Schools are dismissing for summer break, and kids are excited to enter a new summer season. Parents and caregivers plan where their children will spend most of the summer and how to keep children safe in summer camps. These plans often involve summer camps as most parents and caregivers still have to work normal schedules during the summer months. So how do we find safe, fun, and supportive environments for our children? What do we look for? What questions do we ask, and how do we prepare children?
Summer camps should be safe places for children to enjoy having new experiences and making new friends and where parents and caregivers can trust their kids will be safe from any form of child sexual abuse.
Summer Camp Can Present Opportunities, but not all are good.
The statistics of child sexual abuse are staggering and overwhelming, and sadly we know that sometimes children are put at risk for being sexually abused at summer camps by staff, volunteers, or other children. Crime needs opportunity, and what we know about child sexual abuse is that the abuse often takes place in isolation. Any environment where an adult or youth worker would have one-on-one time with children puts that child at the greatest risk. Summer camps provide this access, and predators seek out these opportunities. Many camps have implemented stringent policies and procedures to prevent and respond to child abuse, including background checks for staff, staff training, and adherence to child protection guidelines.
What Parents Can Do to Protect Children at Summer Camp.
Despite these efforts, remaining vigilant and taking proactive steps to safeguard your children is crucial. Parents and caregivers should prioritize open communication with their children, educate them about personal boundaries and appropriate behavior, and encourage reporting of any incidents or concerns. In addition, parents and caregivers need to know what to look for when selecting summer camps for their children.
Summer camps often recruit older youth on summer break seeking short-term employment to serve as staff or camp counselors who are often charged with oversight of daily activities and all programming. These staff should have proper certifications, background checks, and training. Summer camps offer a variety of activities that should be exciting and fun for children. However, often they are breeding grounds for predators because of high enrollments and the variety of activities, such as swimming and other activities that require children to have access to changing rooms and showers.
Protecting your child from abuse is a top priority for any parent, and it’s important to take proactive measures to safeguard them during summer camp. Here are some steps you can take to help ensure your child’s safety:
Research the summer camp.
Before enrolling your child in a summer camp, thoroughly research the camp’s reputation, safety policies, and staff credentials. Look for camps that conduct thorough background checks on their staff and have comprehensive child protection policies. Every childcare setting should have clearly outlined screening processes for staff and volunteers. These processes should include a full criminal background check, a child welfare background check in the respective state you are in, and if that person has lived in any other state, a child welfare check from that respective state. There should be extensive interviewing processes with pointed questions about child safety and protection. There should always be professional recommendations or references given by multiple persons, both from the person’s professional life and personal life.
Many summer camps use adult volunteers and or older youth, often returning from summer break for employment or those needing internships for disciplines such as becoming a teacher or social worker, etc. Programs should deploy the same due diligence in screening for any adults or older youth staff or volunteers, regardless of whether or not they are getting paid; their access to the children in that program is the same, so the screening and rules should be applied equally.
Many states have various laws and regulatory requirements around these screenings, so it is also good to be familiar with what your state requires and then ask for proof that those requirements are being upheld in that organization or program. You would be surprised how many organizations and agencies are not fully compliant and get away with it due to staff shortages and overworked state agencies. Childwelfare.gov offers quick and easy search functions to find your state and its applicable laws and oversight.
Visit the camp and meet the staff.
Schedule a visit to the camp before sending your child. This will allow you to assess the environment and meet the camp staff in person. Always do a physical location visit before placing your child in any program or provider, and take note of how the place looks and whether it is child friendly or appropriate. Are plenty of toys, games, art supplies, and colorful and engaging items around? Observe what shape those items are in and ask how they obtain items. Make sure equipment isn’t outdated, rusted, or broken. Ask about maintenance and cleanliness protocols. If the provider does not care for the belongings and items your child(ren) will be using, how can you have any confidence in their staffing care?
Observe how the staff interacts with children and ask questions about their training and supervision practices. All the policies and procedures are great, but if staff and volunteers are not trained on them, they are useless. The next area you should seek to understand is the training staff, and volunteers receive.
- What is the frequency of training?
- What is required and what is not required?
- Do they have minimum training standards?
- Do they offer advanced training opportunities to keep up to date on best practices and new areas of law?
- Do they have proof of the training received by staff and volunteers?
When interviewing about a new place for your child(ren), these are great questions. Good childcare facilities will have all this information documented and readily available. If they do not, that is a major red flag.
