Who Protects Our Children

With twenty years of experience as the director and owner of a girls’ residential camp, I thought I was well prepared for any situation that could affect campers. So not only as a parent, but as a camp director, was I totally shocked when my eight-year-old son Michael told me one night between sobs that another boy at his day camp had been touching his private areas.

Michael and I spent the rest of the evening “rehearsing” what he should do if this were to happen again. I reassured him that he had done nothing wrong. I rubbed his tummy and he practiced saying, “Stop! I’m telling a counselor.” Michael insisted that we do this role-play at least ten times before he finally fell asleep.

Although he was very reluctant, I brought Michael back to camp to meet with the camp directors. He explained that Adam, a boy in his age group, would grab both his and other boys’ genitals as they were changing for swimming in the locker room. The directors assured Michael that from now on, a counselor would always be in the locker room while the boys were changing.

Confident in their assurances, I insisted that Michael stay at camp. I felt it was best if he faced his fears. When it came time to go to camp the next morning, Michael cried terribly and told me that yesterday he had again been in the locker room without a counselor. I called and spoke to the camp director again and told her I could not send Michael to camp until Adam left camp and the locker room was locked when no staff members were present. I also told her that I felt strongly that the parents of all boys in Michael’s group should be given a list of questions to ask their child to see if Adam had also touched their son. This was never done, although the camp director and executive director of the agency that sponsors the camp claimed they spoke with Adam’s parents.

Michael never returned to day camp. Adam stayed. The executive director told me he would report Michael’s allegations to the Department of Human Services (DHS), State of Maine. Although I felt that an immediate internal investigation should have been conducted, the matter was out of my hands. The only other time I heard from the camp director was when she called to see if Michael was coming to their specialty kayak camp, for someone else wanted the space. They would refund our money if Michael was not coming. As it turns out, they also sent a pro rata refund of our entire tuition.

DHS forwarded the camp’s report to the Division of Institutional Abuse, which sent the report on to the County District Attorney’s office in which the camp is located. Understandably, the DA’s office decided to do nothing. Amazingly, I later found out that the Department of Human Services has no authorization to investigate abuse occurring in summer camps, and with only six trained investigators for the entire state of Maine, they have neither the staff nor the mandate to investigate Michael’s allegations.

Four months later, when a psychologist asked Michael how often he thought of this incident, Michael said, “Every day.” Michael remains fearful that Adam will find him in a store aisle, outside, at school, at home, even though he knows that Adam has no idea where he lives.

Michael is obviously still suffering and will always carry the scars from this experience. I wonder and worry about the other boys. Did this abuse continue all summer? Is anyone helping them? And what about Adam . . . where did he learn this behavior? Has someone abused him? Is someone abusing him now? Shouldn’t he be getting help?

As a parent, I feel guilty that I didn’t act sooner. Looking back, there was only one red flag that even hinted that something was wrong. Michael had been coming home from camp still in his bathing trunks. I thought this was because he was too busy having fun to change. I later learned that he can put on and take off this bathing suit while wearing sweatpants. You try that!

And as a parent, I am also angry that a State department, whose mandate is to protect children, could and did not investigate my son’s allegations.

Psychologists and social workers trained to conduct thorough and timely investigations whenever an alleged abuse occurs are needed, whether they come through the State or through another agency. If the Department of Human Services does not have the mandate or the staff, it could train non-department professionals to do this job, on an as-needed basis. Handling abuse between kids as solely a criminal matter misses a huge majority of the abusive situations that occur, and no one gets the help they need: neither the perpetrator nor the victims.

All camps are obligated to do everything they can to protect the children entrusted to their care. At a minimum, there must always be a counselor in the shower house or locker room when children are in there. Some kids are curious, others abusive. Staff must be present to monitor what goes on. Camp directors must communicate better with families if an incident does occur.

And as a camp director, do you know whether your State department has a legislative mandate to initiate a speedy investigation in case of alleged sexual abuse? If you are a “mandated reporter,” what must you report? (In Maine, you must report prior-to-camp abuse at home.) Do you have a professional person on staff or on-call in case an investigation is necessary? How would you handle reported abusive behavior between campers? When would you send a camper home for the season? What would you communicate to all parents in the group of children involved, whose children may have been affected? If you know that a vast majority of all abusers have been abused themselves, how and what would you communicate to the parents of the perpetrator? Can you role-play the call to the parents of the victim?

I learned other lessons that I’d like to pass on to parents. First, and most important, choose your camp carefully. Second, you must care for your child. You can do that best. Third, should you feel something improper is occurring, insist on a proper thorough investigation by the responsible parties. A report to another agency is simply not sufficient or acceptable. Threaten immediate legal action and/or newspaper exposure, if it appears that your concerns are not being taken seriously. Don’t assume someone else will do it. Fourth, keep talking to your child and get professional help. Unfortunately, these scars last a lifetime.

Reprinted with permission from the December 2002 issue of Communicate, the American Camping Association New England Section Newsletter.

We All Protect Our Children

Originally published in the 2003 Spring issue of The CampLine.