10,000 but the price can rise depending on the complexity of a complaint, he said.

Yampolsky said he and Forysth have paid themselves “almost nothing” for years, reinvesting profits back into the company to keep costs minimal for organizations.

He called questions about objectivity “a valid concern” but “we are always independent.” The work ITP does is exclusively with the complainant and respondent, not the organization, he added.

“We’re absolutely neutral. There’s no influence for the individuals who pay us.”

Yampolsky also said he supports increased regulation of safe sport, encouraging the creation of a federal body that would have the power to audit investigations by companies like ITP.

“If there’s something that’s wrong, if there’s something that’s inappropriate, they should sanction us and other companies.”

Canadian former Olympic skier Allison Forsyth says that if an independent body to investigate allegations had existed in the late 1990s, it likely could have prevented her alleged abuse by coach Bertrand Charest.
Former Canadian Olympic skier Allison Forsyth is a partner with ITP and a survivor of sexual abuse. (Chris Donovan/The Canadian Press)

Sport should not police itself

The federal government has tried to shift control away from private companies to its recently formed Office of the Sports Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), which was established to investigate safe sport complaints.

Sport Canada has mandated national sport organizations to sign up with OSIC, which began receiving complaints in the summer of 2020, by April of this year or risk losing funding.

OSIC has also faced significant criticism for a “low intake of complaints”, admitting just eight of 24 complaints and reports received from Sept. 20, 2022 to the end of the year. Those not accepted were deemed beyond its jurisdiction or authority.

MacIntosh said OSIC is another example of “sport trying to once again police itself.”

“It has proven time and time again it cannot effectively do so,” he said.

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