NORWALK, Conn. – Teenagers Emily Todd and Millie Cunningham traveled to Hartford on Tuesday to testify in front of the Connecticut Legislature's Select Committee on Children's Joint Informational Hearing on Mandated Reporters of Child Abuse, as representatives of the 226 members of the Center for Youth Leadership at Brien McMahon High School. Here is what they said:
We've been banging our heads against the wall for more than two years with the issues we're here to talk about – background checks of employees and volunteers who are 18 years of age and older at camps that are licensed by the Connecticut Department of Public Health; camp directors and their alternates as mandated reporters of child abuse; and workshops for all camp employees and volunteers – regardless of age – on how to recognize and report suspected cases of child abuse.
As you may know, the licensing procedure used by the Department of Public Health does not require employees who manage camps, or employees or volunteers who interact with children and teen campers on a daily basis, to complete a national criminal background check.
We do not come to this topic lightly. We have been concerned about background checks and adult access to children and teens for some time. For example, we successfully lobbied the U.S. Postal Service to change its Dear Santa Letter Program for Children; we convinced the Norwalk School District to require background checks of adults who want to volunteer in the city's schools; we persuaded the board to strengthen its child abuse reporting policy and procedures; and our ongoing outreach program with parents implores them to ask about background checks when researching camps for their children.
In addition to the Connecticut Department of Public Health, we are trying to get several home-stay programs – programs that place foreign students with families – and the Norwalk Department of Recreation and Parks to conduct background checks and evaluate who has access to children and teens, when and under what circumstances.
The Connecticut Department of Public Health has been a tough nut to crack. As usual, the barriers to change are money and convenience. Let's place this in some perspective. We asked a staff member in the Department of Public Health's Licensing Division to run some numbers for us. According to her review, the department issued 472 camp licenses in 2011. But the actual number of camp sites is higher because several organizations manage camps with multiple sites. The 472 camps served 159,434 children and teens.
The only "background check" conducted by the department is of camp directors and their alternates. Per Department of Public Health policy, an alternate is someone who is on-site and in charge of a camp during the absence of the director. The department's "check" includes a review of Connecticut's sex offender registry and the Department of Public Health's files. In 2011 checks were conducted on 472 camp directors and 998 alternates.
Furthermore, the Department of Public Health does not track the number of camp employees or volunteers who have contact with children and teens on a daily basis. Nor does the department require background checks on any of the thousands of camp employees or volunteers. In addition, the department does not track the number of camps that conduct their own background checks of employees and volunteers.
Let's not be mistaken – there are camps in Connecticut that conduct background checks of employees and volunteers, but it is not a universal occurrence. In fact, of the 34 camps we surveyed at random last year, 16 conducted fairly extensive background checks on fewer than half of their employees and volunteers; 13 did not conduct any type of background check on anyone. The remaining camps did not answer our questions.
The camps we surveyed cited two barriers – the cost of the background checks and the time it takes to get the results. Reasons, yes, but not legitimate ones when it comes to the physical and emotional safety of children. We are mindful of the fact that many camps hire staff at the last minute – for example, people they recruit from overseas and college students who have returned home from campus – but those are weak arguments, especially when you consider that fingerprinting can be done if enough time is allotted for them.
That's where this committee comes in. We recommend that you revise the state statutes to require background checks of all camp employees and volunteers as part of the Department of Public Health licensing process, and that camp staff must be hired a minimum of 90 days before the start of camp. This will allow more than enough time for the results of the background checks to be returned to the camps.
We realize this will cost money – to the camps and its employees and volunteers for fingerprinting and the review of national criminal records and child protective services records, and to the Department of Public Health to process the increase in paperwork.
Although camps will not like this, the Department of Public Health can cover some of its costs by raising the fee for its license; currently $815 for for-profit camps and $315 for nonprofit camps. Camps can ask employees and volunteers to cover the cost of the background checks, or they can split the fee with them.
We also ask that you clarify if camp directors and their alternates are considered mandated reporters of child abuse per Connecticut General Statute 17a-101a. According to the Department of Children and Families, "...any person paid to care for a child in any public or private facility, child day care center, group day care home or family day care home which is licensed by the State" is considered a mandated reporter. We're not sure if this includes camp directors and their alternates. If it doesn't, then we recommend that directors and their alternates be added to the list of mandated reporters.
Another step you may want to take with camps that are licensed by the Department of Public Health is to require them to provide every employee and volunteer with a workshop on how to recognize and report suspected cases of child abuse. Completion of the workshop ought to be a condition of employment or volunteer service.
Some have argued that parents should assume some of the burden for making sure that background checks are conducted by camps. That is far from an ideal expectation. We know this is cynical, but when researching camps for their child, parents typically ask about the types of activities, the snacks that are served, and the cost of the camp.
The large majority of parents do not ask if the employees and volunteers of the camp have passed a national criminal background check conducted by the camp. In fact, of the 109 parents of school-age children we surveyed last year, 106 said they never even thought of asking about background checks. And of the 106 parents, none had a camp representative volunteer information about background checks.