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Sexual abuse of children at summer camps is disturbingly prevalent. If you or a loved one suffered sexual abuse at a camp or you’re concerned about the safety of summer camps, this article gives you all the information you’ll need to make informed decisions about how to proceed. Additionally, Herman Law is available to answer any questions you might have after reading this article and guide you through the steps to take if you or a loved one experienced sexual abuse at a summer or day camp.
What is child sexual abuse?
Child sexual abuse is any sexual activity or conduct between an adult and a minor, including:
- Showing a minor pornography
- Photography for sexual satisfaction
- Solicitation of a minor for prostitution
- Sexual communications by phone, Internet, or in-person
How common is sexual abuse in camps?
Throughout the US, the sexual abuse of boys and girls in camps is rampant. Victims of camp sexual abuse filed more than 500 reports over the years. In one recent year, authorities identified 21 cases. These numbers are telling, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. The true extent of the problem remains unknown because research shows at least 60 percent of incidents go unreported.
Truly shocking cases of camp sexual abuse include:
- Kanakuk Kamps: Children frequent these overnight camps located in Missouri and other parts of the country. One of the camp counselors, who eventually became the camp director, sexually abused boys at the camp for years. Estimates put the number of abused campers at 19 to over one hundred. The child molester received a life sentence for his crimes.
- Christian camps: Other Christian summer camps, in addition to Kanakuk Kamps, have been accused of abuse. Authorities arrested a staffer at a camp in Arizona for the alleged inappropriate touching of a victim.
Atlanta church: An employee at an Atlanta area camp faced charges for the sexual abuse of multiple campers aged five through 11 from 2016 to 2018.
Who is liable for sex abuse in camps?
Camp counselors and other staff members who sexually assault minors can be held liable or found guilty per different laws or legal standards. The camps themselves can also share liability.
Criminal vs. civil charges
Courts and victims can punish perpetrators of child sexual assault in two ways. First, the abuser can face criminal charges for the crime of sexual assault. If found guilty, they’re subject to sentencing and penalties. Second, they might face civil liability. If an employee or the facility acts unreasonably or wrongfully, they can be civilly liable and subjected to large jury verdicts awarding compensatory relief to their victims for past, present, and future damages directly stemming from the abuse.
Employees committing sexual assault can be found liable for the tort of battery or guilty of sexual assault. Battery occurs when the defendant engages in the harmful or offensive touching of another person. Criminal sexual assault occurs when the defendant touches an intimate part of a victim against their will for sexual arousal or gratification. If found guilty, penalties vary by state, but most sexual assault offenders spend years in prison and have to register as sex offenders.
The camp itself can be found liable for sexual assault of a minor under negligence or vicarious liability legal theories. They might be negligent if they fail to take adequate precautions in the hiring and supervision of employees. For example, reasonable safeguards include background checks of prospective employees and appropriate investigation and reporting of current employees if abuse is suspected or described.
Vicarious liability holds employers civilly liable for the wrongful acts of their employees. If an employee commits a sexual assault while working at the facility, the camp itself can be imputed a share of the responsibility for that person’s wrongful actions. This shared liability can occur even if no one owning or operating the camp committed the same or enabling wrong behaviors.
How can you prevent sexual abuse at summer camp?
Both parents and camp owners, operators, and employees can take steps to prevent the risk and occurrence of sexual abuse at summer camps.
Here are some precautions parents can take to prevent camp sex abuse:
- Body parts: Teach children the names of their body parts, even their private parts. Then, if something inappropriate happens, it’s easier for them to tell you exactly what occurred and what parts were touched or harmed.
- Boundaries: Let kids know that any uncomfortable touching is wrong, even hugging or a pat on the shoulder.
- Communication: Develop your children’s communication skills early to become comfortable talking to you about unpleasant subjects and better address their needs and concerns.
- Camp screening: Do your due diligence. Scour the Internet for any reports of misconduct by the camp. Talk to parents who have children that attended the camp, and if possible, to those children directly. Ask to see the camp’s hiring and human resources policies and review them to see if there are adequate pre-screening and supervision best practices in place. Talk to camp administrators about your concerns and ask them directly what protocols and safeguards they implement to protect your kids from harm. Also, make sure the camp complies with all licensing requirements. Finally, camps should have adequate staffing levels based on national standards, as detailed in the table below.
- Recognize potential abusers: Sexual predators are everywhere and can be anyone, but most share similar traits, including:
- Seek to be alone with children.
- Violate children’s boundaries with unwanted contact like hugging or tickling.
- Do not respect children’s privacy in the shower or bathroom.
- Often, they are loners with no adult friends.
- Warning signs: Signs and symptoms of sexual abuse can be both physical and behavioral, including:
- Physical signs include pain, bleeding or bruises in the genitals, dirty underclothes, moving with exaggerated slowness, and urinary or yeast infections.
- Behavioral signs include developing depression, changes in hygiene, nightmares, trouble in school, and shying away from physical contact.
- Additionally, abused children might stop making new friends or hanging out with their peers.
- It’s important to take note of any sudden or progressive deviations from a child’s normal routine.
- Suspect abuse: If you suspect abuse, contact your local law enforcement immediately.
