ST PAUL, Minn. — It's the dead of winter and snow is piling up on Minnesota's frozen landscape, but in just a matter of months your kids will be packing and heading out for summer camp. Location, activities, and price factor into which camp kids and parents choose, but there's something else... something very important to consider.
The State of Minnesota does not require background checks on those who work or volunteer at youth camps. In fact, there’s little to no oversight at all when it comes to youth camps in Minnesota.
Some organizations are good at policing themselves, knowing it's important to the process of forging trust with customers.
"Parents are entrusting us with their kids for a week and we take that very seriously,” says Lindsey Kumlien, Executive Director of Minnesota Arthritis Foundation.
For one week a year kids living with arthritis get the opportunity to attend Camp Cambria on Cedar Lake in Annandale, a place where no one has to explain their disease. The Arthritis Foundation knows that safety of those children is of the utmost importance so, even though it costs money, they do background checks on anyone who will come in contact with kids.
Now that might sound like a no-brainer, but in Minnesota it’s not a requirement. And, yes, camp organizers have had reg flags pop up.
“We have," Kumlien affirms. "So, it just makes it feel more validating, the importance of doing it, because someone may seem normal and well equipped to work with kids and then you find something out from their background check that you don’t feel comfortable having them there.”
Minnesota is one of 18 states and the District of Columbia that do not require background checks for youth camp counselors, staff or volunteers. In fact, there is no state agency that has any real oversight into youth camps. If you run a camp with overnight accommodations or food service, you'll need a license from the Department of Health or one of its delegated agencies, but that's it. We couldn't even find out how many camps exist in Minnesota. We asked the Department of Health, which replied, "We don't have an up-to-date exact number."
So many campgrounds rent their space out to organizations who bring in their own staff to run their own camps, and the bottom line is... no one is watching.
"You can hardly pick up a paper or turn on a T.V. and not hear about some kind of trauma that a child has endured at the hands of someone who should not have been around that child,” says Tom Rosenberg, President and CEO of the American Camp Association (ACA).
The ACA has been creating minimum standards and accrediting camps for 70 years. They not only recommend a background check, but also a search of the national sex offender database, candidate interviews and verifying references before hiring. When it comes to background checks, the ACA believes they should be mandatory. KARE 11 took our concerns to state Representative Nick Zerwas.
"The idea that employees and volunteers at day camps or residential summer camps don't have a requirement to have that kind of criminal background check, I quite frankly found shocking," he says.
Day cares, bus drivers, even volunteers in schools have to go through the background check process.
But youth camps, somehow, slipped through the cracks.
“Especially when you look at these residential summer camps where children are going up for a week or two weeks at a time sleeping there, moving in for a time, those camp counselors, those volunteers, those staff members, it only is common sense that those individuals go through a process for both a state and a federal criminal background check," says Zerwas.
Representative Zerwas has introduced legislation to make background checks mandatory for camp employees. He thinks it's a bi-partisan no-brainer to get it passed. But, until it happens, parents need to know it's up to them to ask the right questions before sending children away to camp.
"I don't know that we've ever had parents come out and ask if we do background checks, I don't know if they just assume because they're dealing with kids, but is it definitely something parents should inquire about that,” says Kumlien.
The ACA has a "find a camp" tool that can help you find a program in any state that has been accredited, a process that is described as rigorous.