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Summer Camp Safety and Injury Prevention

mom_hugging_childEvery summer, more than 11 million US children look forward to attending summer camp. Today’s camps are  unique and varied. In addition to traditional activities, such as hiking, swimming and boating, summer camps also give 21st century kids an opportunity to unplug from technology while they develop self-confidence and lasting friendships. But along with the many benefits of summer camp come some risks. Diligent parents are often concerned about summer camp safety and potential injuries as they prepare to send their children off to camp. The personal injury attorneys of Hardy, Wolf and Downing want parents to know how to keep their children safe by discussing some important points about summer camp safety and injury prevention.

Summer Camp Accreditation and Licensing: Maine

Approximately 25 percent of summer camps are not accredited by the American Camp Association, and 28 states do not require camp staff to go through a criminal background check before being hired (this includes the state of Maine). Therefore, parents should think carefully when evaluating potential summer camp programs, and understand what to do if their child is hurt or injured while away at camp. If your child is injured while away at camp, it’s often wise to contact an experienced personal injury attorney if you have any questions regarding liability.

According to the American Camp Association, a national organization which accredits 2,400 camps nationwide,  there are more than 1,500,000 adults employed in various positions in summer camps (2010 ACA Camp Compensation and Benefits Report). Additionally, over the past decade, there has been an increase in the use of international staff at summer camps.  Nearly 20 percent of camp staff is now hails from other countries. It can be difficult for parents to know how to evaluate a camp’s staff.

Maine Camp Policies

Staffing At Summer Camps and Potential for Sexual Abuse

Unfortunately, although many camps meet ACA requirements for accreditation (which includes background checks for staffers and a 300 point check list) many camps do not require background checks or references for camp counselors or other camp staff. This means that your child’s summer camp, along with their counselors and the overall facility, does not necessarily conform to any set of known or national standards.

The state of Maine, for example, does NOT require background checks for summer camp employees, but does require summer camps to operate with a license (governed by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services).

The lack of criminal background checks can lead to serious and sometimes tragic consequences for children away at summer camp. For example, in 2004, a Massachusetts man was removed from a camp counseling position at a Maine camp for boys in grades 2-10. State troopers, acting on a tip, searched the man’s computer and found child pornography. It was not immediately clear if the man harmed any children at the camp. However, officials at the camp said they did perform a criminal background and reference check on the man. This highlights an important difficultly facing  both camp administrators and worried parents as they try to ensure their children’s safety; sometimes, offenders with no criminal record can slip through the cracks and obtain positions working as counselors. Camps, however, still have a duty to do everything within their power to protect children from predators who are out to hurt and abuse them.

Other frightening cases of molestation and physical or sexual abuse have happened at summer camps around the country. For example, in 2000, a youth minister was suspected of molesting up to 250 boys, and was later convicted of rape, indecent assault and disseminating pornography to minors and sentenced to 40 to 50 years in prison. At a camp in Texas, an eleven year old boy was not only sexually abused by a counselor who threatened to stab him if he told his parents, the owner of the camp discouraged the boy from telling anyone what happened, allegedly because if he told the truth, camp would likely have been shut down. Fortunately, the boy eventually told his parents, who reported the entire incident to authorities.

Although molestation and sexual abuse at summer camps is a relatively rare occurrence, it is still a very real and serious danger. This is especially true at camps that don’t perform background checks on staff. Parents should carefully screen their child’s camp to help minimize the likelihood of sexual abuse. Parents should also ask whether the camp requires background checks and references for all their employees, and what overall training staffers receive about child sexual abuse. Additionally, parents should know how camp directors educate the children on what to do if they feel unsafe or threatened while at camp, and discuss these policies with their children before they leave for camp.

It is important that the camp not only monitor counselors, but other staff members and peers as well. Children should NEVER be alone with other campers, and all cabins should have at least TWO adult counselors at all times. If you are concerned that a summer camp failed to reasonably protect your child, it’s wise to contact a personal injury attorney.

