Originally published: Sunday, June 14, 2009
When parents pack their children off to summer camp, they are unknowingly relying on each camp’s self-imposed safety standards to protect their kids - because the state has next to no rules.
Camps in South Carolina don’t have to be licensed or inspected on how they operate their programs.
Anyone, even people who have a police rapsheet, can open a camp.
Camps - a rite of summer for thousands - also don’t have to train counselors in first aid, much less CPR, nor do they have to meet any staff-to- child ratios or report injuries or deaths to a regulatory body.
There is no regulatory body.
That means no one knows how many children have been injured at camps. The burden remains on parents to choose a camp carefully without having objective standards to evaluate them.
Summer camps were explicitly exempted from oversight when day care centers came under state regulation in 1981 - unless they operate longer than three weeks, which few do.
Julie Stensland of Columbia plans to send her 5-year-old daughter to three different camps this summer. She has no idea what their standards are for employee background checks or safety training.
"I volunteer at church, and we have to go through child abuse training and background checks if we work with children , so I just assumed it’s something everybody had to do," Stensland said. "I never even thought to ask about those things."
That is what most say.
Laura Hudson is a veteran victims’ advocate and a lobbyist pushing a bill through the General Assembly that would for the first time require controls.
"When I ask parents, 'What do you know about these camps?’" Hudson said. "They say, 'Next to nothing.’"
END OF SELF POLICING?
South Carolina is among a majority of states that allow camps to be largely self regulating, though some camps set their own high standards.
No one knows how many camps operate across the state. Estimates run into the thousands.
No one knows how many children attend. That is likely tens of thousands.
Camps range from daytime sports camps run by high school coaches to large, full-service operations at YMCAs or under the umbrella of Scouting programs.
The camps charge rates that range from $10 per day to several hundred dollars for weeklong stays.
"There are a lot of very good camps out there," said Sen. Brad Hutto, who is president of the Indian Waters Boy Scout Council in the Midlands. "And those of us who run those good camps don’t want headlines to come up from a camp that wasn’t inspected and (where) something bad happened."
Hutto and Hudson, a member of the Child Fatalities Review Committee created by state law to recommend child -safety measures, drafted legislation that could bring state oversight to camps.
The proposal, which passed the Senate and is in a House committee, originally called for state licensing and inspections, mandatory state and federal criminal history searches and notifications of death.
The Senate decided instead to create a study committee to consider changes.
Hudson predicts the committee, to be comprised of summer camp operators and state agency representatives, will be authorized next year. That means the earliest any oversight could begin is 2011, she said.
In contrast, California last spring instituted camp rules that: Set education and training standards for staffers.
Set staff-to- child ratios.
Require an on-site health supervisor and an on-call physician. Require a medical log of injuries and medications dispensed.
At least two children have died in S.C. camps since 2003 - both of whom drowned at church-run facilities.
Neither camp was permitted to run what the state calls natural swimming areas.
One child was a Gaffney fifthgrader, Tionna Dukes.
She died during the summer of 2004, at a camp on the banks of the Saluda River in a remote part of southern Greenville County known as Possum Kingdom.
The 11-year-old honor student’s mother had told Radiant Life Assembly of God church, which organized the camp, that her daughter could not swim.
On the permission form to attend camp, Felicia Dukes of Gaffney circled the activities her daughter should not do: swim, canoe or be a part of a water baptism. She did not pack a swimsuit.
On Aug. 3, the child borrowed a suit and told the 12-year-old boy supervising a 70-foot-long water slide that she could swim, according to police records.
One of 22 girls playing on the slide, the child shot feet first down the plastic slide fed by a hose, the reports show. She hit the lake, rolled head over heels and never surfaced.
It took rescuers 70 minutes to find her 83-pound body under 17 feet of murky water.
Several adults from the church - including off-duty emergency medical technicians, firefighters and a certified diver - had been supervising the large group of girls and boys attending the weeklong camp.
The Columbia-based Assemblies of God loaned the site to Radiant Life, its church in Gaffney. The small church had offered children who could not afford camp an opportunity to enjoy the experience, said Bob Sandler, youth director for the Pentecostal denomination’s 97 S.C. churches.
During the 31 years that thousands of children and adults had used the 65-acre River Oaks Retreat Center, there had never been a death, Sandler said. There has not been another, and only a few broken bones have occurred.
"If you could pick the camp you want to be at, it would be this one," said Victor Smith, the denomination’s executive secretary.
River Oaks continues to be open to members of Assemblies of God and others who rent it, said the Rev. Steve Brown, the denomination’s statewide superintendent.
Assemblies of God and the church paid a total of $600,000 to Felicia Dukes to settle wrongful death lawsuits, court records show. Efforts to reach her and her attorney for comment were unsuccessful.
The camp has posted no-swimming signs, though the slide, kayaking and other water activities remain, Brown said.
