By Julie Watts

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) – With summer camp in full swing after a year at home, there are new questions about how sexual abuse at summer camps is tracked and reported.

There is surprisingly little regulation or oversight of camps. CBS13 has reviewed hundreds of reports of camp abuse and is getting answers for parents about what they can do to help keep kids safe this summer and beyond.

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In 2018, CBS news identified reports of more than 500 alleged camp abuse victims dating back to the 60s. Just two-and-a-half years later, this growing Crime Stoppers database includes reports of at least 1,000 alleged victims—most within the past five years.

CBS13 identified at least 40 alleged camp abuse victims from California.

“We found that we were the only group tracking this,” said Rania Mankarious, CEO of Crime Stoppers of Houston.

Mankarious explained that due to a lack of regulation, it’s difficult for parents to even research a camp’s history.

According to the American Camp Association, more than 14 million people attend camps each year, but there are no national camp regulations. In California, Mankarious notes, while sleepaway camps are monitored, day camps have surprisingly little regulation.

A bill that would have increased summer camp regulation died in the Assembly last year. It is not clear if the bill will be reintroduced. The bill’s sponsor, State Senator Portantino, did not return our request for comment.

Day camps are currently exempt from daycare licensing regulations. Instead, they fall under the authority of the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) with minimal regulation that covers basic sanitation, health care and building codes.

There is currently no licensing board and no oversight body. No agency is tracking abuse.

While background checks are required for full-time employees, Mankarious says most counselors are part-time.

She also points to young counselors and counselors in training, along with the more than 20,000 counselors that come over on foreign visas each year, whose background checks may not be complete.

“Background checks are only as good as the system that’s caught these predators before, identified them before and enabled them to have a record,” Mankarious said.

She also warns that they’re seeing more cases of abuse in the form of child pornography.

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“So you may not have a counselor that’s physically touching a child,” Mankarious explained, but “they can take images of your child. That’s something to be concerned with.”

While this information may be terrifying for parents, Mankarious says there are steps you can take to better protect your children.

STEPS TO PROTECT YOUR KIDS:

First, she says, it’s important to have an age-appropriate conversation with your child on what’s proper and what’s not.

Make it clear to your kids:

  • No one should see their body.
  • No one should touch their body.
  • They should not be alone with counselors.

Come up with a Code Phrase.

Mankarious says that kids at sleepaway camps may not have access to phones, or may be monitored if they do, but are often encouraged to write letters. She recommends coming up with a code phrase they write in a letter or use in a call to let you know something is wrong. She gives the example, “How’s grandma doing?”

Ask camp leaders about abuse training and policies.

Mankarious also encourages parents to have the uncomfortable conversation with camp leaders about training and policies for preventing and identifying abuse. “Camps are not used to getting those questions, historically,” she points out. The questions may force them to focus on the risk and could go a long way toward protecting your kids and others.

RESOURCES:

Camp Safety Resources and Questions to Ask

Crime Stoppers Podcast Episode on Camp Safety

Crime Stoppers Abuse Report Database

MORE NEWS: Nevada County Man Sentenced For Decades Of Sexual Abuse

Crime Stoppers Blog Post: Horrors of Camp: What Parents are Failing to Ask and the Risks their Kids are Facing.

Julie Watts