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

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Unfortunately, nothing replaced the pilot program after it expired in 2011, even though bills that are similar to what Schumer’s bill proposes were introduced in every Congress since 2008. For example, in 2010, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a similar bill by a 413-4 vote, but the Senate didn’t vote on it, because a few Republicans objected to language that was in the bill that would have forced the federal government to pay for at least some of the program. Such federal spending requirements don’t exist in Schumer’s bill, which makes safety advocates optimistic that the bill could become law.

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Although proponents of Schumer’s bill and a companion bill that’s been proposed in the House are hopeful that the bills will be passed in 2014, neither the House nor the Senate had voted on their bill at press time, and it’s unclear when either might do so. Even if the House and the Senate approved such bills in 2014, the FBI background-check program would take up to 1 year to be implemented, so it’s unlikely that summer camps would have first-time access to the FBI database until at least January 2015.

“When volunteers or employees will be working directly with children, often unsupervised, we should provide the best possible information to organizations, so they can make informed decisions,” says Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who is one of the bill’s sponsors in the House. Unfortunately, Schumer’s bill doesn’t require any summer camp to use FBI’s crime database; it merely provides permanent access for all summer camps to use it. So even if the law were enacted, parents still would have to ask prospective summer camps whether they use the FBI crime database as part of their background check.

Furthermore, although experts whom we interviewed believe that the FBI database is the best crime database that exists, it isn’t perfect, because it relies on states to upload their data on arrests and convictions in a timely fashion, and that varies. Also, a 2006 study by the U.S. attorney general’s office found that about half of FBI’s records don’t indicate whether a case resulted in a conviction or a dismissal. As a result, parents should look for a summer camp that also researches employee references, checks state sex-offender registries and institutes a policy that prevents high-risk situations, four experts tell us.

In particular, a summer camp should prohibit counselors from having one-on-one interaction with a child in a private situation, experts say. One-on-one lessons in an activity are OK, but such activities should occur in the presence of other people, so they can observe and reduce the likelihood of inappropriate behavior by a counselor.

Summer camps increasingly prohibit counselors and students from interacting on Facebook or Twitter during and after camp, experts tell us. The idea is to prevent an employee from trying to foster an inappropriate relationship with a camper that in a worst-case scenario could lead to sexual abuse. However, experts say it’s difficult for summer camps to police the social-media accounts of their counselors, particularly during the off-season, when they no longer are employees. Consequently, parents should keep close track of their child’s interactions online to look for suspicious interaction with former or current summer-camp counselors.

INJURIES AND INSURANCE. Of course, safety extends beyond the threat of sexual predators, because summer camps are full of other potential hazards, such as injuries that are the result of contact sports or water-related activities. Fortunately, injuries appear to be rare at summer camps. Studies that were published by researchers at Columbus Children’s Research Institute in 2006 and ACA in 2011 show that only 0.4 injuries occur per 1,000 camper days. (A camper day is defined as one camper attending 1 day of camp.) Minor injuries that are the result of a camper falling are the most common, although serious injuries can occur in high-risk activities, such as horseback riding or rock climbing. Illnesses are more likely to occur than are injuries at summer camps, with 0.8 illnesses per 1,000 camper days, according to both studies.

To help to prevent injuries, we believe that campers always should be supervised. Unfortunately, no guarantee exists that your state requires adequate staff-camper ratios or that your state requires any such ratios at all. No database exists that tracks which states require ratios, yet we found no states that require staff-camper ratios that are stricter than those that ACA-accredited camps require. For example, the state health code in New York requires one counselor for every 12 campers at a day camp. For overnight camps, New York requires that children who are under the age of 8 must be supervised at a ratio of 1 counselor for every 8 children; for children who are 8 and older, the counselor-camper ratio is 1:10. ACA accreditation requires stricter levels. For overnight camps, ACA mandates a 1:5 ratio for children who are 4 and 5; a 1:6 ratio for children who are 6–8; a 1:8 ratio for children who are 9–14; and a 1:10 ratio for children who are ages 15 and up.

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