CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - School is out for the summer and Lowcountry families may be looking for summer camps to keep kids busy until August.
But many people may not realize summer camps are not currently regulated in South Carolina. Parents are solely responsible for finding out who is working with their children and what, if any, training they have.
Child care experts say it’s especially essential to ask camp leaders how they background employees.
“When you don’t have oversight, you don’t have rules or regulations. You don’t know who’s watching the children,” said Tricia Sheldon, Legislative Liaison for the SC Association for Early Care and Education. She’s worked in child care for fifteen years and wants to raise a red flag for parents over the summer.
She said six years ago a state representative “brought a group of us together and said, ‘It’s come to my attention these programs aren’t licensed, these children aren’t safe, and we need to do something about it.’”
“The camp could all be brand new… a brand new place opening up. That’s fine, but know that. What’s their background?” Sheldon said.
Unlike a child care center or a home daycare, the Department of Social Services does not currently regulate summer camps in any way.
There are no inspections, background checks, policies or employee training currently required by the state.
“Without having regulations attached, it’s a hodge-podge for parents to navigate,” said Representative Shannon Erickson. She’s been pushing for years for the state to enforce or update child care laws and provide oversight for summer camps longer than three weeks.
For example, she believes federal and state background checks should be required of anyone working with kids at camp.
“Some providers will say they do background checks- and maybe they do. They do a ‘SLED Catch’ that’s online. But that’s only South Carolina. That’s not the child abuse registry, and that’s not the FBI. Even some providers may not know that,” Erickson said.
Proponents of more oversight also want to implement ratio rules to make sure there’s enough adults overseeing groups of kids.
They’d require someone at the camp to know CPR and first aid.
Even simple requirements would be officially listed, said Erickson, such as having working bathrooms and running water available on site.
“If we can’t provide a regulation to ensure basic health and safety requirements for children, I think we as a state are sending a wrong message,” Erickson said.
This past April, the S.C. Attorney General’s office issued a letter of opinion regarding state law.
The letter said that under current law, DSS should indeed be licensing summer camps that are longer than three weeks.
Erickson said she understands that full licensure to the extent of a child care center would be burdensome to camps, so she hopes the legislature can pass updated, reasonable laws to provide guidance and oversight.
It would come at a cost to the state and camps.
Sheldon said some groups have been helpful in legislative discussions around camps.
But they both said other camp groups have balked at the idea of any oversight at all.
“They just have not been comfortable,” she said. “Well, this letter from AG’s office kind of says sorry guys- you’ve got to get comfortable.”
She pointed out that many some camps go above and beyond safety measures even though they aren’t required. A parent should always follow their gut when it comes to a safe location for their kids.
Since DSS doesn’t currently regulate camps, there’s no data or complaint database available for parents to review.
But there’s no way to know for sure unless parents asks the camp itself.
“Even if it’s only a week, that’s a week out of that child’s life that has potential to impact them the rest of their life,” said Dr. Carole Swiecicki, Executive Director of the Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center.
Swiecicki says parents have every right to ask camps what steps they take to prevent physical and sexual abuse. “Ideally they wouldn’t have one-on-one adult with child situations unless there’s an open door,” Swiecicki said. “Parents should be able to drop in at any time and observe their child at that camp.”
She suggests starting the conversation with camp leaders by asking questions such as:
-Are annual state and federal background checks run on all employees or volunteers?
-Do you also check the DSS child abuse registry (separate from criminal background checks) every summer?
-Do you frequently check the sex offender registry in this state and others where that employee worked?
-How are camp workers trained?
-Are camp workers taught about appropriate interactions with kids and mandated reporting requirements?
Swiecicki added, “If they have answers to 80% of the questions and are unsure about one part of it, that could be encouraging.”
Perhaps a camp is even willing to implement more safety checks if parents ask, she said, adding that Dee Norton is a willing resource for camps wanting to improve or implement safety guidelines to prevent abuse.
Rep. Erickson advises camps to start rolling out safety measures on their own; they may be required to do so by the state next year anyway. She said she is working with the new Director of DSS to discuss how implementation might start next summer.
“One tragedy touches us all,” said Erickson. “I would hate for us to not take action that we could have prevented an accident from happening.”