Summer camp can evoke positive memories of friends, sports, swimming, and sitting around a campfire. Maybe you attended summer camp yourself. Maybe you worked as a camp counselor. Or maybe you see kids heading off to camp in the community where you live and work. For some, camp is an idyllic part of summer vacation. For working parents of younger children, summer camp programs are also a necessity.
Unfortunately, it’s estimated that one in four girls and one in six boys will be victims of child sexual abuse. Youth-serving organizations like camps can play an incredible role in preventing and recognizing child sexual abuse. Unfortunately, our discomfort sometimes prevents us from having the necessary conversations that keep children safe – and let offenders know we are paying attention. Children can’t evaluate the safety of their camp environments on their own. They need your help.
As a parent, prospective camp counselor, or even a community member, you can help ensure that the summer camps in your area are playing a key role in child sexual abuse prevention, intervention, and response. The conversation starts with three simple questions:
- How do you screen your camp counselors?
- Do you check references?
- What training and policies are in place regarding child sexual abuse?
An organization’s response will tell you a lot. Too many organizations perform criminal background checks on applicants, and call it a day. These screenings are an important first step, but are not a comprehensive approach to prevention. Why? Because most abuse isn’t reported, which means that most abusers aren’t prosecuted for their crimes. They are free to apply for positions at child camps, daycare centers, and other youth-serving organizations.
This is why comprehensive reference checks are critically important. Organizations should speak with both personal references and references who have seen the applicant interact with children. Did they follow the policies and guidelines of previous employers? Did anyone witness any troubling behavior?
Beyond screening, camp programs need to invest in strong policies and extensive training for anyone who will be interacting with children and youth. These prevention initiatives help ensure that offenders or potential offenders don’t have the opportunity to be alone with children, and also train every staff member to recognize red flag behavior among adults and the warning signs of child sexual abuse or trauma in children.
Organizations that take prevention seriously establish a culture of boundaries, safety, and respect which keep children, counselors, and other camp staff safe from legal, physical, and mental harm. An organization with a solid prevention strategy will develop and implement policies on areas like managing bathroom trips, interacting with children outside of the camp environment, and outlining acceptable and unacceptable behaviors with youth. For example, it’s a good policy to not have counselors babysit children or take them for outings outside of camp. In the case of older children, counselors shouldn’t be interacting with them on social media or texting.
Comprehensive training on child sexual abuse doesn’t just prevent abuse from taking place at a particular camp or organization, it also helps counselors and other adults recognize the signs of abuse and intervene. Summer can be a time to relax, soak up the sun, and spend time with your friends. And it also can be a great time to prevent child sexual abuse!