As schoolchildren head to summer activity camps, questions are being raised about who is running them.
Some child advocates believe there should at least be mandatory criminal records checks for any staff or volunteers working with kids, while others say it is up to parents to ensure their children are in safe hands.
Parents who send their children to summer camps currently do so at their own risk, with no official regulation or oversight.
Schools, after-school clubs and early learning centers are subject to inspections to ensure they comply with fire codes and health and safety regulations and that staff and volunteers are first-aid certified and do not have criminal records.
But summer camps – responsible for the welfare of a large number of children during the summer holidays – are not subject to the same scrutiny.
For some, such as Michael Myles, the at-risk youth coordinator for the Ministry of Education, this is a loophole that needs closing.
Others, including YMCA Chief Executive Officer Greg Smith, fear that more regulation could lead to escalating costs that could make camps unaffordable for low-income families.
Mr. Smith said the responsibility lies with parents to make sure they are leaving their children with someone trustworthy.
Mr. Myles agrees that parents are ultimately responsible for their children’s welfare. But he said it is often children without responsible or involved parents who are most at risk, and some form of oversight would help.
He added that some camps receive funding from government or take place on government facilities, potentially exposing government to liability.
“At the moment, anyone can have a camp in the Cayman Islands as long as parents are willing to bring their children to it,” Mr. Myles said.
“To have a summer camp, you don’t have to register with any entity, no one is checking up on you, there is no set operating standards that you have to meet.
“Some summer camps do their own training, their own records checks; many of them don’t. With the number of youngsters now exposed to sexual abuse, it is a major concern that there are no mandatory criminal records checks and that there is no training for volunteers in how to deal with these type of situations.”
Mr. Myles, who helped set up the Extended After School Program, which provides activities for around 1,500 youngsters during term time, said all volunteers in that program had training through the Darkness to Light child abuse prevention program, were CPR certified, had police criminal records checks and signed on to a handbook and code of conduct. He thinks the same training could be extended to summer camp staff without additional costs being incurred.
Mr. Smith, of the YMCA, which is currently running a summer camp for around 30 youngsters, said the camp regulations are based on the association’s international standards. Camp staff go through child abuse prevention and CPR training as well as criminal records checks.
But he does not believe this should necessarily be mandatory for all summer camps.
In many parts of the U.S., he said, it is also common for people to run informal camps in their own neighborhoods.
He said he has some empathy for the smaller camps and thinks it is OK for parents to make a decision on whom to leave their children with.
“If they trust the woman down the street with a camp for 10 kids, I don’t say they are terrible people for that.”
He said the important thing for parents is to ask the right questions and make sure they leave their children in the care of someone trustworthy.
Mr. Smith warns there would be cost implications as a result of increasing regulation that could force some of the smaller camps out of business and reduce options for parents.
Reina Jefferson of the Cayman Islands Early Childhood Association, said she would like to see greater oversight to ensure camps are run safely.
“There are camps for all different types of activities, and the question is, who is running them?
“Our recommendation is that there is proper training for anyone working with children and proper oversight to ensure camps are run safely.”
She said anyone working with children, even as a volunteer, should at least have had a criminal records check to ensure the safety of children in their care. And she said there should be set standards on the ratio of adults to children and first-aid training.
The Department of Children and Family Services confirmed it currently has no role in overseeing summer camps and it urged parents to be diligent.
Jen Dixon, director of the department, said, “We would strongly encourage parents and guardians to get as much information about the organizers of the camps, the qualifications of the persons involved in operating the camp, as well as those who will be working directly with their child; verify the nature and types of activities their children will be involved with; and ascertain the level of supervision to be provided for the children.”