By Marcia Love
How does a convicted sex offender hide in plain sight and work with youth, unnoticed and undiscovered for two decades?
It’s a question many across the Southwest have asked over the last several months – especially those with children in minor sports.
Ryan Chamberlin was sentenced last week to five years in jail after pleading guilty to three counts of sexual assault and one count of corrupting children. The 39-year-old hockey coach from Cabri is now a registered sex offender, never able to work with children again.
But the case will have a significant impact on how minor sports organizations as well as schools operate from now on.
Chamberlin served four months in jail for sexually assaulting a five-year-old boy in British Columbia in 1998. But his disturbing past didn’t become known to the public until a young Maple Creek boy came forward about abuse earlier this year, which in turn brought forward three other victims.
In November, the hockey coach was hired privately by a parent to coach her son, who approached her about the abuse on Feb. 25.
Chamberlin worked for several years as a coach within minor sports organizations and as a private coach-for-hire across the Southwest. In the 2014-15 hockey season, he was paid to coach goaltenders from novice up to midget within the Maple Creek Minor Sports Association.
As minor hockey got under way in the fall, it just happened to be the season Maple Creek Minor Sports introduced its Fair Play Policy. As part of this new policy, coaches and managers of every minor hockey team were required to have a criminal record check completed.
However, because it was freshly introduced, Maple Creek Minor Sports Association president Ryan Brown said it was challenging to implement.
“It was in place, it was just tough to enforce because it was the first year,” explained Brown, who has been in the position for about two years. “It was kind of a fight – some people were against it and said, ‘Oh, this is a small town.'”
Because it was the first year of the new policy, it was easier for Chamberlin – who was working with Maple Creek Minor Sports for the first time – to avoid having a criminal record check done, Brown said.
“Every time I cornered him and questioned him about getting a criminal record check… he always had some excuse, like he was too busy, didn’t have time to get into town, and being it was our first season of implementing it, it was hard to get everything pinned down,” he stated.
He added other coaches had difficulty getting record checks done simply due to the town office hours, as the checks are done by paying a $10 fee to the town and taking the receipt to the RCMP detachment. Some couldn’t make it in during work hours. He intends to discuss this inconvenience with the town.
While Brown only met Chamberlin last year, he noted several people around the organization and the Southwest had worked with him for several years.
“There was actually several of the parents that recommended him or were happy to have him come,” he said. “At no point did anyone feel their child was in danger with him. I’ve never had any parent come to me and say anything like that.”
According to Brown, Chamberlin was never alone on the ice or in the dressing room with youth in the association.
With Chamberlin also playing in the White Mud Hockey League, scheduling difficulties resulted in him coaching very little through the organization after Christmas, the minor sports president said. After the charges were laid on Feb. 26, the disgraced coach quit.
“It all came to a head when he got charged,” Brown said. “At that point, I just dropped all communication with him. Nobody had talked to him after that.”
Maple Creek Minor Sports – which encompasses minor hockey and baseball – will be strictly enforcing the criminal record check policy starting next season. They are not yet mandatory for baseball. Once in place, a board member will be designated to ensure each coach and manager has a check done.
“We’re trying to get our bearings set to make sure we’re doing the right things,” Brown said. “As minor sports, we’re just making sure we cover all of our bases and we’re going to do the right thing moving forward – do everything we can possibly do to prevent this.”
For minor soccer and figure skating, criminal record checks have been mandatory for years.
Anyone can request a criminal record check prior to offering an individual employment or a volunteer position. In Canada, employers, community agencies and educational institutions can only access a person’s criminal record with that individual’s consent. The agency can then submit a signed consent form to local police or the individual can do so themselves.
Once the record check is complete, however, it does not disclose the exact nature of the conviction. If the individual does not have any convictions, the report will state no records were found. But if one might have a criminal record, the report will indicate a record may or may not exist. The person’s full record can then be obtained if he provides his fingerprints to the RCMP.
The initial report is provided within a few days.
A vulnerable sector check is also required for anyone who will be working with children, elderly people or the disabled. About five years ago, laws were changed to require anyone applying for vulnerable-sector verification whose birth date and sex match those of a convicted sex offender to submit to a fingerprint search. This process can take months, and came into effect after former Swift Current Broncos head coach and convicted sex offender Graham James was able to avoid having his criminal history checked by changing his name.
The Sex Offender Information Registration Act requiring convicted sex offenders to register with the National Sex Offender Registry came into effect in December 2004 – six years after Chamberlin’s sexual assault conviction in B.C. The names and personal information of those on the list are not public.
Brown wants to see more changes made to allow a convicted sex offender’s history to be an open book.
“If I have concerns with anybody, I should be able to (go to the police and) pull a full, in-depth record search,” he said. “It may not all be made known public to me, but I should know if there’s a previous offense involving a child.”
Currently, the Saskatchewan Hockey Association (SHA) is leaving it up to local minor hockey associations to decide whether or not criminal record checks are necessary. But the SHA is now reviewing it’s policies due to the Chamberlin case.
“It has to really encourage associations that if they’re going to bring somebody in that’s going to potentially work with kids that they should prove that they’ve got some type of record check, or if you’re going to send your kid somewhere to a private instructor that you do your due diligence that they’ve gone through the proper checks,” explained SHA general manager Kelly McClintock.
He noted Chamberlin was not a coach on a registered team with the SHA.
The Chamberlin case has not only led to changes within minor sports, but in schools across the Southwest as well. While Chinook School Division has required all employees to have criminal record checks and vulnerable sector checks completed, it is now tightening up the rules to require any volunteer who has “ongoing supervision or access to students” to have one done.
“If it’s a one-time field trip and it’s a mom going, that’s the principal’s discretion,” said Liam Choo-Foo, Chinook School Division’s director of education. “But if it was something where a person is coming in as a regular driver, they would require a criminal record check.”
He said Chinook suggested schools have checks done for coaches of extracurricular sports – community members coming in to coach who are not school division employees – but it was not required until now.
Within the local minor sports association, Brown said there is a feeling of shock among the members – a stark reality for a small town to face.
“It’s just one of those things that opens your eyes to everything. Not that you didn’t know it could happen – you always talk about it, but then it happens in your own town,” he said. “A lot of people think, ‘It won’t ever happen here,’ but it does.”
And it did.