When it comes to finding a good day-care provider, many parents work tirelessly to get just the right fit.
That's not always the case when it comes to selecting a summer camp. Industry experts warn that parents often don't realize that many camps are not subject to the same kind of regulations and oversight as day-care centers and schools.
Many camps in the Washington region are not licensed, including the Baptist overnight camp in Prince William County where two counselors and two campers were accused this month of sexually assaulting three boys in July. Overnight camps in Virginia can be exempt from licensing for a number of reasons, including religious affiliation, age of campers and duration of stay.
The American Camping Association, a nonprofit organization that works to ensure the quality of camp programs, has conducted extensive focus groups with both parents and camp directors. What it found was revealing.
"Most of the parents were making assumptions that 'someone must be watching' " out for their children at camp, said Peg Smith, executive director of the group. "It's not that parents don't care" about their children's welfare, she said. "It's that they assumed that all institutions that are accepting their children are either licensed or accredited."
And they're not.
Regulations and licensing requirements vary from state to state.
In Virginia, for example, most day camps must meet the same licensing standards as child day-care facilities, requiring that prospective employees submit to criminal background checks, counselors be at least 18 years old and the program maintain strict camper-to-counselor ratios, among other requirements.
In Maryland, day and overnight camps that watch campers for at least five consecutive days are regulated by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Most residential state camps did not have to be certified until a state law was passed in October 2002, officials said. On Sept. 1, additional regulations will require stricter supervision of campers during routine activities and will set specific camper-to-staff ratios.
The only nationally recognized industry standard for camps is voluntary accreditation by the American Camping Association. Camps can get that by satisfying up to 300 standards for health, safety and program quality. About 2,300 of the nation's 12,000 day and overnight camps are accredited. Some camps decide against accreditation because their state regulations are strict enough to satisfy parents or because they are affiliated with groups, such as the Boy Scouts, which have their own review and accreditation process.
Although Smith and others tout accreditation as a way for parents to help ensure that camp programs are providing a safe, nurturing environment, they say there are many good unaccredited camps to choose from.
There was a time when summer camps were a recreational option for children. Today they are a vital day-care component in the lives of working parents who are sometimes more worried about getting their children a spot in camp than who will be supervising them.
Robin Verity is the youth and camp director at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia's Camp Achva in Fairfax County, which provides recreation for 300 children during the summer.
Verity said she finds it hard to believe that parents would ever consider sending their children to a camp that isn't licensed. She said that although parents who choose Camp Achva rely on its solid reputation, others are not so careful about selecting a camp.
"When people buy a car, they look at 20 models and they really research it," Verity said. "When they put their children in camp, they get one recommendation and say, 'Fine.' "
The key, Smith said, is asking the right questions before placing a child in the hands of strangers, particularly the young hands of camp counselors. On Sept. 1, the ACA will roll out a Web site, www.campparent.org, aimed at giving parents the tools they need to choose a safe environment.
Experts advise parents never to make assumptions about safety.
Criminal background checks are not enough, said Smith, who encourages parents to talk with camp directors about the hiring and training of counselors. Find out what kind of supervision children will receive, she said, such as how many children each counselor will be responsible for. Ask whether counselors are trained in identifying child abuse, and be clear on any policy on camp-parent communication, Smith said. She also suggested that parents seek references from other camp parents and become familiar with their state's child protection laws.
Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert said wrong assumptions may have played a role in the situation at the Northern Virginia Baptist Center camp, where two counselors and two campers, ages 12 to 17, have been charged with a total of 19 counts, including object sexual penetration, in the assaults on three boys.
"People don't have as much apprehension about something going wrong with a religious organization or person as they might otherwise," Ebert said. "They sort of assume a camp of this nature will be safe. . . . But it's obvious there was not close adult supervision."
Officials with the Virginia Department of Social Services, which licenses camps, said the Baptist camp was not licensed, and it could not say whether it was required to be.
"The overnight camps don't fall under state licensure in general," said Hollie Cammarasana, a spokeswoman for the department. "The law doesn't require us to investigate unless there's a complaint made."
Camp Rim Rock, an all-girls overnight camp that features a concentrated horseback riding program, has been in operation in Yellow Spring, W.Va., near Winchester, for 53 years. Although the camp must qualify for permits by the state's Health and Human Services Department, the camp also chose to seek ACA accreditation.
"It lends an extra degree of credibility," owner Joe Greitzer said. "We're taking that extra step to make sure the children are safe and happy."