I-Team: Lax Criminal and Sex Offender Checks on Camp Staff May Put Kids at Risk

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    When Michelle Fusaro was choosing a camp for her 4-year-old daughter, she assumed that the staff had been screened for criminal records. The I-Team's Jonathan Vigliotti reports. (Published Wednesday, Jul 16, 2014)

    When Michelle Fusaro was choosing a camp for her 4-year-old daughter, she assumed that the staff had been screened for criminal records.

    So she was shocked when she learned that many camps in New Jersey, where she lives, were cited last year for failing to do background checks -- and that many camps in the tri-state area are not required to do them at all.

    “That’s a travesty,” said Fusaro outside her daughter’s Mahwah camp. “I think anywhere that you have children, people should do background checks.”

    An NBC 4 New York I-Team investigation found that Connecticut does not require camps to do criminal or sex offender checks on camp staff, while New York requires only state sex offender checks -- not criminal background checks or national sex offender checks.

    New Jersey has the most rigorous camp standards, requiring background checks and state and national sex offender checks. But in 2013, nearly one quarter of camps there were cited for failing to properly screen their staff, according to New Jersey camp inspection reports. Of 181 inspection reports the I-Team reviewed, 43 camps were cited for failing to do background checks.

    Laura Ahearn, the executive director of Parents for Megan’s Law, an organization devoted to preventing child sex abuse, says when it comes to summer camp, state laws just aren't strong enough.

    “There is an expectation that parents have that any counselor who is working there has been fully vetted and has had a full fingerprint and a sex offender registry check, and that’s not the case,” Ahern said.

    A spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Health said the agency's goal is 100 percent compliance with the regulations, and that all camps that were cited worked quickly to resolve the issue. A list of all licensed camps can be found here.

    A spokeswoman for Connecticut confirmed that the state does not require background checks. Information on other camp inspections can be found here.

    A spokesman for the New York Department of Health did not return calls seeking comment.

    U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) announced last month that he wants to close the loopholes in camp background checks by giving camps, Boy Scout troops, daycares and other organizations access to FBI background records.

    “One of the nightmares of parents is that their child is victim to such an awful thing,” Schumer said.

    He said New York state’s criminal database lacks records of criminal activity committed out of state when the offense is not federal. He said a pilot project on background checks found that of 77,000 background checks performed, over 6 percent of volunteers were found to have a criminal record of concern -- including very serious offenses like sexual abuse of minors, assaults, murder, and serious drug offenses.

    In addition, over 40 percent of the people with criminal records had committed an offense in a state other than where they were applying to volunteer, he said.

    Experts said parents should always do their their own investigative work when choosing a camp. In particular, they suggest:

    • Visiting a camp before signing up a child, and asking to meet the camp director.
       
    • Finding out what the camp’s policy is on background checks
       
    • Asking to see a copy of a camp’s latest inspection report.

    Many camps also pay to belong to a private accreditation organization, the American Camp Association. If a camp is accredited by the ACA, then it means that it has met that group’s standards, including background checks and 300 other health and safety requirements.

    Parents can look for ACA accredited camps here

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