Cheer sex abuse lawsuits span seven states, including West Coast
Federal, civil lawsuits first filed in South Carolina alleging sexual abuse at competitive cheerleading gyms now include California.
A competitive cheerleading sex abuse scandal that began to unravel with the suicide of gym owner in Greenville five months ago has spread across the country to a seventh state, California.
It is the latest in a long, twisted string knotted by allegations adults knew and profited as children were abused.
“Similar to other sports which have had their reckoning, this is a reckoning for cheer nationwide,” says Bakari Sellers, one of a team of South Carolina attorneys behind the lawsuits.
In all, 12 federal, civil lawsuits have been filed on behalf of 21 plaintiffs who name 15 coaches, two choreographers and six gyms as they detail a culture of sexual abuse, drugs and pornography in competitive cheerleading. The suits also accuse some of cheerleading’s top institutions of civil conspiracy for failing to protect minors.
In latest suit, in California, a former cheerleader says she was 15 years old when a coach at her gym gave her drugs and alcohol and had sex with her. Too terrified to come forward then, she says she filed a report last year with cheerleading’s governing body, the U.S. All Star Federation or USASFbut was met with skepticism and what she describes a “deeply traumatizing and unsettling process."
A USASF website shows one of the owners of the gym named in the lawsuit, Becky Herrera, serves as a voting board member for the organization. It does not indicate how long she’s held that role.
SC Public Radio tried to contact Herrera and her husband who co-owns CheerForce Simi Valley in Moorepark, Calif. We were told they were not available for comment. We also reached out to the accused coach named in the lawsuit, but he did not respond to a message on social media.
Meantime, attorney Sellers saysmore lawsuits are expectedas former cheerleaders alleging abuse continue to come forward.
“Some date back years if not decades,” says Sellers. “Some are very recent.”
Girls and boys in Ohio, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and South Carolina say they were sent nude photos, plied with drugs and alcohol, and sexually abused in hotels, cars and private homes. Several say they told coaches or reported to USASF but allege their complaints were ignored, or they were they were informed there wasn’t enough evidence.
“What we know from the work that we do is that pain never goes away,” says Daphne Young, the chief communications officer for Childhelp. The decades old non-profit fights child abuse nationally through education, services and a hotline.
Young says following the USA gymnastics scandal in 2016, Childhelp leaders met with survivors to try to figure out a better way to tackle abuse in sports. They found sports create challenges in protecting children.
“Sports create a culture where there’s not only a great potential for abuse but then when it happens, there’s almost no support for the survivor,” says Young.
The lawsuits accuse Varsity, a multi-billion-dollar enterprise in competitive cheerleading, of putting its own interests over the safety of children. The suits say Varsity created and controls USASF, and the federation has failed to address multiple abuse reports.
Varsity denies allegations it controls USASF. The company says it would expect the federation to investigate abuse complaints. USASF has not responded to multiple calls and emails.
When it comes to protecting children in sports, Young with Childhelp believes internal reporting doesn’t always work. The non-profit recently unveiled a new service called the “Courage First Athlete Helpline”. It allows athletes and adults to discuss their concerns anonymously.
“Our helpline can be a very soft-landing for someone that just wants to talk through something uncomfortable, says Young.
The hope is counselors can insure something that feels uncomfortable isn’t criminal.