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Summer Camps: Setting the Safety Bar Too Low (cont.)

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In Florida, for example, after a Post report on camps in 2010, legislators vowed to make changes but at press time have yet to introduce a bill that would change anything. When we reached out to the Florida Senate’s Family, Children and Elder Care committee to ask why no summer-camp regulations were passed or introduced, we were referred to Katie Betta, who is a spokesperson for Florida Senate President Don Gaetz. Betta confirmed that no legislation regarding Florida summer camps was pending. When we asked to speak with anyone on the committee, Betta ultimately told us that none of the senators would talk to us, because they were too busy. From our perspective, the only way that “too busy” is an acceptable response is if they were working on summer-camp regulations that help to protect children, which, of course, they weren’t.

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What Florida lawmakers apparently don’t understand is that background checks are essential. That’s because predators most often target places where children can be found, including summer camps, says Gareth Hedges, who is the senior associate general counsel at The Redwoods Group, which is an insurance company that specializes in selling liability and property insurance to summer camps.

In the states where background checks aren’t mandatory, the onus is on parents to ensure that the summer camp to which they send their child conducts extensive background screening. At the least, parents should look for summer camps that conduct statewide background checks, review state-maintained sex-offender lists and call employee references, according to four experts whom we interviewed.

However, we believe that summer camps should be required to take even more steps to help to protect children, and it appears that opportunities exist to implement such steps if, among other things, federal lawmakers simply did their job.

SCREENING ROOM. In July 2013, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., introduced the Child Protection Improvements Act. The bill has wide support among groups that serve youths, such as American Camp Association (ACA), Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Boys & Girls Clubs of America and YMCA. The proposal would instruct Department of Justice to work with FBI to create an easily accessible national background check for organizations that serve youths, such as summer camps.

Experts say such a system is necessary, because 29 states prohibit organizations such as summer camps from using FBI background checks. Access to FBI background checks is blocked, experts say, for the same reasons that some states require no background checks at all: cost, privacy and legislative neglect. Summer camps that have no access to the FBI crime database rely on a state crime database or no crime database at all.

Although a statewide crime database that a summer camp might access as part of a background check on a potential employee can reveal problems and should be used by all camps, a statewide crime database doesn’t reveal a crime that might have been committed in another state. So a summer camp in, say, Pennsylvania that performs only a statewide check has no idea whether one of its counselors previously committed a serious crime in, say, Ohio. An FBI-database check helps to cover that gap.

Extra Protection: Summer-Camp Tuition Reimbursement Insurance

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From 2003 to 2011, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children operated a Congress-approved pilot program that allowed summer camps and other youth organizations to use the FBI crime database to screen potential employees by fingerprint. At least 100,000 checks were conducted, and 6 percent of job applicants were found to have a “criminal record of concern,” according to the pilot program’s records. About one-third of those who had a “criminal record of concern” were convicted of a violent felony, a sex crime—rape or sexual assault—or a crime against children or animals; the remaining two-thirds were charged with the same types of crimes, but the FBI database didn’t say whether the person was convicted.

Forty percent of the crimes occurred in a state other than the one where the summer camp at which the criminal applied for work was located. Twenty-three percent of the applicants who had a criminal record provided fake names on their application to try to hide their identity. Such a trick might work against lesser background checks, but background checks that use the FBI crime database also compare an applicant’s fingerprints against fingerprints that are in the FBI database, which means that using a fake name on an application won’t work. Had it not been for access to the FBI crime database, the data suggest that summer camps would have been more likely to hire criminals to work with children, experts say.

“It was a small percentage, but it demonstrated a need” for these background checks, says Abbie Evans, who is the director of government relations at National Mentoring Partnership, which helped to administer the pilot program.

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