How Safe Are Your Kids' Summer Camps?

Most parents don t get all info available to them (Published Tuesday, Jul 29, 2014)

If you've enrolled your children in summer camp, the bottom line is you are putting their safety in the hands of others. But how much do you really know about where your kids are enrolled?

The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters have learned of several resources of which most parents do not take advantage, and important checks the state does not make.

Chief Investigative Reporter Len Besthoff spent months obtaining and going through more than 500 inspections of Connecticut camps, and we now know a lot more about critical camp questions parents need to ask.

For many kids, a ritual of summer is going off to camp. For Lisa Giblin’s son William, it’s a Cub Scout camp on the shoreline.

“There’s so much he gets to do from archery to bb guns to sports and swimming,” Giblin said.

Heather Youle has sent her daughter Taylor to day camps near her Southington home.

“It keeps her active and gets her out of the house for the summer,” Youle said.

The common denominators in deciding where to send the kids are personal experiences including, “my husband and his siblings have gone to the camp” and “word of mouth.” There's nothing wrong with that approach to picking a summer camp.

But these two moms were surprised to learn of another untapped resource: the state Web site for inspection history. The site can tell parents basic information, including whether a camp’s license is current, and when the camp was last inspected.

It does not provide the actual camp inspection, which, also unbeknownst to many, you can request from a camp, sinc it's a public record.

Debra Johnson oversees the dozen camp inspectors who crisscross our state each summer.

“I think parents should look at these," she said. "They can ask the camp to see a copy of their inspection form and have a conversation with the camp about the results of that form and what was cited [to] give the camp an opportunity to explain what the circumstances were that got that violation.”

The inspections, which are unannounced, include 121 comprehensive questions, covering everything from boating to Band-Aids. They take place while camps are in session.

There is a time lag, in that the inspections done this year are essentially for the license to operate next summer.

Keith Garbart is the director of Winding Trails Summer Day Camp in Farmington and president of the Connecticut Camping Association.

“They’ll basically do a tour of the facility walk around, see some of the key areas of the camp, waterfront would be a place to check, ropes course, an outdoor adventure climbing wall,” he explained.

Winding Trails did not have one violation circled in its latest report. Most camps have at least a few.

The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters found the three camps with the most violations, all first-year programs in New Haven:

  • The St. Giles Summer Language Course with 32 violations
  • The Ardmore Language Schools and the Digital Media Academy, each with 21 violations.

Each of the three had varying deficiencies, ranging from failure to have certain medical records and forms, to lacking written policies and procedures on some safety issues.

“Camps want to do the right thing. So in combination the office and the camps work together, and if something is identified as a problem, generally the camps are extremely receptive to correcting them,” said Johnson.

Most in fact, get corrected in days or a few weeks, otherwise the state would have to shut down a camp, and that has not happened in a long time.

At St. Giles, the new center manager says she’s not sure what happened last year, but there have been “positive changes.”

Ardmore says it wants to be as compliant as it can, but it’s “sure it will be less than 21” violations this year, according to camp director Oliver Smith.

“It was our first year," said Vince Matthews, spokesperson for the Digital Media Academy. "Ultimately we passed the inspection.”

Many of the violations at all Connecticut camps have to do with paperwork, according to Garbart. When asked if she had to deal with a "mountain of paperwork," Garbart called that an understatement.

The good news for Giblin and Youle is that inspections on their kids’ camps came back pretty clean.

“I’m seeing a lot of checks and that’s making me feel extremely, extremely comfortable,”  Youle said.

Sometimes though, inspectors find more than just paperwork problems. Garbart has some suggestions as to what parents should examine.

“Life guards, first aiders, nurses, those are fairly important and you can ask that question to the camp director, 'Are your lifeguards certified? Do you have a camp nurse on the property?'" Garbart explained, adding that parents should also ask about "outdoor adventure-type activities, like climbing walls and things like that, even down to boats, boats are expensive obviously so sometimes camps might not have funding to buy boats all the time.”

Other good questions include asking about the ages of staff members and whether the camp has a counselor-in-training program.

Here are comments we found in some camp inspections that could start a conversation between parents and a camp director:

  • “Lunches need to be refrigerated”
  • “Cargo net failed 3 campers to the hospital”
  • “Infected bug bit confirmed to be MRSA”

The camp with the refrigeration issue says, “We have refrigeration. We’re not in violation.”

On the cargo net issue, the camp director explains campers were sent to the hospital “as a precautionary measure” and ended up being fine.

The MRSA case involved a counselor who “came to the camp with it. It surfaced while she was here,” Giblin said. “Some of these are definitely, definitely concerning.”

Then there are perhaps the most important camp questions that the state never even asks. For instance, while camp directors must go undergo a background check, Connecticut does not require criminal background or sex offender registry checks of any camp counselors or staff.

Youle said she was surprised to learn this.

"I know with my daughter’s school, just to volunteer there you have to have a background check,” she said.

The state said that, going forward, it "will explore the feasibility of requiring camps to obtain background checks for youth camp employees" but that "any statutory requirement for background checks for youth camps would require a legislative change.”

However, parents can check if their kids camp is accredited through the American Camp Association, which requires camps to conduct background checks of all staffers.

“Background checks are very important and I think they should be done all the time,” Giblin said.

Connecticut can at least say though that its private and non-profit camps undergo some level of inspection.

The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters learned that the same cannot be said for camps run by municipalities, which are not subject to state inspections. According to the state Office of Early Childhood, there is not currently a plan in place to change it. 

Violations from 2013 have since been corrected, but it's a starting point for a conversation about where to send your children to camp.

The Connecticut Camp Association released the following statement Tuesday:

"The Connecticut Camping Association takes the position that all camps in Connecticut should be inspected regardless of status, such as not for profit, private, or municipality. While we understand that some municipalities choose to obtain a state license or American Camp Association Accreditation there are still many that do not. We feel that it is in the best interest of families in Connecticut to ensure that all camp programs are held to the same standards therefore The Connecticut Camping Association and its members are proponents for municipal camp inspections."

The association added that licensing and inspections may not have prevented an incident at a Newington Parks and Recreation Department camp Monday in which a counselor allegedly put his hands on the neck of an 8-year-old camper, "but there does need to be some accountability," the CCA said.