How to keep your kids safe at summer camp

How to keep your kids safe at summer camp

GRESHAM, Ore. - Tucked into the woods near Oxbow Park is a Mecca of fun - a world in which even the grown-ups go by nicknames like "Zuma" or "Merlin."

Yet in the midst of all the play at the YMCA’s Camp Collins, counselors like Josh "Merlin" Mann understand the seriousness of the trust placed in them.

"I have these nine guys – we're all in the same cabin. Then there's one other staff member that sleeps in the cabin, too," says Mann.

It's peak season right now for summer camps. From day camps to overnight experiences, thousands of children across Oregon and Washington spend good chunks of their day away from their families. But how safe are your kids and what sort of questions should you be asking before you send them away?

Before a single kid arrives at Camp Collins, every staff member is trained on child abuse: how to spot it, how to report it and how to avoid it.

"If ever I'm one on one with a youth, it's gotta be in a public place where other people are around or someone can see us," Mann says. "The idea is I'm never alone with just one youth in a cabin. There's gotta be always at least a second youth or a second counselor."

They are necessary boundaries, they say, when you have cases like Jerry Sandusky's haunting the headlines.

"It used to be 30 years ago you saw someone (who wanted to be a counselor) who looked like they enjoyed the outdoors, and a camp director might say, 'Hey, you'd be great, come join me," says Willard Burks, executive director of YMCA Camp Collins.

Not so anymore. In addition to a federal criminal background check and the calling of references, program director Haelynne "Zuma" Barron says there's the gut check.

"When we interview people, trusting that feeling that you're getting from them as well, and if there's something that's just not right and you don't know what it is, maybe this isn't the right place for them," she says. "Because if I'm not necessarily getting a great feeling, then how are the kids going to feel? We're not willing to risk that."

KATU News called several summer programs in our area, including the one at the zoo, and those run by county and city parks and recreation programs. Every program KATU called, at the very least, does a federal background check. But the best ones also train employees on child abuse prevention policies.

Parents should ask to see clearance letters for everyone who will be working with their kids, including volunteers. Ask about the qualifications and the experience of the staff. And find out if the camp counselors are trained in first aid and CPR.