Camp directors can take many steps to prevent the sexual abuse of children at their facilities, including:
First and foremost, employers must thoroughly screen prospective employees to exclude those with criminal records, especially involving harm to children or other warning signs. Proper screening includes:
- Criminal background checks
- Reference checks
- Rigorous verification of previous employment
- A thorough in-person interview
Employees and volunteers should undergo training on the topic of child sexual assault. It’s important to know how to recognize and prevent it and learn detailed procedures for responding to it when it’s suspected or stated.
Guidelines for interaction
Rules put in place for interaction between staff and campers are essential, including:
- One-to-one: There should never be a situation where one staff member is alone with one camper.
- Physical contact: Have a clear policy about physical contact. It’s best to avoid unnecessary physical contact, including hugging or potentially inappropriate or problematic touching.
- Personal care: Children need privacy when showering or changing clothes.
Adequate supervision ratios
There must be sufficient staff to supervise children adequately. Industry standards from the American Camp Association are as follows:
Age of Campers
Minimum Ratio of Staff to Overnight Campers
Minimum Ratio of Staff to Day Campers
5 years and younger
6 to 8 years
9 to 14 years
15 to 18 years
Camps must have a detailed policy about reporting. If a camper complains of inappropriate behavior, camp directors must not attempt to handle the situation internally. Instead, they should report the incident to law enforcement authorities immediately.
How can I report child sexual abuse?
If you suspect your child is in immediate danger, call 911. Otherwise, if you believe sexual abuse occurred earlier, contact your local authorities, preferably in person. You may also call or chat with the National Sexual Assault Hotline for further guidance and counseling services.
Can a sex abuse lawyer help me?
Yes. No remedy is available to undo the horror of child sexual assault, but a lawyer can help the victim and their family receive compensation for injuries and pain and suffering.
What can I receive compensation for?
A victim of camp sexual abuse can hire an attorney to file a civil legal action for battery and similar torts. Remedies available for these claims include compensatory and punitive damages.
Compensatory damages are both monetary and non-monetary. Generally, medical experts assist lawyers in estimating the amount of damages incurred due to the perpetrator’s wrongful actions.
Monetary awards compensate the victim for actual and expected financial losses associated with the abuse. For children who suffered sexual abuse, medical treatment and counseling usually make up the crux of financial losses. Therapy costs can be extensive and long-term. Medical expenses, both past and future, include:
- Doctor and hospital visits
- Clinical/lab tests (e.g., blood tests, X-rays, and MRIs)
- Pain medication
Non-monetary damages are available for pain and suffering and emotional anguish. Factors affecting this award include:
- Severity of pain: Violent sexual abuse can result in physical injuries that cause immense pain and harm. Examples include bruises and broken bones.
- Duration of pain: Some physical injuries take a long time to heal and can be painful long-term. Other physical injuries might not ever fully heal.
- Amount of medical expenses: There’s no formula, but generally, the higher the amount of documented medical costs, the greater the award for pain and suffering.
Emotional anguish refers to conditions like depression and anxiety. This psychological suffering is also compensable.
Sometimes, courts impose punitive damages to punish the sexual abuser for their wrongful actions, especially when they are particularly egregious. These damages might also be available in battery and similar cases.
An imperfect solution
Compensation can help pay for child sexual abuse survivors’ long road to recovery. Still, no amount of money can make up for the devastation perpetrators’ criminal actions cause victims and their families.
How long do I have to file a claim if I suffered camp sexual abuse?
When a camp counselor or other camp employee commits sexual assault against a minor, the state has a limited time to charge the abuser. This restrictive timeframe is called the statute of limitations. Starting the day the crime occurs, the clock starts running (i.e., tolling), and when time runs out, the state can no longer prosecute the offender for the crime. A separate statute of limitations also applies to the filing of civil actions. Statutes of limitations vary greatly state-to-state.
Modifications to statutes of limitation
Traditionally, a criminal or civil lawsuit for sexual assault would have a statute of limitations of a few years, but in recent years, states have modified their laws for criminal cases in the following ways:
- Elimination: Some states simply eliminated the statute of limitations for sexual assault. For example, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia have no statute of limitations for felony sex crimes. Other states, like California and North Dakota, have abolished it for some but not all sexual assault crimes. States like Arkansas and Hawaii retain a traditional time limitation.
- Reporting: In some jurisdictions, failure to report sex crimes can reduce the statute of limitations. For instance, in Illinois and Washington, if a victim reports a sexual assault, the period to begin a legal action is ten years. Otherwise, without a report, it’s three years. If a victim reports certain sex crimes in Utah, there’s an eight-year period to start legal action. Otherwise, it reverts to four.
- DNA exceptions: Many states extend or abolish the statute of limitations if DNA evidence exists. In Arkansas, for example, DNA evidence eliminates the statute of limitations altogether. In California, courts extend the statute by one year when DNA evidence is present. Other states, like Idaho, have no DNA evidence exception.
Some states, like California and New York, have lookback windows in civil cases. California recently passed legislation allowing adult survivors of child sexual assault to file a lawsuit that the statute of limitations may have otherwise barred. The law establishes a three-year window from January 2020 to December 2022. New York has a similar law.
What should I do if I suffered abuse as a child at camp?
If you or your child suffered sexual abuse at camp, we are here for you. At Herman Law, we know that dealing with the aftermath of child sexual abuse – including police involvement, state investigations, emotional trauma, and medical issues – can overwhelm you and your family. We can help guide you through the process and seek the compensation you deserve to assist in your recovery and continued healing.
Contact us today through our website or by calling 1 (800) 686-9921.