With summer on the horizon and talk about camp plans at a feverish pitch, this time of year is one of excitement for many. But it can be stressful for those of us who work with sexual abuse survivors. Just a few years ago I wrote about a man that I was treating who had been sexually abused by a counselor in a sleepaway camp when he was in his early teens. I never mentioned his name nor the name of the camp. But after the piece was published, I was inundated with letters, e-mails and calls from other men — older and younger than he — telling me about their similar experiences.
In all, more than 100 people contacted me. About 30 of them had been to the same camp and were abused by the same counselor who had been promoted over the years to head counselor. It was an open secret that he would select campers to go skinny dipping with him late at night and would abuse them. Still, he was revered by many at the camp.
That abusive man has since passed on. But stories like that do not. There are many similar cases, and while there is a significant effort to prevent abuse through stricter policies and more robust vetting, it is a given that abuse will likely continue to occur.
Last summer I was informed of two situations at sleepaway camps where abuse occurred. Both of those took place at camps that have anti-harassment and abuse policies – an absolute must. What is most often missing, though, is the necessary supervision of camp employees, the need to believe a person who finally feels strong and comfortable enough to report that he or she was abused, and the proper education of children who go off to camp. While it would be a fool’s errand to believe that all abuse can be eradicated, it is these three areas — staff supervision, believing victims and educating children that can provide the most effective buffer against abusers.
It is a mistake to think that abusers are easy to identify. They do not hide, nor do they dress in specific ways. They are often well-regarded individuals who take pride in giving the impression that they are engaged in charitable work and care deeply for children. Without proper screening and constant supervision, abusers will not be identified and will have open access to children.
Unfortunately, far too often children who are abused are not believed. As documented in the recent book “A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America” abused children are often bullied into recanting their reports of the maltreatment they received. It took many years and dogged determination of some of the survivors of Dr. Larry Nassar to finally have their day in court in the Olympic gymnast scandal. The Nassar case provides evidence that abusers tend to harm as many victims as they possibly can. It used to be estimated that men who abuse can have between 10 and 50 victims. Nassar may have had over 250 victims. Still, many of those victims were not initially believed despite the evidence, simply because Nassar was held in high esteem.
Preparing children to protect themselves under any circumstance is no easy task. It is often uncomfortable for a parent to be able to have a direct talk with their own child. Still it must be done in an age appropriate manner, using the correct bodily terms and instructing a child to turn to someone trustworthy should the child feel threatened – not always easy in a sleepaway camp. For that reason, it is imperative for parents to take their time selecting the best camping program with directors and counselors who have been evaluated and have a track record of running a well supervised program.
I went to sleepaway camp for several years as a pre-teen and teenager. At one of the camps I attended the camp directors floated in and out of camp activities on a regular basis and checked bunks, bathrooms and the areas around the fields every night at random times. They were diligent in taking care of their campers. At a different camp, one with more porous supervision, I heard later that several campers had been sexually molested by staff for several years after I had been a camper there.
To create a consistent approach to protect the wellbeing of campers, ASAP, a non-profit organization that addresses issues of abuse in the Jewish community, has several free guides available online for directors and counselors (www.asap.care) Parents should request that camps they choose for their children adhere to the training and certification the ASAP program has promulgated.
Abuse can take place anywhere, anytime. We can do our best to prevent it if we, as parents, camp administration and staff do our diligence, follow through to create a safe environment and educate our children.
Dr. Michael J. Salamon is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the author of numerous articles and books, most recently “Abuse in the Jewish Community” (Urim Publications).