Protecting Child Safety at All Levels of Society

Analyzing camp safety concerns: Spence’s Farm

How should parents analyze the safety of potential summer camps and programs for their kids? What are the positive signs, or on the other hand, red flags and dealbreakers to look out for? There is an emerging story in my home town that is a troubling case study.

Before we get into this specific story, I’ll recap some of my core principles of camp safety, which are also discussed in detail in last summer’s camp safety blog post. I believe that all youth-serving programs must be held to very high standards. When you choose a program, you are choosing the adults who will be in charge of your kids and their health and safety for a significant period of time, and potentially supervising safety-intensive activities like swimming and other water sports, rock-climibing, or interacting with animals. If I see an area of concern, or “red flag,” I will ask about it and make sure that I am satisfied with the answers before enrolling. If I see one disqualifying “dealbreaker,” I will not choose that program. It is that simple. And, we as parents have every right to apply high standards to any program we choose–in fact, in some cases, parents are the only ones to hold a program accountable. While many programss (such as YMCA Camps) will be accredited by the American Camp Association which has its own industry standards, privately-owned, non-accredited camps may be run with little to no oversight.

I try to choose accredited programs whenever possible. That being said, I have enrolled my daughter in a privately-run summer program, a clayworks camp run by a woman who was also a teacher in our neighborhood public school. She was someone I knew well–my daughter took weekend classes with her all year long at our local coffee shop, and I had a strong feeling of confidence and trust in this teacher. When summer came around I felt fine enrolling my daughter in a week-long camp that took place with a group of kids in the teacher’s home studio.

When you are evaluating a program, ask questions about how the camp runs, what policies are in place to protect safety, how staff are trained, and how kids are supervised. In addition to the substance of the response, it is important to see how the questions are received and answered. Questions about safety should be welcomed by camps, and answered with clarity and transparency, not met with a response of defensiveness, or being offended that you brought up a concern.

I find the allegations about problems at Spence’s Farm very troubling, progressing very quickly into “dealbreaker” territory. Remember that you only need to find one dealbreaker to decide not to enroll your child into a program. There may be some (or even many) good things about a program, or a camp leader, yet if you find an unsolved dealbreaker you should not choose that camp.

Ideally, people who run programs for children should have a professional understanding of safety, but in some cases an existing red flag or dealbreaker could be turned around if a program makes changes. Problems can arise from a lack of knowledge or training rather than nefarious intent, and can sometimes get fixed. But, a solution requires buy-in and a sense of wanting to make things truly better and safer by camp leadership and staff. Again, camps should welcome feedback from campers and parents, and should always want to know right away if there is any safety problem or concern.

Let’s look at the reports of problems at Spence’s Farm. The Indy Weekly’s four-page cover story begins:

On Spence’s Farm for Kids a mile and half north of Chapel Hill, horses graze on hay in paddocks while ponies trot around a ring with smiling kids on their backs. Chickens squawk in a coop near a garden blooming with organic vegetables, making it easy to understand why the children’s programs here have been popular over the last three decades.

Owned and operated by 65-year-old Spence Dickinson, the farm hosts after-school and summer camp programs for kids ages 5 to 16, offering van service from 19 schools in Durham and Orange counties. Billed as an authentic agrarian experience for children, the farm also espouses self-growth principles like empowerment, communication and respecting boundaries.

Yet in the past three months, six staff members have quit. Four of those staffers, during personal interviews, cited Dickinson as the reason for leaving. During the same time period at least 14 children have unexpectedly been pulled out of the program by their parents. Although no one has accused Dickinson of a crime, concerned former staff and parents are worried about the children’s safety at the farm.

“The children have the potential to become hurt due to his neglect and lack of safety procedures,” said former staffer Heather Morand, who called the situation “alarming.”

