Behold the question every parent ponders before and after the camp season. The good news is that hiring protocols and staff training programs at most high quality camps prevent anyone with ulterior or unsavory motives from ever becoming a part of the camp family. Whew!
The bad news is that every summer, a tiny fraction of the millions of boys and girls who attend camps in the US and Canada are either mistreated by a camp staff member during the season or drawn into an inappropriate relationship sometime after. I believe that even a tiny fraction is unacceptable, so I want to share the keys to protecting your child.
Readers familiar with my work know what a tremendous advocate I am for youth camping. Having worked for decades with dozens of venerable professional camp organizations, I understand what a positive and powerful developmental growth experience camp is for young people. I am also a tremendous advocate of child safety. As a clinical psychologist and waterfront director with two children of my own, I’m probably one of the most safety-conscious people you’ll meet. Indeed, every summer, I bet my staff $1000 that they’ll never catch me in any of our 64 camp boats without a life jacket. I’ve yet to lose that bet.
I also teach my own children about safe and unsafe touch so they understand the difference and could stop and report an inappropriate advance. Even if it happened at camp. Beyond my own family, I have created a library of video training modules, hosted on a website called ExpertOnlineTraining.com. The site provides training to tens of thousands of summer camp staff worldwide, and includes titles such as Safe Touch & Safe Talk, Duty of Care, Active Lifeguarding, and Wise Use of Time Off. Naturally, I recommend that you ask your child’s camp director whether he or she subscribes to ExpertOnlineTraining.com or other reputable online training. Pre-season online training has become an essential supplement to the on-site training camp counselors receive. Given the choice between highly trained and less highly trained staff, the choice for parents is obvious.
Of course, camp and safety go hand-in-hand. Campers do engage in risky activities at camp, such as swimming, rock climbing, and horseback riding, but wise camp directors ensure that every reasonable precaution is in place to minimize the occurrence of accidents. Those precautions are part of what make risky activities fun, not frightening. Those precautions are also what make parents trust high-quality camps. Naturally, smart parents understand that no camp is accident-free, but when they can see the safety equipment in place, they are reassured. If you were to walk around camp, you should see the lifeguards on duty, see the safety harnesses on the climbers, and see the helmets on the riders.
Sadly, nobody could ever see the potential for inappropriate behavior between a camp staff member and a child. But that invisibility should not stop you from protecting your child from predators by asking the right questions and looking for the warning signs of an unhealthy relationship.
As I outline in my book, The Summer Camp Handbook, you should begin by teaching your child how to protect him- or herself from unsafe touch. Norman Friedman’s book Inoculating Your Child Against Sexual Abuse provides detailed guidance as well. Next, conduct the search for your child’s camp carefully. This careful search has many components but the three that most parents neglect are:
1) Finding out whether the camp is accredited and by whom.
2) Discussing the director’s education and experience.
3) Asking about the camp’s hiring protocols and staff training program.
In these three neglected domains, here’s what you should verify:
1) The camp you send your child to should be accredited. In the US, this means accredited by the American Camp Association. In Canada, this means accredited by the province in which the camp operates. There are some high-quality non-accredited camps, but you’ll need to personally verify hundreds of health, safety and personnel standards before resting assured you’ve chosen wisely. Use the ACA’s new Accreditation Standards for Camp Programs and Services as your guide.
2) Your camp’s director should have years of youth development experience under his or her belt and should participate in continuing professional education-such as camp conferences-each year. Find out what their professional credentials are, what conferences or seminars they last attended, and what other camp experience they have.
3) The camp should freely share with you its protocols for conducting required background checks. These could include criminal background checks, but that will only uncover whether a person has been convicted of a felony in the state or province in which the check is conducted. More meaningful is the process of religiously checking a staff member’s references. Finding people who have known the prospective hire well and who have witnessed their work with children is better than verifying whether or not they are not a convicted felon. The camp should also freely share with you its staff training program, including participation in ExpertOnlineTraining.com. Whatever training program a director uses should include modules on appropriate touch, discipline, and communication with children.
Lest your love and concern for your child evolve into protective paranoia, let me emphasize that the personal relationships that form between your child and the camp staff are typically wonderful. They are what kids remember most about camp and what they crave during the off-season. These relationships are also the necessary foundation for growth. Without those caring relationships, there can be no increased self-esteem or independence, no growth in social-skills or confidence. The key to a positive experience at camp is a healthy, nurturing relationship between children and their caregivers at camp. For this reason, it is my sincere hope that the principles outlined above will help you and your son or daughter find a camp where those healthy relationships flourish.
Dr. Christopher Thurber