Warning signs of abuse in children may include:

  • Trouble walking or sitting
  • Early awareness of sexual topics
  • Sexual acting out or acting seductive
  • Unusual shyness about getting undressed, showering or bathing
  • Avoiding affection for no reason
  • Avoiding a specific person for no apparent reason
  • Bedwetting or soiling
  • Nightmares or difficulty sleeping
  • Reluctance or refusal to go back to camp
  • Warning signs of abuse in other campers
  • Hostility or aggressive behavior
  • Social isolation or withdrawal
  • Depression, thoughts of suicide
  • Substance abuse

Parents can help prepare children who are going away to summer camp by helping them learn the proper name for their body parts. Children should also be reassured that they won’t be punished if or shamed if they report sexual abuse. If your child confides in you after they have been abused, it is important that you believe what they have to say. Ask questions, but not in a way that makes the child feel unsure or wrong about telling you what happened. Encourage your child to talk to you, and create an environment of trust and openness.

Risk for Other Injuries at Summer Camps

The good news for parents and children is that the vast majority of children who attend summer camps have wonderful experiences. The American Camp Association’s Healthy Camp Study found that the risk of serious injury at resident summer camps is fairly low, especially when compared to other youth activities, such as youth sports leagues, or other comparable activities (e.g. playing at playgrounds). According to the study, less than 3 percent of camp injuries required hospitalization.

Contrary to popular belief, most injuries to campers occur during supervised camp activities, not when campers were unsupervised. Most parents believe children sustain injuries when they are unsupervised, but the research proves otherwise.  Parents should note, however, that longer term summer camp sessions (those lasting for 2 weeks or longer) pose an increased risk of injury.

Camp Safety and Unintentional Injuries

According to the CDC, approximately 20-25 children die from preventable injuries every day. Unintentional injury is the leading cause of death for children between the ages of 1 and 19 years. Because unintentional injury (including accidents such as drowning and falls) affect so many children, parents should be especially vigilant when choosing a summer camp, and ensure that the camp and its staff are well equipped to handle emergencies and prevent injuries.

When choosing your child’s  camp, ask how the staff will handle medical emergencies, whether they have trained medical staff on the premises, and inquire about their child to staff ratios (see below for recommendations from the American Camp Association).  It may also be a good idea to ask if the camp has any complaints registered against it with the Better Business Bureau.

The American Camp Association’s guide on recommended staff to camper ratio for both day and overnight campers.

  • 4-to-5-year-olds. Overnight: 5:1. Day camp: 6:1.
  • 6-to-8-year-olds. Overnight: 6:1. Day camp: 8:1.
  • 9-to-14-year-olds. Overnight: 8:1. Day camp: 10:1.
  • 15-to-18-year-olds. Overnight: 10:1. Day camp: 12:1.

When choosing a camp for your child, look into the camp and interview the camp operators, but also ask other parents for references. If you are not sure about your child’s readiness for camp, some experts suggest sending your child to camp with a sibling or other close friend to help them feel more comfortable.

When your child goes away to summer camp, the camp is required to keep your child safe. The camp must review its activities and maintain its facilities in an effort to ensure that all its campers are safe and well protected. Equipment must be properly maintained and in good working order.  Staff members should be trained for the activities they supervise, and appropriate staff ratios and supervision policies should be enforced. Children should be divided into age appropriate groups, and children should not be left alone with other campers without an adult present.

The camp is responsible for caring for your child and minimizing their risk of injury. If they fail to protect your child and your child is injured as a result, the camp may be liable for your child’s injury and their pain and suffering. If your child is injured while they are away at camp, make sure they receive proper medical attention and document everything you can about their injury.

Then, if you have questions regarding an injury your child received while away at summer camp or would like help understanding your legal rights, please contact the experienced personal injury attorneys at Hardy, Wolf and Downing to schedule a free and confidential evaluation of your case.  Attorneys in our Lewiston, Portland and downtown Portland  law offices are available to answer your questions regarding your child’s summer camp injury accident, and will put our expertise and experience in the field of personal injury law to work for your family.

Our personal injury attorneys provide our blog as a service to our clients. They are meant to be purely informational.