The Indyweek article by John H. Tucker is worth reading, printing out, and evaluating for yourself. Spence’s Farm is a popular destination for horseback riding, camps and other programs, and Dickinson has owned the farm for 30 years. Yet just because a program is popular or has been around a long time does not automatically mean that it is one you should enroll your child in. Parents always need to look into programs and judge them for themselves. The allegations against Dickinson are troubling and come from several different sources including employees and parents of campers. Allegations include:

• Dickinson encourages campers to walk behind horses unattended, believing it empowers them to overcome the fear of being kicked.
• He has taken children up the steep inclines of Occoneechee Mountain against the recommendation of state parks staff.
• By Dickinson’s own admission, between six and 10 children have been bitten by nonvenomous snakes in the farm’s history.
• Dickinson doesn’t safely maintain his vans. This past fall, one caught on fire during a trip to a school, prompting the driver to leap from the front seat. (No children were in the vehicle.)
• And a former camper alleges Dickinson made sexually inappropriate comments to her in the barn during her first day of employment, on her 19th birthday.

Yet Dickinson claims these conflicts are merely misunderstandings. He says he has a cadre of loyal admirers, including those who say he has helped turn around their lives by infusing them with confidence. He is a proponent of Landmark Forum, a for-profit self-help company based in San Francisco that promotes personal development.

“I look at people, and go, ‘How can I empower you?’ ” said Dickinson. “I want to take another step higher, and be an agent for change.”

Analyzing the situation

You can look at this report about concerns at Spence’s Farm and ask yourself, which of these complaints are red flags, and which are deal-breakers for you?

For me both the substance of the allegations, and the manner of Dickinson’s response, are both troubling dealbreakers.

About the substance, there is a lot to work with, including the fact that two women, on a teenage employee and the other a mother of campers, said Dickinson came on to them sexually and followed the teenager in his car after she asked him not to, and repeatedly called, texted and sent Facebook messages to the mother of campers.

It is interesting to look at Dickinson’s responses as he defends himself. When asked about the recent exodus of staff members, he said “The farm is better because they left. Even if you do good, people will still put you down, because you make them look bad. I am doing some great things here.”

To defend himself against charges that he sexually harassed a 19-year old farm worker on the first day of her job, he brought in a 20-year old female employee as an example to show “that he is a good person” and then said “to be honest, [she] is more attractive than [the teen]” who he was alleged to have harassed, as though that somehow proved a point.

One final concern that emerges like a developing Polaroid picture is that Dickinson is not only defensive, but he uses what feels like “gaslighting” techniques. Gaslighting is a form of deliberately twisting around words and reality to make other person sound misinformed or crazy, so that the target of gaslighting doubts his or her perceptions and judgment. Somehow, according to Dickinson, many people around him are troubled by his actions–but he’s just misunderstood. His attempts to defend himself are a little bizarre and nonsensical. He demonstrates the reporter a “lesson about respecting social boundaries” by crossing into the reporter’s personal space. He tries to show how a stallion is “predictable” and gets his hand bitten and bleeding in the process. When he talks to the reporter about the teen employee’s complaint, which she reported to the sheriff (so did the mother of campers who had a complaint), “Dickinson denied telling the teen that he had sexual thoughts about her. He said he was trying to teach her a lesson. ‘From my experience, it doesn’t matter what you’re feeling or thinking–it’s how you act….I didn’t say I was sexually attracted to her. I wasn’t. I said that if I was, I would not act on it. Because it’s all about what we do, not what we think.'”

This sounds like gaslighting, or one big psychobabble excuse, or both. What Dickinson claims that he said, “I didn’t say I was sexually attracted to her. I wasn’t. I said that if I was, I would not act on it,” is still an inappropriate, unprofessional, boundary-crossing thing for a boss to say to a 19-year old employee on her first day of work.

I know that many people have had good experiences at Spence’s Farm. And I know that we can’t know all that went on with each of these complaints. But these allegations trouble me more than enough to decide that I won’t be enrolling my child in any of these programs, and I encourage other parents and the school system to look very carefully into this situation.

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