Reducing the Risk of Sexual Abuse at Camp

In the last five years, several nationally reported sexual abuse allegations at camp received significant press and attention.

Concerned parents are asking camps:
What are you doing to protect MY child at THIS camp?”
“What should camps be doing to address this risk?”  

Why are children at risk at camp?
Summer camp fills an important role in American culture, but camps are not without risk.

Campers spend significant time with camp staff members and volunteers— generally with no direct parental supervision. Commonly, campers do not have direct access to simple communication with a parent. Children are taught to respect and obey staff members and counselors, and parents enrolling a child into camp expect their child to be instructed and supervised by camp personnel.

Many campers grow to respect, trust and idolize camp counselors and staff members. Campers are commonly taught to demonstrate ‘camp loyalty’; putting the camp and fellow campers over personal needs or concerns.

As well, basic camp contexts commonly increase the risk of predatory behavior.  Risk increases when an activity involves changing of clothes, use of showers and changing rooms, and overnight stays; all common camp occurrences. Additionally, there is heightened risk when a camp includes activities that involve physical contact, such as sports camps and activities involving harnesses or personal safety equipment worn on the body.  Risk increases when a camp features water activities, shared rooms, bathrooms or showers and physical topography creating areas less easily seen or supervised. Camping carries distinct and unique risks.

What should camps do to prevent sexual abuse?

Camps are prolific, varied in scope and size — and most are led by leaders who are aware that children are at risk of sexual abuse.  Some camp leaders, however, demonstrates a serious lack of understanding of sexual abuse and sexual abusers.  If program leaders lack an understanding of the nature of this risk, they cannot effectively reduce this risk. 

Criminal Background Checks are not enough.

Professionals in law enforcement and social services are reporting record spikes in questions regarding sexual abuse — particularly related to youth activities such as camping.  As well, camps are hearing directly from parents:

What are you doing to keep my child safe?”
Common Answer: “We do criminal background checks.”
Next Question: “What else do you do?”
Common Answer: “What do you mean?”
Therein lies one of the problems; lack of understanding.

Statistically, less than 3-4% of sexual abusers will ever encounter the criminal justice system. Put differently, more than 95% of sexual abusers have no criminal record to check.  If a criminal background check works with 100% efficiency (which is not likely), and faultlessly gathers every record in the country — a camp would receive records related to less than 3-4% of individuals desiring to sexually abuse children.

Should criminal background checks be discontinued?  Of course not.  Criminal background checks are necessary and reasonable –the proverbial ‘low-hanging fruit’. Every organization providing services to children should make reasonable effort to access past criminal behavior of any applicant, but criminal background checks should not serve as a stand-alone safety measure.

Are criminal background checks ‘working’?  If a criminal background check is used as a stand-alone system to protect children from abuse, no.  If a criminal background check is used as one element of a ‘safety system’; perhaps.

But what constitutes an effective safety system for camps?

An Effective Safety System

An effective safety system for camps must be based on known facts related to sexual abuse and sexual abusers. The foundation of an effective system includes effective training of staff members and volunteers, such that staff members have ‘eyes to see and ears to hear’ grooming behaviors utilized by sexual abusers.

Sexual Abuse Awareness Training provides staff members and volunteers with crucial information regarding abuser characteristics and the grooming process; the process by which a predator selects and prepares a child for sexual abuse. As well, this training describes common grooming behaviors, warning signs of abuse and reporting responsibilities.

With training, camp employees and volunteers are better equipped to reduce the risk of child sexual abuse at camp. At the same time, effective training communicates to a would-be abuser that protective barriers have been raised, giving him (or her) an opportunity to ‘opt out’ of the program.

What elements should an effective safety system include?
An effective safety system should include:

  1.  Sexual Abuse Awareness Training;
  2.  An Effective Screening System;
  3.  Tailored Policies & Procedures;
  4.  An Appropriate Criminal Background Check; and
  5.  A System to Ensure Monitoring and Oversight.
    (Other system elements may be necessary, depending on specific camp activities.)

Sexual Abuse Awareness Training is the foundation of an effective safety system.  Accurate information about sexual abusers and abuser characteristics helps program leaders prepare policies and procedures tailored to particular camp activities and facilities.  The same information assists camp staff personnel in understanding and implementing these policies and procedures.

Where can I get help in the design and implementation of an effective safety system?
Abuse Prevention Systems  provides live and online Sexual Abuse Awareness Training and an online control panel generating training links and tracking training completion and renewal. Abuse Prevention Systems also provide live and online Skillful Screening Trainingsample camp policies, screening forms, and other training resources for camps.