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By Carol Lloyd
The website of an attorney who defends summer camps in wrongful death and injury cases offers a sobering glimpse of camp catastrophes. "Whether a negligence claim is related to a lake drowning, an animal attack, a fall, a broken bone or anything else, we are here to stand by your side," reads the Hertz Schram site.
Drowning, torture, and death threats may be rare, but what about broken bones and lesser injuries? Evidence is mixed. According to one 2009 study (pdf) published in Injury Prevention (grain of salt: it was sponsored by the American Camp Association), sleepaway camps have a rate of injury comparable with other summertime activities. On the other hand, a 2009 CBS report on injuries at a boys summer camp found that nearly all 300 campers ended up at the infirmary sometime during the week.
The crux is that camp is largely conceived as a place to let kids experience a little more freedom and, with that, more risk as well. Factor in human error — strike that — adolescent error, since most camp counselors are teens and very young adults, and it's not surprising that sometimes things go woefully wrong. What is surprising is that our profoundly risk-averse society hasn't taken more measures to mitigate the potential dangers of sending kids en masse into the woods to be supervised by strangers.
In the weeks after the incident, I fumed, stewed, and wondered where I'd gone wrong. Why hadn't I done my research to uncover this camp's backward priorities? Because I have a bias, I realized. The very idea of summer camp is so refulgent with ripe blackberries and wholesome sing-alongs, I find it hard to imagine a dark side. Unlike schools, which carry a neutral charge in my mind, the utopian summer camp casts no shadow. Of course, this idyllic image lives on partly because it holds a kernel of truth, but like any stereotype, it can interfere with thinking clearly.
So what can a parent do without becoming a paranoid security freak or — worse yet — following her child to summer camp? Check out this slide show of seven questions to ask a camp before sending your child there.
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