Earlier this year, my 12-year-old daughter was studying the concept of utopia in her history class and having trouble grasping what the word meant. I told her to think of her summer camp, and a big smile spread across her face. Bingo!
But though summer camp, whether it be sleep away camp or day camp, is near synonymous with carefree, fun-filled days, it’s important for parents to know that not all camps are equal, especially when it comes to safety. To learn what parents should be asking, both when they choose a camp, and on drop-off day, I turned to attorney Chris Faiela, a specialist in personal injury law involving children.
Pauline Frommer: I think a lot of parents forget to consider safety issues when choosing a camp for their children. What are the most important questions for them to ask?
Chris Faiela: There are a number of things that parents need to ask about. Briefly, they need to ask about the policies and procedures of the camp. They should ask about the camp counselors and the training those people have been given. And you need to find out about the physical layout of the camp and its equipment.
Frommer: When I think about camp counselors, I think “happy-go-lucky” college kids primarily. What more do parents need to know?
Faiela: You’re right. Many camp counselors tend to be young. Which is great: they’re energetic and enthusiastic. But that brings to mind lack of experience. And in the cases when something has gone wrong, and someone’s has been injured, that’s often the root of the problem. There was a case last year where a young man drowned in a canoeing accident and it was because the camp counselors really didn’t have any experience with canoeing. They just got into the canoe and there was an incident. So you want to talk with the camp director and ask about training.
As important is how many staff there are per camper.
Frommer: How many should there be?
Faiela: That varies depending on the age of the campers and the activities involved. If we’re talking about a camp that has horseback riding, the ratio has to be very small, as you’re dealing with a dangerous animal. If you’re talking about a camp with a variety of activities, then you want to break it down by swimmers. For children who are very young, say ages 1 to 4, you want a one-on-one ration at a swimming activity and one to four on other activities. If you’re dealing with teenagers, you can go up to 1 to 15 for most activities, but if you’re looking at more dangerous activities it may require [a ratio] all the way up to one to one. It depends on the type of camp.
Camp fun (photo by author)
Frommer: What else should parents know about the staff?
Faiela: You need to ask the camp director if they do background checks….Last year, in Palm County, FL a story came out in the news about a camp where former pedophiles and felons were running a day camp with state funding. In that case there had not been background checks. So you want to make sure there are background checks and ask how they were done.
Frommer: You said earlier that policies and procedures are important. I’m wondering how a parent can assess those?
Faiela: Ask about: do you have emergency procedures? Is everyone trained in CPR? Is there a defibrillator on site? Are there medical staff and when are they on call? Some camps will have a doctor on site, others will have access to a local physician. If you ask those questions you should be able to get the information that you need.
It’s also important to drill down on water safety issues. Between 2005 and 2009 there were 3533 fatal and unintentional drownings in the U.S. That’s about 10 deaths a day and 2 of those were for children under 14 . There were 5 injuries for every death, injuries that required hospitalization and some of those were life-altering injuries. Unintentional drowning is in the top 10 leading causes of death for children, so that’s a very serious problem. It’s not uncommon for non-swimmers to die in the shallow end of the pool, so the buddy system is important and seeing that that and other procedures are in place show that the director has done their homework and knows how to run a safe swimming program.
So don’t be afraid to ask pointed questions and speak specifically about your child’s swimming abilities. If you say “my child is just an OK swimmer” have them explain their procedures to you and see if they make sense. It’s pretty easy to find on the internet what the best practices are (the YMCA site is a good source). If they’re telling you about their policies and they jive with [that site], you know the camp ok. If they mark non-swimmers, if they do a swimming test, they’re doing the right thing.
Frommer: What about the camp’s facilities? What do parents need to know about that?
Faiela: When you visit that’s when you get a sense of whether the rubber meets the road. By which I mean whether the representations that were made are coming true. Are the facilities clean, are there enough life jackets? For many parents it’s not practical to visit camp before the children go there, so in those cases they should ask for references. When we did that (when our own kids went to camp) we asked those people for other parents we could contact for references. We ended up speaking to six or seven people and that gave us a sense of their camping experience and the layout of the camp.
Frommer: Are there any questions I haven’t asked that parents should?
Faiela: Ask about bullying policies and discipline. Every parent will discipline their child differently, so you want to look at whether the camp’s policies line up with your style of discipline. And what are their anti-bullying practices? There was a case where the camp was great, but a young child was pushed into the pool by bully and almost drowned. The child was saved because they had a good water safety system, but they had no anti-bullying policies.
A final suggestion is to look at whether or not the camp is accredited or licensed. The American Camp Association (www.acacamps.org) has over 300 standards that a camp has to meet. [The Canadian Camping Association, www.ccamping.org, also accredits camps.] Now nothing is a complete guarantee. But going through that process is some guarantee that the camp staff are properly trained and understand those standards.