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Summer Camps: Setting the Safety Bar Too Low

Background Checks · Staff Training · Medical Care

Experts believe that many summer camps should do more to address the safety of campers. Their suggestions include more-comprehensive background checks and extra training.

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As many parents know, when spring arrives, it’s time to find a summer camp for your child. However, Consumers Digest discovered that choosing a summer camp that takes the appropriate precautions to ensure your child’s safety can be a daunting task.

In 2014, more issues confront parents than ever before. Many of those issues might make you second-guess your summer-camp choice.

Unfortunately, too many summer camps don’t meet the minimum safety standards that summer-camp and child-safety experts recommend. Parents shouldn’t assume that camps are required to do in-depth background checks on camp counselors and other staff members, because 23 states have no requirements for camps to conduct background checks. Meanwhile, 29 states prohibit summer camps from having access to the FBI crime database that can help to provide a thorough background check of any camp counselor or other staff member. What’s worst of all, four states have no camp regulations whatsoever, which means that the summer camps that are in those states can operate however they see fit.

It should come as no surprise that the training that summer-camp employees receive in waterfront safety, sexual-abuse awareness and medical care varies widely. Consequently, many camps fall short of the standards that camp-safety experts recommend in those areas.

The United States is home to at least 12,000 summer camps, but given the varying levels of training and safety, parents must do a lot of research and ask plenty of questions to determine whether a particular summer camp will deliver a safe environment for their children.

PATCHWORK SYSTEM. In March 2012, the Palm Beach Post published a series of articles that exposed the devastating consequences of Florida’s lack of summer-camp regulations. No governing body oversees summer camps, which means, for example, that a man who crashed a truck into a county jail was hired at a YMCA and later murdered a 15-year-old girl, and, in another case, that a convicted sex offender opened a summer camp, the Post reported. The newspaper’s investigation found “roughly 170 church groups or youth programs run by sex offenders, murderers, child abusers and other criminals. The list includes 27 companies run by child rapists, molesters or other sex offenders.” At least 50 children were abused at unregulated summer programs, according to the Post.

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Sadly, Florida isn’t alone. Missouri, South Dakota and Washington also don’t issue a license to operate a summer camp. Georgia exempts summer day camps from licensing, and Idaho requires a license only for camps that last longer than 9 weeks, which summer camps rarely do. The lack of regulation means that in those states, no rules exist for staff training, waterfront safety, food safety or background screening for potential employees. The lack of regulations in those states is a major concern to youth-safety advocates.

“Places that are unregulated can be a hunting ground for predators,” says Jennifer Dritt, who is the executive director of Florida Council Against Sexual Violence. “Any place where kids congregate is someplace where the state should look at and license.”

However, just because a state requires a license to operate a summer camp doesn’t mean that the camp screens potential employees adequately. In fact, 23 states don’t require background checks for summer-camp employees, including populous states Indiana, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. (See “Out of State.”) Some lawmakers in those states cite cost as a reason not to require background checks, because such a screening can cost $15–$80, depending on the state and the thoroughness of the check. Although that cost is passed on to the consumer in the form of increased camp tuition, camp-safety experts believe that it’s an added cost that parents should be willing to pay, because it helps to make camps safer. Other legislators cite privacy concerns, because they believe that background checks invade a job applicant’s privacy. Independent experts say the primary reason that such laws don’t exist is because lawmakers in those states simply haven’t made summer-camp regulation a high priority.

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