Check for accreditation and certifications.
Look for accredited camps accredited by recognized organizations, such as the American Camp Association (ACA). Accredited camps usually adhere to strict safety standards and regulations. Many states offer accreditation or certification for childcare facilities, and the state should license most. Also, there are ways for childcare workers to become certified in places such as The Red Cross and other agencies. Ask for verification of the certifications and training. Many sites now offer online training and certifications; in these instances, when hiring a worker, quiz them on the basic requirements to see if they actually paid attention to the training or if they just clicked through to get the requirement fulfilled.
Communicate with the camp staff.
Establish open lines of communication with the camp staff. Discuss your child’s safety concerns and inquire about their prevention and response to abuse protocols. Share relevant information about your child, such as allergies, medical conditions, or special needs. This way, the camp knows you are informed and educated on the best practices for summer camps and that your child has also been informed on what to look for and who to report to.
Teach your child about personal boundaries.
Educate them about personal boundaries, appropriate behavior, and what to do if they feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Please give them the language they need about their bodies so that no one can manipulate them into thinking some touch is ok etc. Let them know they are entitled to privacy when changing and using the bathroom. No one should be watching them or trying to help them get dressed or undressed unless they ask for help, and even then, that should not be done in private but with other people around. Teach them to speak up and report incidents or concerns to a trusted adult. Please give them the tools they need to safeguard themselves and their friends so they do not feel that normal hesitation or fear of reporting that so many kids feel who have never been empowered to understand and report abuse.
Review camp policies and procedures.
Read and understand the camp’s child protection and abuse prevention policies. Know their reporting procedures and who to contact in case of an emergency or suspicion of abuse. Every childcare facility, summer camp, etc., should have mandatory reporting policies. Mandatory reporting for child abuse is a legal requirement that certain professionals, such as teachers, doctors, social workers, and other individuals and volunteers who work closely with children, must report any suspected or known cases of child abuse or neglect to the appropriate authorities.
Staffing ratios to child enrollments are another key indicator for where to place your child(ren). You want lots of supervision and monitoring happening in the environment where your children will be. The more staff and volunteers, the more eyes and ears there are to ensure nothing inappropriate is said or occurs. Staff and volunteers will have a higher level of accountability when there are more of them around. If something does happen to a child, the response time will also be much quicker when there are plenty of staff and volunteers to respond to a child in need.
Encourage open communication.
Create a supportive environment where your child feels comfortable talking to you about their experiences at camp. Regularly check in with them and encourage them to share any concerns or incidents that may have occurred but do not belabor the issue so much that you scare the child. In your daily check-ins, ask how their day was, what was a highlight of camp, and what was a low point. Did anything happen to make them happy or sad? Ask your child if they needed to stand up for themselves that day for any reason. Or did they need to stand up for anyone else that day? These great open-ended questions can help get to details about a child’s day that will not be revealed when we ask: How was your day?
Trust your instincts.
As a parent, trust your instincts if something feels off or raises concerns. Investigate any red flags and address them directly with the camp administration. Know that it is your right to ask questions. Engage camp staff, and advocate for yourself and your child(ren). If you are not feeling comfortable with your choice, if necessary, consider finding an alternative camp where you feel more confident about your child’s safety.
Stay informed and involved.
Stay informed about your child’s camp activities and events. Attend parent meetings, read newsletters or updates, and stay involved in your child’s camp experience. Check-in with other parents and caregivers and find out what their children are doing at camp. Engage in volunteer opportunities or parents’ days at camp so you can observe your child in the space.
Report suspicions or incidents.
If you have any reason to suspect abuse or if your child discloses any incidents, report it immediately to the camp administration and the appropriate authorities. We all have a responsibility to protect our children. Reporting any signs of sexual abuse not only protects your child but it can also protect future children from harm. If there is an incident, make sure everyone is doing the right investigations and follow-up they should be doing. Follow through with any investigations or actions the camp or law enforcement takes. If any entity from the camp to law enforcement isn’t thoroughly investigating, you can report them to higher authorities within your state.
Child protection is a collective effort involving parents, caregivers, camp staff, and the broader community. Being proactive and vigilant can help ensure your child has a safe and enjoyable summer camp experience. Contact us today if you suspect someone you know or love was abused at a summer camp. Our lawyers have experience in holding camp facilities accountable.