In my last column, I wrote about red flags that signal potential sexual abuse by other adults toward your kids. This week, I revisit how parents can make sure their child's summer activities, including faith-based, day or overnight camp, are as safe as possible. Like most parents, I consider cost, convenience and activities that are a good match for my child. Another consideration is your child's safety. Community Against Violence urges parents to ask questions and look at the organization's policies before choosing their child's summer programs.
Check the camp's credentials and any past complaints. Ask parents about their child's experience at the camp. Is the camp accredited by the American Camp Association? Does it have all necessary licenses?
What is the ratio of staff to children? For day camps, the ACA recommends a ratio of 1-6 for children 5 years old or younger, 1-8 for ages 6 to 8 and 1-10 for ages 9 to 14. For overnight camp, there should be at least one fewer child per staff member for each age range. These ratios may vary based on the danger level of activities. Two counselors should always be present for activities that may be more dangerous, such as swimming, horseback riding and ropes courses, no matter how many children are present. Keep in mind research shows unstructured times, like rest periods and meals, are when most camp injuries occur, most likely because staff members are less attentive during these times.
How are staff members hired? Do all staff members have to pass a criminal background check? Are references and work histories checked? Because child sexual abuse is often unreported, the vast majority of sex offenders still pass background checks and become involved in children's programs, giving them access to potential victims. I do an online search to see what comes up for each staff person's name, such as inappropriate Facebook posts and criminal activities. At least 80 percent of all staff should be 18 years old or older, with no staff younger than 16.
How are staff members trained? Are they required to have up-to-date Red Cross or equivalent certifications? ACA recommends all staff be trained in safety regulations, emergency procedures and communication, behavior management techniques, child abuse prevention, appropriate staff and camper behavior and specific procedures for supervision.
Ask to see a copy of the organization or faith-based program's policies and code of conduct for employee and volunteer interactions with children. Those with written guidelines do a better job monitoring and correcting potentially harmful situations.
Look closely at actual spaces where your children will be spending time. Are there hidden spaces where a child can be taken away from responsible adult supervision? Can someone who is not associated with the program walk in without being noticed?
Think about how your child's transported and whether someone other than the driver will be supervising. Are there seat belts and car seats? All drivers licensed and insured? Anyone else allowed to pick up your child without your permission?
Camps should want children to be safe, so they should be more than happy to address your concerns. Don't be shy about asking tough questions about how the camp will make sure your child is safe. If camp leadership seems defensive or secretive, choose a different program. CAV provides training ("Vecinos") for businesses and organizations serving children or other high-risk populations. To know if a children's program you are considering has had this training or if your business/agency is interested in it, contact CAV at (575) 758-8082.
Williams is the executive director of Community Against Violence, Inc. (CAV), which offers free confidential support and assistance for adult and child survivors of sexual and domestic violence, dating violence and stalking; community and school violence prevention programs; re-education BIP groups for domestic violence offenders; shelter; and community thrift store. To talk with someone or get information on services available, call CAV's 24-hour crisis line at (575) 758-9888 or visit TaosCAV.org.