Camp Sexual Abuse: Lessons from Senator Scott Brown

The problems with the three most-touted preventative measures.

Posted Mar 14, 2011

Though my current blog series focuses on technology and sex, recent national news necessitates I return to a topic I first described almost a year ago: sexual victimization in summer camps. On the February 20 episode of "60 Minutes" Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown became the personification of summer camp sexual abuse when he disclosed he had been victimized at such a facility.

When parents ask a camp director to explain how his or her facility protects against sexual victimization, they can expect the following responses:
• First, we do background checks.
• Second, children are never left alone with a staff member.
• Third, we offer extensive staff training.

Let's start with background checks. Are they valuable? Yes. Would I send a child to a camp that doesn't screen staff with background checks and clearances? No. I fully support these clearances, and they have indeed kept repeat offenders out of camps. However, let's not overestimate their role in preventing sexual victimization. The reality is that individuals with immaculate background clearances perpetrate the overwhelming majority of sex offenses. For example, in my more than decade of work with victims and offenders of camp sexual abuse I have encountered only two offenders with previous legal histories inadvertently hired by camps. Background checks are not the panacea that so many camps promote as the primary solution to camp sexual safety. Can we please finally acknowledge that sex offenders are not obviously detectable "creepy old men" but are instead friendly, solicitous, and oh-so-helpful smiling nineteen-year-old camp counselors with impeccable references and who have a natural rapport with children?

When treatment professionals are asked to perform an assessment of sexual risk, we examine an individual's arousal and fantasies, history of romantic relationships, personal victimization, self-esteem, empathy, substance abuse, sexual knowledge, and patterns of distorted thinking. It is impossible for camps to perform such comprehensive evaluations, and men and women of all ages with complex and insidious sexual issues evade current screening techniques to enter camps each and every year. Many of these young individuals have no idea that they are even capable of sexual offending until they are suddenly surrounded by the temptation of access to children twenty-four hours per day.

I also fully support policies of never permitting a staff member to be alone with a camper. However, approximately 50% of sexual abuse is perpetrated by other youth. How are camps protecting children from the very real sexual threat of other children and junior staff? That seemingly angelic ten-year boy bunking next to your own child could already be engaging in furtive sexually aggressive behaviors and have amassed several victims prior to camp.

Finally, camps often describe "extensive" staff training. Some camps bring in national organizations with long histories of treating abused children to present on the topic of sexual victimization. This is ideal. Others' idea of an extensive training consists of watching a half hour video on the topic. This is less than adequate. And some don't even go to that extent.

When parents ask me about choosing a safe camp my first suggestion is to look for a facility that humbly admits that sexual victimization can occur and that risky children and staff members can elide preventative measures. Only then should you ask about clearances, protocols, and training. Avoid any camp that presents as overly confident in its ability to prevent sexual abuse; no facility should be exuding confidence based on our current knowledge of sexual victimization.