Summer camp and sexual assault: How you can protect your kidsWritten by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb
What's inside this article
It’s gut-wrenching. A variety of emotions swirl when reading the stories and accounts of sexual assault situations at summer camp. Unfortunately, a summer camp environment does not guarantee a child’s complete safety. Camp sexual assault cases exist. However, we want to come alongside you and your family as you prepare to send your children to summer camp. We understand that some difficult conversations can and should be part of that preparation.
Please know that our goal is not to scare you or draw an inaccurate portrayal of summer camp for everyone. We know that most summer camps contain healthy boundaries and sexual abuse training for their staff. I worked at a camp like this. It can work, and God can protect children from the unthinkable.
Yet, we know that there are victims of sexual abuse. Specifically, there are victims of sexual assault that occurred at camp. If you or your child is a victim of sexual abuse, know that we support you. Our heart breaks for the pain in your life.
We want to empower you to proactively educate your kids before they arrive at summer camp. As you read, we encourage you to maintain a healthy understanding of your situation, summer camp, and most importantly your children.
How does sexual assault at camp happen?
Summer camp can be both an exciting and anxious time. Your kids might experience a wave of emotions before they head off to camp. Your ability to maintain excitement for camp will be critical to your child’s summer camp experience. However, it’s also necessary to discuss important safety topics with your kids so that they feel protected and secure.
Whether it’s a day camp or overnight summer camp, there’s the potential for sexual abuse. Sadly, camp environments generate a number of factors that lead to opportunities for sexual assault.
During summer camp, kids experience a mixture of alone time with other campers and alone time with adults. The reality of summer camp is that there are not very many adults present at all times. Combine unusual access with alone time and summer camp can quickly create vulnerable moments for kids.
When summer camps do not have effective policies against sexual assault the opportunity for abuse rises. Going further, if a summer camp fails to adequately conduct thorough background checks, then the chance of adults with nefarious intentions working at camp is higher.
It’s a heartbreaking reality that sexual abuse occurs, and summer camps are not immune to this sin. However, you have the opportunity to prepare and protect your kids before they arrive at camp.
What you can do with your kids
Editor's Note: The following information is largely drawn from a conversation with Justin and Lindsey Holcomb. Many of the tips and strategies are common across both Focus on the Family and the Holcomb's sexual abuse prevention content.
There are a few critical conversations that you can have with your children before they head off to summer camp. Whether it’s a day camp or an overnight camp, these same conversations should occur. Moreover, situations involving sexual abuse are not confined to overnight camp.
Throughout your interactions with your children, you want to communicate the seriousness of these situations without unnecessarily scaring them. When discussing topics like sexual abuse within a summer camp context, remember to use age-appropriate language.
Use phrases like:
- “We’re sending you away to camp, and we’re really excited.”
- “If you feel uncomfortable when you’re at camp, know that you can tell someone you trust what’s going on.”
- “If something happens to you that feels wrong, remember that you’re not in trouble, but you can do something about it.”
- “If you see something happen that seems wrong, you can share it with someone you trust.”
1. Educate about appropriate touch
Educating your child about appropriate and inappropriate touch might be the best thing you can do to set your child up for success in a summer camp environment. If you haven’t already, discuss what are appropriate ways for your child to be touched. Then, discuss what inappropriate situations might look like.
If it’s been a while since one of these conversations, re-engage about topics like body safety, the anatomically correct terms for body parts, and appropriate conversations about your child’s body.
Ask them key questions about appropriate touch too. Such as, “Who is allowed to touch you beyond a high five or fist bump?” “What would you do if someone touched you in an inappropriate area?”
Again, consider your child’s age and level of understanding. Use age-appropriate terminology and examples. The goal isn’t to scare or frighten them. Instead, try to educate and maintain excitement about camp without causing too much fear.
2. Prepare your kids
Depending on the age of your kids, you might consider discussing the policies for the summer camp with them. That way you can effectively communicate the camp’s standards.
This conversation can pair well with talking about appropriate and inappropriate touch. If your children see that your family values align with the camp’s values, then there’s a greater chance they will arrive at camp with a clear understanding of what is allowed and what isn’t.
