According to the American Camp Association (ACA), more than 10 million American children will attend summer camp in 2010. For the vast majority of them, camp will no doubt be a positive experience–an opportunity to get outside, try new things, build self-esteem, and form new friendships. However, it is equally certain that some of those 10 million campers will have their camp experiences (and lives) shattered by sexual abuse at camp. So what can you do to best protect your child this summer?
I want to lead off by presenting two unsettling facts:
- No camp is immune to sexual abuse. Camping programs as diverse as YMCAs, the Boy Scouts, publicly-funded camps, and a camp run by the Obama daughters’ private school have all faced allegations of child sexual abuse.
- Camps cannot, and should not, be expected to shoulder the full responsibility of protecting campers from sexual abuse. Parents are equal and invaluable partners in the fight to protect children from abusers.
So do not shy away from the topic of child sexual abuse–meet it head-on. You owe it to yourself and to your child to be informed. Any good camp director will not be offended by a parent asking the tough questions about a subject as important as child sexual abuse.
There are at least two parts to a strong defense against sexual abuse at camp:
- Ask the right questions to educate yourself while choosing a camp.
- Do your part once your child has begun attending camp, and even after camp has ended.
Ask the right questions when choosing a camp
Yahoo! Shine presents a helpful list that parents might start with when examining potential summer camps [explanatory sub-bullets added]:
- "How do you screen for possible sex offenders?
- Are criminal background checks performed on all your employees?
- Is each person checked through the [National Sex Offender Public Website]?
- Do you conduct interviews and reference checks on all employees?
- Reference checks are a valuable screening tool, especially if family member reference checks are utilized. Even if a family member is unlikely to directly state that an applicant has a hidden history of sexually abusing children, he/she IS likely to indirectly dissuade a camp from hiring such an applicant.
- During your interview process do you discuss boundaries – appropriate or inappropriate touches?
- Do you offer your employees clear policies about sexual misconduct and consequences, and are they in an employee handbook?
- What steps are you taking to decrease the risk of sexual abuse at your camp?
- What steps are you taking to decrease the risk of bullying at camp?
- Not only can bullying be psychologically damaging to a child in its own right, but bullying, if left unchecked, can develop into peer-to-peer (i.e. camper-on-camper) sexual abuse.
- What type of training do you offer your staff?
- Do you offer training to staff to prevent sexual abuse and bullying?
- Are you licensed by the state?"
Stop It Now!, a child sexual abuse prevention organization, provides a few additional questions [again, explanatory sub-bullets added]:
- "What’s the policy about campers being left alone without adult supervision? If unsupervised time is allowed, when?
- These are the times when both bullying and peer-to-peer sexual abuse are most likely to happen. Unstructured free periods at camp is a great way of allowing campers to be creative; truly unsupervised free time is not.
- Are staff ever alone with kids? Under what circumstances? Why?
- As you might suspect, these are the situations in which counselor-to-camper sexual abuse is most likely to occur. Many camps will, as a matter of policy, never permit a counselor to be alone with just one camper.
- What procedures are in place to report concerns and to address an accusation?
- Under what circumstance will parents be notified about an allegation?"
Do your part once your child has begun attending camp
While your child is attending camp, be sure to keep lines of communication open, both with your child and with the camp.
What are your camp’s rules on camper-counselor contact outside of camp? For a resident ("sleepaway") camp, this means outside the camp season; for a day camp, this means evenings, weekends, and outside the camp season.
- Are counselors allowed to babysit campers?
- Are counselors allowed to give campers rides home from day camp?
- Are counselors allowed to be "friends" with campers on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace?
These issues are very important because many potential abusers form trusting bonds with children at camp, but then manipulate those relationships to commit the actual sexual abuse outside of camp. For that reason, many camps will discourage or expressly prohibit any of these different forms of "outside contact."
This is where the role of parents becomes exceptionally important. If a camp’s policies forbid outside contact between campers and counselors but your child’s camp counselor has been offering his/her services as a babysitter, you need to inform the camp that its policy is being violated. Without the cooperation of parents, the camp would never find out about such a situation.
Summer camps are responsible for some of our best childhood memories, and the vast majority of their counselors and staff are fantastic people and positive role models. Yet a child molester could not dream of a more ideal place to work. As parents, we owe it to our children to educate ourselves on how best to hold up our end of the fight to keep child sexual abusers out of our summer camps.