Preventing and Responding to Sexual Abuse At Camps

a camp drop sign for a sleepaway summer camp for children in nature

If you ever attended a camp as a child or youth, what do you remember about the experience?   

Some people recall camp life fondly. The friendships made at these facilities sometimes last a lifetime. The experience of being away from your parents or guardians might have offered you a first tantalising taste of independence. And, maybe you were able to participate in activities unavailable to you at home, or perhaps you learned certain skills you still use today.   

For others, the experience was much less pleasant. Homesickness, feeling left out or bullied, or even sustaining injuries might be the memories that first come to mind. For some, memories of sexual abuse that occurred at camp can come to mind.   

In this blog post, I explain why camps - and particularly sleepaway camps - can be environments which create conditions ripe for abusers to use to their advantage. I then outline some risk management strategies camps may consider and note examples of how negligent implementation and deficient licensing and regulation negates the benefit of these plans. Finally, I conclude by explaining that if you or a loved one has suffered abuse or assault at a camp - recently or in the distant past - you have options.

How Do Abusers Take Advantage of Conditions in Sleepaway Camps?

Sexual violence can be understood as a crime based largely on power imbalances. A perpetrator often seeks a sense of power and control by using tactics of abuse. Moreover, perpetrators may justify their actions based on systemic inequalities and oppression - that society values or devalues certain people. Perversely, an abuser who targets a person perceived to have diminished value to society believes this devalued standing gives them licence to act.   

As a result, people belonging to marginalized groups or who are inherently vulnerable, like children, are far more frequently the target of sexual abuse or assault. Perpetrators also recognize opportunities to commit this type of violence on targets who they identify as being in particularly vulnerable situations. For example, a person who is financially dependent on an abuser will risk financial security and stability if they seek to report the abuse.   

Children or youth attending camps - particularly overnight camps - are in a uniquely disadvantageous situation if they become an abuser's target. Campers may:

  • Be scared and homesick (and possibly have restricted access to opportunities to contact their parents or guardians)
  • Have made no close friends yet at the camp in whom they feel safe to confide
  • Be dependent on a camp counsellor (who may also be sleeping in the same cabin as them)   

Beyond the vulnerability that comes with age, remoteness, and dependence, certain campers may belong to groups that are marginalized by society at large. Campers belonging to these marginalized groups include:

  • People with disabilities
  • Girls or people with an unconventional gender expression
  • Racialized and/or Indigenous people
  • LGBTQIA2S+ people
  • People from less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds   

Any or all of these factors can be identified by abusers as indicators that their target would be especially vulnerable and, therefore, the abuser would see a reduced risk of being caught, prosecuted, or otherwise held accountable for their actions.   

As a result, according to research and reported incidents, instances of sexual abuse at camps across North America over the past decades likely number in the thousands.

How Do Camps Mitigate the Risk of Abuse?

As survivors of sexual abuse and assaults come forward, the public has become more aware of the risks faced by vulnerable groups. Moreover, survivor-led lawsuits against institutions that have been negligent or complicit in facilitating conditions that permitted the abuse to take place have prompted these institutions to adopt risk management practices.   

Some risk reduction strategies include:

  • Codes of conduct for campers and staff
  • Screening staff and volunteers, including police checks
  • Mandatory and ongoing staff education and training
  • Visibility and supervisory guidelines that discourage situations where campers are out of sight of others and protocols for one-on-one interactions
  • Protocols for reporting and response
  • Collaboration with external partners specialising in abuse prevention and response
  • Regular safety audits
  • Creating and nurturing a trauma-informed environment
  • Open discussion about inappropriate touch with campers and staff   

However, putting in place risk management strategies requires follow-through - something not all camps appear to do.

In a bombshell report of abuse at a summer camps by CBC News, some camp counsellors interviewed revealed they had either never been asked to provide a police check to work with minors or had not been required by all camp organisers to show it during all the summer seasons in which they worked. Moreover, certain camps appeared to have a long-standing sexualised culture which tacitly accepted inappropriate activities among and between camp counsellors and campers.   

Although the camps mentioned in this report were accredited by the Ontario Camps Association (OCA), which heralded itself as having camps that were "the best risk managers in the world," if a camp doesn't meet its standards, the association can only revoke its accreditation, not take additional action as a licensing body could.   

Survivor Anne (pseudonym) suggested to CBC News that "[OCA] accreditation is like a teacher giving a four-year-old a gold star. There needs to be a governing body that actually has power that can make sure that camps respond to things in a proper way - and if they don't, that there are serious consequences."

Whether Abuse Is Past or Present, You Have Options.

In our justice system, certain laws contain statutes of limitations which prevent commencing criminal prosecution or civil actions after a specified period of time. Fortunately, there are no longer any statutes of limitations on sexual abuse or sexual assault. This means that even if you or a loved one experienced sexual violence at a camp decades ago, you may still be able to see justice done in the courts.   

Survivors of sexual abuse or assault may be able to seek compensation from the individual that harmed them and/or an institution whose negligence caused or contributed to circumstances that facilitated the harm.

In some cases, camps can be held responsible even if there was no negligence because of the relationship between the camp, the perpetrator and the survivor. Even if the abuse occurred so long ago that there is no longer any physical evidence, an experienced sexual abuse and assault lawyer can sometimes find ways to build a strong claim for damages.   

As a lawyer with a practice focused on this area of law, I understand how sensitive this type of personal injury can be for survivors. As such, if you choose to contact our firm for a no cost, no obligation initial consultation, you will see that we always work to ensure you feel respected, heard, and empowered to make an informed decision on if, how, and when to proceed.   

Children and youth camps offer young people exciting opportunities to make new friends and experience memorable events that they will treasure forever. But, if they are sexually abused or assaulted at one of these facilities, the damage done could have an enormous impact on the direction their young life takes. 

Healing from this harm is a journey that unfolds differently for each survivor. If your journey has brought you to a point where you want to know more about your right to take legal action against the people or institutions that harmed you, the sexual abuse lawyers at Jellinek Gluckstein are here to help.

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