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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.

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.

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.

The highest risk area of camp is water-related activities, because lakes and other bodies of water are the most likely place where a camper might die, Hedges says. All summer camps should require that campers are tested at the beginning of summer camp to determine swimming skill—a requirement of all ACA-accredited camps. Summer camps also should provide lessons for those who can’t swim or for campers who have to improve their swimming, Hedges says. If a summer camp has waterfront access and doesn’t provide swim lessons, and your child doesn’t know how to swim, then you should reconsider sending your child to that camp and pick another.

Although experts believe water-related activities should have higher staff-camper ratios than do land-based activities, neither ACA nor most states have ratio guidelines that are specifically for water-related activities. For states that have such ratio guidelines, we found some that aren’t necessarily stricter than they are for land-based activities. For instance, New York requires a staff-camper ratio for water-related activities of 1:6 for children who are under 6, 1:8 for children who are 6–8 and 1:10 for children who are 9 and older.

Even though summer-camp injuries are considered to be rare, you should avoid sending your child to a camp that doesn’t have a plan for medical care when such care is needed. If a summer camp doesn’t provide an on-site nurse, then it should have at least a plan for transportation to an emergency room or to a doctor if a camper is injured or ill, says longtime camp doctor Edward Walton, who is the division director of pediatric emergency medicine at William Beaumont Hospital.

If your child has a serious injury or illness during camp and he/she has to return home, it raises the question of what happens to the tuition that you shelled out. Unfortunately, refund policies vary widely, although a few summer camps will return at least some of the tuition if an injury or an illness requires a camper to leave before camp is over. For instance, refund policies might prorate your child’s time at summer camp and refund you the remaining amount. Summer camps that have refund policies also might refund costs if you cancel in a particular time period before the start date (often at least 1 month before camp begins). So, you have to read the fine print of the policies that are in a summer camp’s contract to determine under what circumstances—if any—the camp will refund your tuition.

QUALITY AND COSTS. The good news is that the cost of most summer camps hasn’t increased dramatically in recent years. According to ACA, the average tuition for a day camp is $304 per week, compared with $303 per week in 2005. Tuition for summer camps where children sleep at the camp costs $690 per week, which is an increase from $597 in 2005. Peg Smith, who is the CEO of ACA, attributes the higher prices of overnight summer camps to higher costs of utilities and maintenance, increased food prices—overnight camps feed campers all of their meals—and increased levels of training for counselors, who supervise children at night.

“They’re running a small community,” Smith says. “When you have a 24/7 camp, your costs can fluctuate more than a day camp.”

The cost is much higher at so-called specialty summer camps, which are designed to let children focus on a particular area of interest, such as computer programming, classical music or sports. Tuition at specialty summer camps can cost as much as 1 year’s tuition at an Ivy League college, because such camps charge up to (gulp!) $10,000 per week to attend.

Of course, cost doesn’t correlate necessarily with the quality and comprehensiveness of a summer camp’s training or standards. Because no federal regulatory system exists for summer camps, the experts whom we interviewed say parents should look first for camps that have been accredited by ACA, which has accredited camps for 50 years. Experts say ACA’s accreditation requires more and stricter standards than does any other accreditation, including state licensing.

ACA accreditation includes following 300 rules and standards in health, emergency procedures and staff training. The association inspects each camp site for initial accreditation, which might take up to 3 years, and then every 3 years afterward as part of the accreditation renewal. Only about 20 percent of U.S summer camps are accredited by ACA, Smith says. Although no expert could explain why so few summer camps have ACA accreditation, we believe that most camps don’t have it because parents don’t demand it; other camps might seek to avoid the rigor of the standards or don’t want to shell out for ACA accreditation fees, which run from $500 to $6,000, depending on the size of the camp’s operating budget and its location.

Even state governments use ACA accreditation as a barometer for a high-quality summer camp. For example, Ohio provides financial aid only for campers who attend ACA-accredited summer camps. Meanwhile, lawyers for injured campers and employees successfully used the fact that summer camps failed to maintain ACA-level safety standards as evidence of negligence in court cases.

“If I were a parent, I wouldn’t even consider a camp that didn’t have ACA accreditation,” says Judy Levine, who is a camp-referral consultant at Summer Camp and Trip Resources.

“One of the best things a parent can do is to make sure [the camp] is ACA-accredited,” Hedges says. “It doesn’t mean that it’s the guaranteed safest camp, but it does mean that they met a basic standard.”

However, it’s ultimately up to parents to determine whether a summer camp is a good fit for their child. Experts believe that parents should contact the summer-camp director to ask detailed questions even if a particular summer camp has ACA accreditation and is located in a state where camps are regulated and camps have access to the FBI crime database for background checks. You’ll want to discuss issues such as behavior management and camper discipline, what steps the camp takes to prevent bullying, how it handles emergencies, such as fires or severe weather, and what steps it takes to prevent sexual abuse. The best camps will have clear policies in those areas.

The bottom line is that camp directors should be open and willing to discuss all of your concerns and questions. If camp directors become defensive about any of the questions that experts suggest that you ask, then it should raise a red flag regardless of whether they don’t know the answers or they’re trying to hide something from you. Either case means that you likely should look for another summer camp.

Unfortunately, picking the right summer camp for your child requires a lot of work. We believe that parents who scrutinize all of the factors that contribute to a summer camp’s safety put themselves in the best position to avoid getting burned by a camp that doesn’t take the proper precautions to protect their child.

Freelance writer Patrick Doyle has been a journalist for 10 years. He is a contributing editor at Matter and has written for Men’s Journal and Real Simple.

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