Summer is on the horizon and for tens of thousands of Georgia kids that means camp.
Horseback riding, swimming, music, science, sports; today’s camp offerings provide kids a smorgasbord of choices.
But an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found that more than 900 summer camps in Georgia are exempt from state regulation, allowing them to legally avoid inspections, criminal background checks for employees and other safeguards designed to keep kids safe. And that’s the camps the state even knows about. Hundreds — perhaps thousands — more simply operate off the books, luring parents with posts on Craigslist, ads in magazines or even signs along the road.
Records obtained by the AJC through open records requests show that the state has issued nearly as many child care exemptions as it has licenses, creating a vast network of care for children that exists with little or no oversight. Parents, legislators and even some camp operators expressed surprise and confusion about what the state requires.
“It really is ‘buyers beware,’” said Pam Tatum, president of Quality Care for Children. “Parents need to educate themselves to really find out what they are getting.”
The state itself didn’t even know until recent months how many camps and other child care providers had been declared exempt from its mandates and if they were still operating. As a service to readers, the AJC built a searchable database of exempt summer camps that can be found on our website, myAJC.com.
By their very nature, summer camps tend to engage in riskier activities than traditional daycare. Getting kids outside and active can result in plenty of scraped knees, bangs and bruises — even the occasional broken arm. But sometimes the harm can be far greater.
In June 2013, a youth had to be resuscitated and transported to the hospital after nearly drowning at a Gwinnett County YMCA. In 2011, a 16-year-old Florida boy attending Camp Ramah Darom Jewish camp in the north Georgia mountains drowned in a whitewater rafting trip. Neither camp was required to be licensed in Georgia, although Ramah Darom does have national accreditation.
For families whose parents work, summer camps are frequently a necessity. And a costly one at that: a week of day camp can easily run from $150 to $400. Overnight camps are even pricier. Girl Scout sleep-away camp, for instance, comes with a price tag of more than $800 for a week.
So, many parents are startled to learn that the state isn’t watching.
“It seems so basic,” said Cheryl Kortemeier, a Decatur mother. “I think most parent are surprised to learn they don’t.”
Carolyn Salvador, executive director of the Georgia Child Care Association, said any parent who isn’t doing their own homework on camps is “taking a giant leap of faith.”
Amy Jacobs, commissioner state Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL), argued the “majority of summer camps are safe.”
“I think right now we do have the right blend of license and unlicensed providers. It’s a model that works.”
Pop up camps
Georgia’s system of protecting kids in care outside the home relies on licensing. DECAL licenses and regulates many child care providers. Some offer summer camp programs as well so they are subject to the same oversight.
Licensed day care providers must open themselves up to at least two surprise state inspections a year, conduct criminal background checks on employees and have insurance coverage.
But so-called stand-alone camps that serve children ages five and up are exempt. Those include camps run by churches, some YMCA’s and sports schools — such as dance, martial arts and tennis programs — that don’t regularly offer full-time care. Those camps are supposed to apply for an exemption from the state and post that exemption in a place where a parent can see it. But it appears many do not.
Flipping through “Atlanta Parent” magazine’s summer camp issue, the AJC found eye-catching ads for numerous camps that aren’t listed by the state as either licensed or exempt.
Some were surprise they needed to be.
“We don’t need to be licensed. Do we?” asked Betsy Box, director of the Bedford School, Squirrel Hollow Group, operated out of The Bedford School.
Nancy Jones, of Valley View Ranch, a north Georgia equestrian camp, likewise said she was unaware the camp needed an exemption to operate.
“We’ve been operating for three generations,” Jones said, explaining that the safety of campers is already paramount.
“I don’t think state licensing is going to make us do anything better than we already are.”
Tim Reidy, director of Camp Kingfisher at the Chattahoochee Nature Center, said his camp has an exemption from the state but said that should not be interpreted to mean that it has lax safety standards.
“We jump through a lot of hoops when it comes to safety and we wouldn’t have it any other way,” Reidy said. He noted that camp requires criminal background checks for employees and American Red Cross certification for its lifeguards.
Asking the right questions
Tatum cautioned that camps with exemptions should not be viewed as unsafe. They’re simply operating under the rules the state has in place.
“The point is there are no guarantees. You just don’t know because there are no minimum requirements,” Tatum said.
In 2012, DECAL did move to strengthen existing regulations for exempt camps, requiring them to post a sign noting their exemption status at their facility and also mandating that parents sign a form acknowledging the exemption. At the same time, Georgia also provided exempt camps more leeway — permitting them to operate for up to 12 hours a day, up from seven.
Jacobs, the DECAL commissioner, said that the state focuses its greatest resources on “ensuring the health and safety of the youngest children in child care.” To that end, it has 85 inspectors who oversee licensed child care programs.
Jacobs said by asking the right questions and even visiting the camps in person, parents can still choose a quality camp from among those exempt from state licensure.
And she said if the state learns of a camp that is not licensed or exempt it will investigate. But Jacobs could not say how often that has been done.
John Hicks, day camp coordinator for the YMCA of Metro Atlanta, said camps are difficult to regulate because “they don’t really fit into the child care box.”
“Part of the experience is getting kids out of that box.”
Some YMCA camps are licensed in Georgia while others have exemptions, depending on whether they offer regular child care during the remainder of the year.
States handle summer camps in a variety of ways. A handful, like Missouri, have no licensing. But others, such as Texas, license camps allowing for inspections and other mandates.
A few dozen Georgia camps trumpet what is widely viewed as the good housekeeping seal of approval: accreditation from the American Camp Association. Camps pay a fee to be inspected and graded by the ACA. Accreditation is designed to give parents assurance that the program meets the highest standards.
But only 48 camps in Georgia have ACA accreditation, according to data the group provided to the AJC. A searchable database of these camps is available on our website, myAJC.com.
Thousands of paper files
For years, Georgia knew little about how many exempt child care programs were even operating . The AJC reported in June 2012 that DECAL’s exemption records collected over two decades were were buried in thousands of paper files. Then-DECAL Commissioner Bobby Commissioner Bobby Cagle told the AJC at the time that the department would go through, review and computerize those paper files.
Nearly three years later that review process is nearly complete.
Jacobs said that state officials worked their way through some 7,000 paper files to confirm whether the programs are still in operation and to collect current contact information.
Summer camps are one of 14 categories of exemptions in Georgia. Others include so-called mothers-morning-out programs and some faith-based programs. Child advocates would like to see fewer exemptions.
“Safe care is licensed care,” Salvador said.
Yet the state Legislature has shown little attention to the issue.
“You’re telling me something I don’t know,” said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver when told that many summer camps are not licensed in Georgia. Oliver, a Democrat from Decatur, is active on many issues involving children.
Mary Emily O’Bradovich, of Atlanta, is still haunted by her daughter’s experience six years ago at a licensed camp.
She dropped off her then 6-year-old at a swim camp. As she left she felt rushed and uneasy but convinced herself she was overreacting. When she picked up her daughter at the end of the day she was surprised to learn she’d never put on her swimsuit. Her daughter explained she had ended up in the wrong group — which wasn’t swimming. None of the teenage counselors noticed the error and, because of the confusion, she never received lunch. They didn’t return.
“What I learned from that is you need to trust your gut,” she said. “If you’re not feeling comfortable trust that feeling and ask more questions.”