The denomination’s practice of leaving it to renters to supply their own chaperones and lifeguards has not changed.
In June 2003, 13-year-old Rasheen Davis, died after a camp accident.
He was attending a camp run by the Reformed Episcopal Church near the intercoastal waterway in Charleston County.
The teenager meandered away from other boys during a kayak trip on a three-acre pond, according to the coroner’s records and officials with the southeastern diocese of the church. The diocese oversees 34 mostly black churches in South Carolina and owns the Jerdan Conference Center near McClellanville, north of Charleston.
The Rev. Ron Moock said the center dates to the late 1960s, when black children had few places to go to camp.
The teenager told counselors he could not swim and did not want to get into a kayak. Instead, he walked along the shoreline, wading in shallow water.
But he stepped off an unseen ledge into six feet of water, records show. He lived for eight days before dying on June 27.
His family did not sue, Moock said. They donated his organs.
INJURIES: A GUESSING GAME
Sports, recreation and overexertion have injured nearly 38,500 S.C. children between 2000 to 2006 - by far the leading causes of child injuries. The figures, the most recent available from hospital emergency rooms, show two-thirds of the 57,738 injuries to children those years happened during those three activities.
But data analysts say they cannot pinpoint how many occurred in summer camps. They would have to examine each report, they said.
Hudson said she has no hard figures on injuries at camps. "We just know anecdotally that there are a lot."
A snapshot of ambulance calls to 10 major camp locations in Lexington County shows seven injuries since 2006, none fatal. But many were at parks that offer other programs, so all injuries might not be camp-related.
Richland County declined to provide similar information, citing federal patient privacy laws.
Child advocates, including officials with the Children ’s Trust of South Carolina, are surprised to learn camps are barely regulated.
"I guess you assume they’re open for business, so you figure somebody looks at them," director Sue Williams said. "I’m sitting here going, 'Wow.’"
ARE THERE ANY RULES?
The American Camp Association is an advocacy group that urges camps to meet standards for health, safety and program quality. In some states, ACA accreditation is the standard for being licensed.
An ACA survey shows that 43 states require some summer camps to be licensed and 21 states require background checks. The variety and degree of regulations make it difficult to compare states.
The survey credits South Carolina with licensing camps and requiring background checks. But that applies only when campers stay for three weeks.
North Carolina does not require licensing or background checks, while Georgia’s regulations are much like South Carolina’s, according to the survey.
Camps in South Carolina fall under narrow state regulation only if they cook and serve food, have a septic tank system or allow swimming. Kitchens are inspected once a year, but there is no routine quality monitoring of septic tanks and a no-swimming sign can exempt camps from testing for water pollutants even if kayaking is permitted.
Until 1999, S.C. regulations required certified lifeguards, routine inspections and imposed penalties of up to 30 days in jail for violations.
The S.C. Parks and Recreation Association represents agencies that run between 2,500 and 5,000 summer camps. It recommends, and most agencies follow, guidelines that include State Law Enforcement Division background checks for all employees, said Jim Headley, association director.
For volunteers, some agencies do SLED checks, others simply check names against SLED’s sex offenders list, he said.
The Richland County Recreation Commission does SLED checks on all summer camps staffers and requires them to take at least eight hours of safety training, said Elizabeth Atkinson, assistant director of special programs. More than half the staff is certified in CPR techniques.
As for swimming, the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control has issued permits for 41 natural swimming areas, 28 of which are at summer camps.
If DHEC regulators are called to a camp, they can determine whether swimming is encouraged and conduct water pollution tests, said Jim Ridge, who supervises permits.
Regulators know about such bodies of water only if camps apply for permits or someone complains, Ridge said.
WARY OF REGULATION
Many who run summer camps worry about the cost of the proposed legislation’s original provisions, in terms of both money and time.
Background checks cost $8 per person. Most agencies don’t do the FBI fingerprint check, which costs an additional $18.
Also, a backlog for FBI checks means they can take several weeks, Headley said. Camps could be over before fingerprint checks come back on last-minute volunteers.
Though the legislation would exempt college sports camps, since they are regulated by a national agency, Bailey Harris wonders about the hundreds of sports camps at high schools.
Harris, Lexington High School’s basketball coach, has run his for 22 years. As many coaches do, Harris drafts his own players to work as counselors. The extra expense of doing SLED and FBI checks on staffers could "wipe out some camps," he said.
The S.C. Baptist Convention has long done national background checks for all of its camp staff and mandated that someone with CPR training be on site, said spokesman Roger Orman.
But the convention does not control camps run by its 2,086 Baptist churches, he said.
"The bottom line is the protection of children , and we’re all for that," said Parks and Recreation’s Headley of the proposed legislation. "But .æ.æ. there are a lot of ramifications."
Brown, of the Assemblies of God, is more direct. "Once legislation begins, it tends to overkill."