Protecting Child Safety at All Levels of Society

Summer safety: choosing a summer camp or recreation program

School is out and kids are fanning across the community, joining programs such as summer camps and sports teams. This year I have noticed advertisements for all sorts of camps popping up. More and more businesses seem to be adding a camp component to their offerings. Bowling camp, martial arts programs expanded to summer camps, and even computer gaming camp caught my attention, and, to be honest, my concern in some cases. It is one thing to take your child bowling as a family, or attend a birthday party at the bowling alley, but another thing to drop off a child there for a full day of childcare under the staff’s supervision. So the first thing I would want to know about any camp is whether they understand that there are crucially important responsibilities that come along with being a youth-serving organization. Do they understand that they are taking on the responsibilities of child safety, or are they just looking for a way to expand their business?

Some of the questions I would want to know about when choosing a program for my child are:

First, I would ask about how the program’s leaders think about child safety, and listen closely to their answer. Have they already thought it through? Do they even understand the responsibilities that come along with being a youth-serving organization? Are they willing to talk about the issue, rather than being defensive or offended that you asked? If a program leader would not address these issues in a forthright manner, I would not send my child to that program.

Does the organization do criminal background checks on all employees and volunteers? Most people who run camps and sports teams have very good intentions, but some don’t. Additionally, every youth-serving program needs to acknowledge that people who are perpetrators will be drawn to work in programs that give them access to kids. So even though most people who work in youth-serving organizations are good people, a small number of undetected abusers can do a tremendous amount of harm. Every organization must understand this risk and have procedures in place to protect the children in their care.

Screening employees and volunteers is necessary but not sufficient in itself, because many perpetrators don’t have a criminal record. What is the organization’s employee conduct policy? If they don’t have one, that is a red flag. If they do have one, ask to receive a copy. Sample policy (link from CDC report). Look for guidelines that prohibit potential grooming behavior, such as making it against the rules for camp employees to give gifts to individual campers (for example, it is ok to give popsicles to the whole team, but not allowed to give a new soccer ball to an individual camper), and making it against the rules to develop personal relationships with families outside of the camp situation.

Is there abuse-prevention training provided for all employees who work with kids, including camp counselors who may be youth themselves? Darkness 2 Light offers an excellent Stewards of Children child sexual abuse prevention training for people who work with kids.

Do they understand the principles of two-deep leadership; that is, having two unrelated adults in charge of kids and avoiding private one-on-one interactions between an adult and child, or kids interacting with each other in an unsupervised way.

This involves situation management, having an awareness of setting activities up in a safe way, and paying special attention to higher-stakes situations such as children changing clothes or showering in a locker room, and how campers use the restroom. Ideally, multiple children will not be in a bathroom or locker room unsupervised. For example, at a day camp, a counselor can escort kids to the bathroom, form a line of kids outside, let a few kids in at once (according to the number of stalls), and stand at the door to supervise the overall situation. This may sound like a lot of trouble but that is the kind of responsibility and attention to leadership that camps must be willing to take on. Child-on-child abuse is a significant risk and locker rooms, bathrooms, and overnight outings are situations where it can be carried out.

Are activities observable and interruptible? Can I come visit, drop in and observe? Most crucially, can my child call me if s/he has a safety problem?

These are the core issues I would ask about sexual abuse prevention. I would also make sure to address other safety issues that are specific to the camp, such as water safety, sports safety, and transportation safety. I will expand on transportation safety in a separate article, but my big red flag to look out for is programs transporting children in large 12-15 passenger vans. These vans are not safe for passengers and I would avoid them whenever possible. These vans are generally outlawed for public school use, but unfortunately you see them used by private schools, colleges, churches, and some private afterschool programs like martial arts schools.

You may be thinking “My kid just wants something to do for a week, this seems like a lot of work!” but any time you put your child in someone else’s care, you should be prepared to go through this process. To streamline this process, you can look for organizations that have well-established programs and guidelines, like the Ys, accredited schools, and faith communities that follow Safe Sanctuaries program guidelines, but you can never just assume that a camp is a good program or that someone you know through another activity (such as after-school tennis lessons) is automatically prepared to run a larger camp program.

One final point, if your child is participating in a camp that is run by a university or other organization that is used to being in charge of older students, make sure that they have thought through the policies and procedures they need to have in place for supervising younger children and protecting the safety of minors. Do not assume this is taking place–you should talk to program leaders about it.

Keep your attention attuned to safety, and once your child is enrolled in a program, keep the conversation going about what’s happening at camp, and ask whether there is anything that concerns him or her.


My co-author Irene van der Zande teaches parents about Camp Safety in her new video, Kidpower Advice to Prevent Sexual Abuse At Summer Camp & Recreation Activities.

YMCA of the USA’s Child Abuse Prevention Code of Conduct. A good basic policy for any youth-serving organization to consider as a template.

Comprehensive CDC Guide that would be helpful to program leaders or interested parents: Preventing Child Sexual Abuse within Youth-serving Organizations: Getting Started on Policies and Procedures

Darkness 2 Light’s Stewards of Children Training is offered online or taught in group sessions by authorized facilitators across the nation.

Redwoods Group: The Redwoods Group insures YMCAs, JCCs, and summer camps across the country. This makes them a leading expert in child safety practices for youth-serving organizations. Through their insurance work, they have developed expertise in areas most people “don’t want to be an expert in,” such as drownings and child abuse, and it takes special people to work on tackling these problems. Redwoods Group is to be commended for their concerted effort to take what they learn from working with hundreds of organizations to develop best practices and share their knowledge back to the world. They provide a great deal of knowledge, training, and resources through their website.

Safe Sanctuaries program, by the United Methodist Church

Consumer Advisory: NHTSA Reminds Drivers of 15-Passenger Vans to Guard Against Rollover Crashes During the Warm-Weather Driving Season The government can make recommendations on how to drive these vans more safely, but my advice is to avoid them altogether. School buses, cars, or regular minivans are much safer. See the excellent CBS News report, “Rollover,” based on 60 Minutes reporting by Scott Pelley.

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