Is My Child Safe at a Christian Summer Camp?

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When the school year winds down and temperatures heat up, parents begin to think about summer activities for their children. As one of the most iconic summer pastimes in America, summer camp is at the top of the list.

In evaluating Christian camps, parents often look at programs offered, the location of the facility and overall cost. But the most critical element parents should consider is this: “What is this camp doing to PROTECT my child from sexual abuse?” 

Why are children at risk at camp?

Summer camp fills an important role in American culture, but camps, even Christian 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. This tie is even stronger when perceived spiritual ties and commonality exist. 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. 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.

Christians often think sexual abuse doesn’t happen in faith-based contexts such as church or Christian camps, but nothing is farther from the truth. Sexual abuse is not limited to any racial, ethnic or socio-economic class. It is no respecter of any religious denomination or creed. Sexual abuse can happen anywhere.

What should camps do to prevent sexual abuse?

Christian camps are prolific, varied in scope and size—and most are led by excellent leaders who are aware that children are at risk of sexual abuse. Some camp leaders, however, demonstrate 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 address it. 

Camp leaders commonly cite criminal background checks as a primary precautionary measure for protecting children. While criminal background checks are necessary and reasonable, more than 90 percent of sexual abusers have no criminal record to check. 

Every camp should make a reasonable effort to access the past criminal behavior of any applicant, but criminal background checks alone are an inadequate safety measure.

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 abusers.

Effective 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 good training, Christian 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.

Conversations with children before leaving for camp

Parents must evaluate Christian camp safety measures meant to address child sexual abuse, but it’s also important for parents to communicate with their kids before they trek off to camp.

Molesters groom a child for abuse, and children who are naïve or uninformed become easy targets for the abuser. As parents, we must teach our children that there are individuals who have the wrong motive when they touch, and that no one should touch them anyplace that a bathing suit covers. If such a touch does occur, teach your child to tell you immediately.

Developmentally appropriate conversations about sex, using real names of body parts, are an important aspect of sexual development, and should occur early and often. Even a very young child can learn that she has the right to determine with whom she is physically affectionate, and some touches, in some areas, are meant for adults only, not for children.

These conversations should be natural and normal, using real-life situations. When my child was 3, a cat from the neighborhood adopted us. Several weeks later, to our surprise, she had kittens. This provided a natural opportunity to talk about mommies, daddies and ‘where kittens come from.’

Honest discussions with children about their bodies, comfortable touch, and the right to say “no,” can protect your child when you aren’t able to be present. These discussions, added to a parent’s ‘due diligence’ in evaluating Christian camp programs, can ensure a summer camp experience that’s safe and fun for everyone.

Kimberlee Norris

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Kimberlee D. Norris is a partner at the law firm of Love & Norris, a national sexual abuse litigation practice, representing hundreds of victims of child sexual abuse. She is also co-founder of MinistrySafe, a consulting organization designed to help churches and Christian ministries understand and address the risk of child sexual abuse. MinistrySafe partners…
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