Summer camp has a special place in my heart and will forever symbolize childhood joy. I loved sleepaway camp so much that I went back years later to be a counselor. I didn’t receive much training and I certainly wasn’t prepared for the day a 12-year-old camper told me that one of the camp administrators made her uncomfortable because he’d wanted to walk alone with her – again.
I was 19 and clueless, but I was also assertive. I told my camper that I was really glad she told me, that I would address the situation, and that she could always come to me with her concerns.
Then I got pissed and put on my big girl pants. With a chill in the morning air and the hair standing up on the back of my neck, I sought out the administrator, who was also my boss. I looked him in the eyes and told him that one of my campers was uncomfortable with his attention and let him know, in no uncertain terms, that he should never ever be alone with her again – and that I would be watching.
I’ve thought about this encounter many times and want to continue to play my part in keeping kids safe, which is why I asked Feather if I could co-author this month’s post: Kids, Camp and Child Sexual Assault.
If your child is enrolled in camp and you haven’t had the time to talk about child sexual assault prevention until now, it’s not too late. Invite a conversation and make sure prevention is not only on the camp’s radar, but that there are policies and practices to back it up.
As you are conversing with camp directors and counselors, look for an environment that has zero tolerance for child sexual assault.
Questions for Camp Directors & Counselors
- What kind of child sexual assault prevention training do you offer staff, volunteers and children?
For adults, training should cover these topics.
- The “grooming process” – the friendship-building process used by an adult or older teen to develop trust with a child and the child’s caregivers, to coerce the child into sexual activity, and to ensure the child does not tell
- Behaviors of concern in both children and adults and how to intervene
- Camp protocol for reporting suspected or known grooming or abuse
For campers, the camp ought to provide an orientation on boundaries and safety:
- Zero tolerance for verbal, emotional, physical, or sexual assault
- How and why boundaries and safety are taken seriously
- Who campers can talk with if they ever feel uncomfortable or unsafe
- What are the situations in which an adult might be alone with a child?
Never. If there is some urgent reason that an adult needs to be alone with a child, another adult should be notified.
- What are the boundaries regarding physical touch between adults and campers?
Look for policies that clearly state the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touch – with examples. Here’s a list of what ought to be included:
- Child initiates hug (Physical touch should always be for the benefit of the camper, and never based on emotional needs of an adult.)
- Pats on the back, high-fives, fist bumps
- Holding hands for safety (e.g., crossing streets)
- Physical contact should always occur in public, never in private
- Stop physical touch if child appears uncomfortable or resists in any way
Inappropriate Touch / Behavior
- Requesting or pressuring children to give hugs
- Kissing children / teens (even on the cheek)
- Allowing children to sit on an adult’s lap
- Tickling, piggy back rides, stroking a child’s hair, patting buttock, massaging shoulders or backs, rubbing legs, roughhousing, wrestling and patting a child’s head
- Repeatedly brushing against a minor’s body
- Slapping, hitting, kicking
- Touching genitals
- Public nudity at any time (no skinny-dipping)
- Mooning, “wedgies”
- Do you have specific policies and expectations around sexual talk, jokes, and photographing children?
- Zero tolerance for sexual innuendos, flirting, sexual jokes, and sexual gestures, stories and put downs
- Restraint from adults in sharing stories about their personal life and adult issues (relationships, alcohol or drug use)
- Use of camp-owned cameras only for photographs (no personal phones and never photos of campers with clothes off). If you don’t want your child to be photographed or posted on social media, make that clear.
- For overnight camps, what are the sleeping arrangements and how do staff supervise and monitor?
At least one adult staff member (two if possible) should always be present supervising campers in sleeping areas. Campers should not share beds, cots, or sleeping bags with other campers or staff. Campers and adults should always wear sleeping clothes.
- How would you handle a situation if you saw a child exploring sexually with another child? What if one of the children was coercing the other child?
In both situations, children should be redirected to another activity without shame or punishment.
In the case of age-appropriate exploration, campers should be reminded of expectations regarding boundaries that were discussed during camp orientation. In the case of coercive sexual contact, expectations around boundaries should also be discussed, but a report may also be necessary.
- What is your protocol for reporting suspected or known sexual assault by an adult or by another child?
Any known or suspected inappropriate behavior, breaches in policy, or assault (verbal, physical, or sexual) should be reported to a supervisor or camp director.
Counselors are mandated reporters and required by law to report any known or suspected physical or sexual assault to appropriate law enforcement. This report can be made in partnership with camp administration; however, ultimately, the responsibility for reporting abuse is on the adult who has observed, been told about, or is concerned about abuse.
Before sending your child off to camp, remind children of their body-safety rules around touching, privacy, and no secrets. Reassert that they absolutely have your permission to say, “No” to any inappropriate request from other campers or adults.
Discuss respect and self-worth, and what it means to be a good friend and show respect for other campers through kindness and standing up for peers. And that it’s possible to be a good friend without compromising personal safety.
And lastly, be sure your child knows of whom and how to ask for help.
Creating “what if” scenarios with kids around the kinds of situations in which they might find themselves, is a great way to practice assertiveness skills and tools for asking for help if needed.
For instance, “What would you do if your counselor asked you to go for a walk alone in the woods?” Or, “What would you do if a counselor started flirting with you?” Or, “What would you do if you observed an older camper giving another camper a wedgie?”
By phone or upon arrival, tell administrators and counselors that your child:
- Doesn’t keep secrets from you
- Is encouraged to and has permission to tell you about anything that makes them feel worried or uncomfortable
- Knows that they are the boss of their body and can say, “No,” and tell an adult if someone makes an unsafe request
Find out if campers can contact their parents upon request – and speak privately. Children need privacy, so they can share their worries.
Peer-to-Peer Sexual Assault
I (Annie, co-author) remember playing a tantalizing game of spin the bottle in the woods at summer camp. Four of us skipped out on free swim, went to an old tree house and smooched!
Sexual curiosity is entirely normal and involves inquiry and information-gathering through touching and looking. It’s also about exploration around gender roles. I felt like I was on a double date in that run-down tree house. Our physical interactions were voluntary and took place among children of comparable age. We were all 13.
But there’s also peer-to-peer abuse – coercive, often impulsive, and sometimes triggered by stress or anger. There’s generally an age, size, development, and/or intellectual difference. We know that peer-to-peer abuse is more likely to happen in bathrooms and showers, and this fact is a good incentive for you to ask these two questions:
- How do you monitor older kids mentoring/spending time with younger kids?
Counselors should supervise any interactions between youth of the same age or older youth mentoring younger youth.
- What are your bathroom and showering policies?
Ideally, campers bathe in individual shower stalls with curtains. Showering and toilet areas should always be monitored and supervised by an adult. Campers should not go in groups to the bathroom without adult supervision. Adults should not go alone into a shower or toilet stall / bathroom with a camper. No adult should ever shower with campers.
Every youth organization has a responsibility to have child sexual assault prevention policies – and you have a right to see those policies. It’s also incumbent on camps to offer annual staff training, which should address the grooming process – that is, how sexual offenders develop friendships and isolate children for the purpose of abuse.
The conversations with administrators and counselors show that you are paying attention and help to build camps that are safer for your child and all children.
Who will join me in speaking with camp counselors and administrators? It’s not too late to start the conversation.
Annie Gardiner, MS, BCPA is a Health Care Advocate & long-time supporter of Parenting Safe Children
Feather Berkower, MSW, is Founder of Parenting Safe Children and a Child Sexual Assault Prevention Educator & Author
Photo Credit: © 2019 Annie H Gardiner