Another strategy you can use with your kids involves discussing “what-if” scenarios. Again, use your good judgement. But “what-if” conversations can be helpful in allowing your child to process what he or she might do in difficult situations.
3. How to recognize potential abusers
Recognizing a potential abuser might contain examples and language usually reserved for older kids. However, this could be a critical conversation for children of any age.
Talk through some of the situations that would not be okay to be alone with an adult. You can tie this conversation back to the previous talks about appropriate and inappropriate touch as well.
Finally, brainstorm safe people who your child can talk with if they think something strange is going on. Most camps have a camp nurse or camp director. These individuals could be trustworthy adults that are in a good position to help your kids.
Make sure you talk through how your children can contact you if something serious occurs. Always listen to your children. Use your parental wisdom and discernment to help them make the best decisions for their safety.
How to screen the camp
If you’re fortunate enough to have found a dependable babysitter, you probably understand the importance of doing your parental homework. Finding the right person to watch your kids is tough. It requires research, asking around, and ultimately trusting someone to watch the most precious people in your life.
Your approach to summer camp should be the same.
As best as you’re able, commit to researching a camp you’d like to send your kids to. Start to think of key questions you can ask camp staff. Then, also consider asking around your community to see if people have heard about that camp’s reputation.
Whether you call or visit, you can effectively screen a summer camp to protect your kids. Remember that your tone with the camp during this process should still be respectful. Be firm and direct but do your best to avoid negatively impacting your child’s summer camp experience.
Here are a few questions that can aid you during your conversations with the camp.
- What are your policies for one-on-one time with kids?
- What are the policies for swimming, bathroom and shower time at camp?
- What is the policy for physical contact between counsellors and campers?
- Do you require background checks for your counsellors and staff?
- How do you handle accusations of sexual abuse or assault within camp?
- If my child needs me, how can he or she contact me?
Ask about sexual abuse prevention
- An important part of your conversation with camp staff is to understand the camp’s process for reporting sexual abuse and assault.
- Begin with asking about what happens in a situation between a camper and a counsellor.
- Then, you can also ask about what happens between two campers.
- Also, consider discussing the policy for times during camp where there is not as much structure, like camp free time.
If you suspect abuse and if abuse occurs
Focus on the Family advocates for a common acronym within settings involving suspected and confirmed sexual abuse. If a child discloses situations involving sexual abuse, use the acronym BAT.
Trust what the child has told you. Many people are still reluctant to believe a child when they reveal abuse. One reason is that the behaviour of some children who are abused, which is a trauma that affects them emotionally and physically, can give adults the impression that their word can’t be trusted.
Clearly express your concern for your child. They need to know that you care and will be there for them. But never promise that you will be able to get them out of the situation. The only promises you can give is that you will be their support and will tell someone who can provide help.
Report the abuse to the appropriate authority. Reporting suspected child abuse will never come easy, and it should not. It is a serious and heartbreaking affair to be the one who has to bring attention to a horrible situation. In the long run, it is for the safety of the child. Your heart will be relieved to know that you did what you could to prevent child abuse.
Final thoughts on summer camp and sexual assault
Remember that you know your children and family the best. As you decide how to best approach the summer camp experience, we hope to encourage you. Make wise choices as you navigate summer camp. Be proactive in your screening process of the camp and its staff. Finally, continue to put your kids first by supporting, respecting and listening to them.
Justin Holcomb is a minister and a professor who teaches theology and apologetics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. He holds a Ph.D. in theology from Emory University and has authored, co-authored or edited more than 20 books. Justin has written several books with his wife, Lindsey, including two books for survivors of abuse (Rid of My Disgrace and Is It My Fault?) and three children’s books (God Made All of Me, God Made Babies, and God Made Me in His Image). God Made All of Me focuses on helping parents protect their children from sexual abuse, a subject Lindsey is especially well-acquainted with as a former case manager at a sexual assault crisis centre and a domestic violence shelter. Justin and Lindsey helped co-found REST, an organization dedicated to rescuing and protecting women and girls from the sex trafficking trade. The Holcombs reside in Orlando and have two young children. Learn more about their book God Made All of Me at the website JustinHolcomb.com/Books
Jackson Greer is a content producer for Focus on the Family in the U.S. He lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, Clara.
© 2022 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at FocusOnTheFamily.com.
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