In this column, which first appeared in the Chronicle’s Horseman’s Forum, Carrie Kehring shares her family’s experience going through the U.S. Center for SafeSport reporting process.
My daughter, Maggie Kehring, recently brought a SafeSport complaint against her former coach Rich Fellers. I am sharing our experience and observations in the hopes that it will educate and inform others about the process, though I recognize that every case is different.
I want to share the things I wish our family had understood better before going through the SafeSport process. But I also want to write this piece because of a conversation I had with an attorney who works on behalf of (but not for) SafeSport. I told him that, after going through the process, I saw SafeSport doing so many things right and in many ways more smoothly and transparently than law enforcement. My attitude came as a surprise to him.
He explained that while he works with all the sports that SafeSport oversees, the equestrian community is different. In his experience, all other sports have been more welcoming and embracing of SafeSport. He sees a lot of mistrust and misinformation about SafeSport in the equestrian community. I am committed to helping change this.
For a victim, reaching out to SafeSport can feel like an impossibly hard step. They first must recognize what has happened and understand that bringing it to the light of day helps them begin to move forward but also helps protect other potential future victims. The idea of going to SafeSport can feel like a scary cliff that they are jumping off.
It’s helpful to understand that SafeSport is almost always unable to move forward if the victim doesn’t want to participate. SafeSport and, in our experience, law enforcement as well, recognize that demonstrating a preponderance of evidence, even with strong documentation, isn’t obtainable in most cases without the victim’s cooperation. Understanding this can help open the door to SafeSport by alleviating a victim’s concern that something will happen before they are ready.
We also need to dispel the myth that SafeSport is a witch-hunt conducted by people who aren’t as qualified as law enforcement. I’m not sure where that thinking comes from, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. SafeSport has only recently received the necessary funding to keep up with its current caseload. Prior to the most recent funding, SafeSport had been underfunded for its caseload since its inception in 2017. Its investigators have spent the past four years drowning in cases. As the agency has grown over the past few years, it’s hired more investigators and implemented better training for its members, but it still is scrambling to get on top of its cases.
The training for SafeSport investigators is extensive. The investigator assigned to our case spent 32 years at the FBI before working for SafeSport and then went through additional training at SafeSport. He had more experience than the federal and the state agents working on our case for law enforcement combined.
The myth that it is easy to get somebody suspended is also something that needs to be addressed. SafeSport temporarily suspends less than 0.5% of all its cases. The evidence required for suspension is extensive. SafeSport indeed requires slightly less proof than law enforcement, but after going through both processes, I can comfortably say that SafeSport requires a significant amount of evidence.
SafeSport works hand in hand with law enforcement. Its agents generally have spent years in law enforcement before they move over to SafeSport. Once SafeSport receives a complaint that would fall under the legal criminal code (even if it is anonymous), it must immediately report the complaint to the appropriate law enforcement agency. Once that occurs, law enforcement has the option of putting the SafeSport process on hold and taking over the case. If that happens, SafeSport generally follows the law enforcement ruling.
In our case, our daughter made the difficult decision to agree to talk to SafeSport following six months of U.S. Equestrian Federation members calling SafeSport to report on her situation. At the time she spoke with SafeSport, she was not yet ready to talk to law enforcement. SafeSport and law enforcement worked together to release the law enforcement hold so that SafeSport could interview her and temporarily suspend the assailant.
Three weeks after the temporary suspension was issued, we decided to move forward with law enforcement. We made this decision because we were concerned about things that were being said to and about our witnesses in public equestrian spaces. SafeSport can’t prevent witness tampering, but law enforcement can. Once we moved the case back over to law enforcement, SafeSport was required to freeze its process until law enforcement had completed their investigation or made it far enough in their process that they would release the freeze. Our family was put in a challenging position because nothing else was happening with SafeSport, and people began to question our daughter’s experience. It was quite frankly awful for our family.
It is essential to know that the SafeSport process sometimes (but not always) is paused when law enforcement gets involved. SafeSport was able to put an immediate no-contact directive in place to keep our family and witnesses feeling safe within the equestrian community. Law enforcement was unable to do that until after we had our grand jury ruling four months later.
As far as general reporting goes for SafeSport, if you witness or hear of misconduct or illegal behavior, you must report it. (Per federal law there is a mandatory reporting obligation.) If you are uncomfortable putting your name on it, you can make an anonymous report online. That will give you a number that you can show, should it ever be questioned that you knew about it and didn’t report it.
The SafeSport process is not hard to navigate, and the people I have dealt with there are respectful, understanding and try their hardest to help you through the process. In our experience both the SafeSport and law enforcement processes felt long and slow moving at times, and then things felt like they were suddenly happening sharp and fast. In some respects, this is because the investigative process, with both SafeSport and law enforcement, is exceedingly thorough.
Coming out of any type of sexual misconduct situation, it helps greatly to have someone holding your hand while you navigate the process. We found our attorney was an incredible resource. In cases such as ours, when a victim is underage, we could not talk to a therapist or doctor as they are mandatory reporters. This means that they are legally obligated to share your situation with law enforcement. Victims and their loved ones need help even to begin to recognize and deal with what they’ve been through before they are ready to pursue it criminally. Yet, they can’t get that help because it will immediately start a criminal investigation. It’s a Catch-22 of the worst kind.
The only available resource is an attorney, as attorney-client privilege supersedes the mandatory reporting obligation. This is a much larger issue than SafeSport can tackle, but it is a critical consideration in understanding how to help someone move forward, regardless of whether it is SafeSport, law enforcement, or just moving forward in daily life.
The entire process of beginning to understand what happened and moving forward from a sexual misconduct situation is honestly one of the hardest things in the world for someone to do. It can destroy victims, families and everyone in their lives who love them. We all need to understand these things better and recognize that SafeSport is doing so many things right.
Let’s work together to make growing up in the barn the safest, most wonderful place for a child. Part of that process is recognizing why SafeSport is in place and working together to eliminate any misconduct that leads to the need for SafeSport in the first place. But as we are working to make that happen, it’s worth understanding what a strong, necessary resource SafeSport is for everyone involved in sporting activities.
For more information about how SafeSport works, go to usef.org/safe-sport.
I have been amazed at the outpouring of support for this effort to make our equestrian community safer and healthier for all. Visit weridetogether.today to learn more and get involved.
After a decade of working in human resources, with tech start-ups and nonprofits, Carrie Kehring has spent the past 12 years driving up and down the West Coast attending horse shows with her daughters. She lives in California with her family, an abundance of horses, dogs and various other farm animals, including a pig named Waddles.
This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse magazine in our Sept. 20 & 27, 2021 issue.
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