I remember so clearly the year that I would not allow my sons to participate in a very popular summer camp at a local gymnastic facility. They were so mad and disappointed they couldn’t go there with some of their friends. I felt terrible but refused to cave in. Why? Because they did not have a child protection policy. When I asked the director at the time, “why?” she responded that "our camp staff are current or former students and we trust them."
If I were a parent who never worked in the field of child abuse, I suppose I could have understood and accepted their response. Unfortunately, I knew better and as a result, my kids didn’t attend their camp.
As a parent who has many years of experience working with youth who have been victims of abuse and/or trauma, I know that one in 10 children are sexually abused before the age of 18. I also know that children who are sexually abused are more likely to act out sexually on other children. So, if there are 20 camp counselors, there is a chance that one or more of them have been sexually abused at some time in their life.
And as the summer quickly approaches, I have been asked several times "what do I (as a parent/caregiver) need to do when trying to decide on what camp(s) to send my child to this summer?"
First let me start by stating, I don’t believe we should keep our children in a box because we are too afraid to let them experience something as fun and meaningful as a summer camp. There are many benefits to sending kids to different types of camps over the summer. I do, however, believe it is up to us as parents or caregivers to take proactive steps to ensure that any organization that serves youth has policies in place that protect children from child sexual abuse. Darkness to Light has recently created a simple guide to help called "A Parent’s Guide to Selecting Your Serving Organizations." When checking out summer camps this year, this guide lists specific questions that you can ask:
1. Is there a child protection policy?
All youth serving organizations should have one. All staff should be trained on the policy and the organization should clearly state how they are going to enforce the policy if the staff is not following the policy.
2. Does the policy include limiting one-on-one situations?
One-on-one connections are important, but it doesn’t have to be behind closed doors. One-on-one interactions should take place in an open, observable and interruptible setting. It should also include policies on how they handle bathroom, nap time, playground, field trips, ect.
3. How are employees and volunteers screened?
Employee screening should include criminal background checks, personal and professional reference checks and an in-depth interview. Volunteers should also have background checks and reference checks. If a summer camp is using volunteers such as older youth, they (volunteers) should never be put in a position where they are left alone with a child.
4. Do older and younger children interact, if so, how often?
Any interaction between older and younger children should require structure and adult supervision. Make it clear that you always want an adult present supervising your child.
5. Are there clear procedures for reporting suspicions or incidences of abuse?
Every youth serving organization should provide "mandated reporter" training for their staff and volunteers. Over half of mandated reporters fail to report suspicions of abuse. In most cases they are simply confused or uninformed about their responsibilities. Make sure that the organization empowers their staff and volunteers to report suspicious behavior.
6. If the code of conduct is not provided, don’t be afraid to ask the camp director for their agency’s code of conduct. All youth serving organizations should provide one and/or have it displayed somewhere.
Also don’t be afraid to let the camp director know that you may be dropping in at various times. I became very skilled at this over the years – taking my lunch at different times so I could drop in without my children seeing me (you know if they saw me, it was all over, and they would want to leave). Finally, there were times that I had to remind myself and the camp’s staff, who sometimes got a little defensive with all of my questions, that it is my job to protect my children and we should all be working together, as a community, to put systems in place that makes the protection of our children a priority. If we remember that, summer camps can be what they were designed to be – a fun and memorable experience for our kids.
The Child Advocacy Center of Aiken County has more details for each of these steps along with practical examples and other resources online at cacofaiken.org. We also offer Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children: Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Training to local groups, schools, youth-serving organizations and the faith community. The trainings are provided at no cost to the organization. Please check our website or Facebook page for information.
Susan Meehan is the executive director of the Child Advocacy Center of Aiken County.