CALL 6: Summer camp safety regulation varies greatly

MARTINSVILLE, Ind. -- If you plan to send your child to camp this summer, experts say you should ask the camp’s directors some important questions before drop-off.

Call 6 Investigates found the state of Indiana does not license or inspect most day camps for health and safety, nor does the state require day camps to have specific camper-to-counselor staffing ratios.

While the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration licenses and inspects child care facilities, the vast majority of summer camps in Indiana fall under a 90-day licensing exemption (they operate fewer than 90 days per year) and are not regulated by FSSA, according to FSSA spokesperson Marni Lemons.

The only exception would be the small number of camps that accept CCDF federal vouchers, said Lemons.

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The Indiana State Department of Health does not inspect or monitor day camps, which do not involve campers spending the night on site.

ISDH does not license overnight camps either, however, they do perform health and safety inspections at residential camps where children spend at least 3 days.

For example, ISDH inspectors look at whether the camp has first aid kits and fire extinguishers, proper sewage and sanitation, as well as proper eating and cooking facilities.

The American Camp Association, based in Martinsville, offers camp accreditation, but only if they meet about 300 health and safety regulations including specific camper-to-counselor ratios.

For example, ACA standards call for one staff member for every five campers ages 4 and 5; one staff member for every six campers ages 6 to 8; one staffer for every eight campers ages 9 to 14; and one counselor for every ten campers ages 15 to 17. 

Bradford Woods is an accredited overnight camp that houses campers with medical conditions and disabilities.

"We have a one to two ratio, so there's 2 campers per counselor, and no matter what, there can't be less than that," said Carley Streeter, a camp counselor at Bradford Woods. “We want to make sure the campers are safe and there’s enough counselors there to make sure everything goes smoothly.”

Indiana has about 50 accredited camps, according to ACA.

Bradford Woods’ director Shay Dawson said parents need to ask for a camp’s credentials.

“Day cares are very different than camps,” said Dawson. “Day cares are licensed by the state, they have their own regulations. Camps are quite different."

Parents should ask their camp about their staffing ratios, how they group children, and what their discipline policy is.

“What will happen if my child acts out, and what is the behavior management plan? What are the rules in place and how are the staff trained in managing those behaviors?" said Dawson.

It’s also a good idea to ask what your camp’s emergency plan is in case of an accident or severe weather.

"Anytime you get 50,100, 200 and 300 kids together you can have accidents,” said Bradford Woods Associate Director Tim Street. “They can run into each other playing games. Things happen. "

Tim Nowak, program director at Jameson Camp in Indianapolis, said parents should also ask if counselors are allowed to be left alone with children.

“Ask if the camp has counselors in training that take on responsibilities, and if so, what are the rules?” said Nowak. “At our camp, we say groups should always travel in threes.”

You should also ask about the camp’s water safety policies, such as whether they require life jackets for all ages, and what the lifeguard-to-camper ratio is.

Other questions include what sort of training do counselors receive, and whether they’ve cleared background checks.

The ACA says at a minimum, camp staff should be trained in safety regulations, emergency procedures and communication, behavior management techniques, child abuse prevention, appropriate staff and camper behavior, and specific procedures for supervision.


QUESTIONS TO ASK CAMP DIRECTORS (from the ACA)
What is the camp's philosophy and program emphasis?
Each camp has its own method of constructing programs based on its philosophy. Does it complement your own parenting philosophy? Many camps actively promote competition and healthy rivalry among camp teams, as reflected in team sports.

For many campers this is pure fun. Some parents feel that learning to be competitive at an early age teaches essential survival skills. However, other parents and educators are in favor of cooperative learning. Knowing your child's personality and style of learning is valuable in selecting the right camp.

What is the camp director's background?
ACA minimum standards recommend directors possess a bachelor's degree, have completed in-service training within the past three years, and have at least 16 weeks of camp administrative experience before assuming the responsibilities of director.

What training do counselors receive?
At a minimum, camp staff should be trained in safety regulations, emergency procedures and communication, behavior management techniques, child abuse prevention, appropriate staff and camper behavior, and specific procedures for supervision.

What is the counselor-to-camper ratio?
ACA standards require different ratios for varying ages and special needs. Generally, the ratios at resident camps range from: One staff member for every five campers ages 4 and 5; one staff member for every six campers ages 6 to 8; one staff member for every eight campers ages 9 to 14; and one staff member for every 10 campers ages 15 to 17. At day camps the ratios range from: one staff member for every six campers ages 4 and 5; eight campers ages 6 to 8; one staff member for every 10 campers ages 9 to 14; and one staff member for every 12 campers ages 15 to 17.

What are the ages of the counselors?
ACA standards recommend that 80 percent or more of the counseling/program staff be at least 18 years old. Staff must be at least 16 years old and be at least two years older than the campers with whom they work. In special needs camps, 100 percent of the counseling/program staff must be at least 18 years old.

What are desired qualities in camp staff?
The same qualities of trustworthiness and dependability sought by any employer are valued commodities in camp employees. Also, the ability to adapt to a variety of situations, empathy for and ability to work with camp clientele, a strong self-image and an outgoing personality are important characteristics for camp staff.

What percentage of the counselors returned from last year?
Most camps have from 40-60 percent returning staff. If the rate is lower, find out why.

How are behavioral and disciplinary problems handled?
This is where the director's philosophy comes through loud and clear. Positive reinforcement, assertive role modeling and a sense of fair play are generally regarded as key components of camp counseling and leadership.

Rules are necessary in any organization and the disciplinary approach taken should be reasonable and well communicated. If penalties are involved for violations, they should be applied quickly, fairly, calmly, and without undue criticism to campers.

How does the camp handle special needs?
If your child has special requirements, ask the camp director about needed provisions and facilities. Is there a nurse on staff? Do they have a designated place to store insulin or allergy medicine? Are special foods available for campers with restricted diets? Every question and each answer is important.

How does the camp handle homesickness and other adjustment issues?
Again, the camp's philosophy on helping children adjust is important. Be sure you are comfortable with the camp's guidelines on parent/child contact.

What about references?
This is generally one of the best ways to check a camp's reputation and service record. Directors should be happy to provide references.

Does the American Camp Association accredit the camp?
It is only logical that members of your family attend an ACA-accredited camp. Accreditation visitors ask the questions -- 300 of them -- regarding essential health, safety, and program quality issues important to a camp's overall operation. This does not guarantee a risk-free environment, but it's some of the best evidence parents have of a camp's commitment to a safe and nurturing environment for their children. (ACA Accreditation)

 

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