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Summer camp horror story

One parent's harrowing tale of a camping idyll gone awry.

By Carol Lloyd

Shadows flashed down the darkened hill. My 9-year-old daughter. Running. Crying. In the background disco anthems throbbed through the pine forest. A mirrored ball splashed colors onto branches.

The culminating dance on the last night of sleepaway camp should have been a time of gleeful abandon. Instead, there was my child: wild-eyed, blotchy with tears, and screaming for her parents. Scenes from Summer Camp Nightmare, Friday the 13th, Camp Slaughter, and Cabin Fever played across my mind’s eye. What the hell was going on?

Fortunately for my daughter, we were there. My husband, Hank, had volunteered as a "cabin dad" at this all-volunteer camp, and I had arrived the night before to participate in the family activities. So when my daughter overheard her cabin mom tell another counselor that "sometimes I just want to kill Tallulah," she had someone to run to.

More than an idle threat?

Hearing the story, my husband saw red. He dragged the camp director and the woman outside.

"Did you actually say you wanted to kill my daughter?"

"Actually, I said it twice," the woman sniffed. "I don't think there was anything wrong with it."

D— wasn't your average camp counselor. A plastic surgery casualty sporting a baby tee and spray-painted-on pants, this sixtysomething teenile fashion plate had neither children of her own nor experience caring for them. She'd been involved in fundraising for the nonprofit camp, then volunteered to be a counselor. As I arrived on the scene, my daughter ran to me sobbing and trembling. By the woman's own admission, my daughter hadn't done anything to deserve such enmity: D— just found my slightly immature but never-a-troublemaker child "irritating."

Now it was my turn to feel my blood rising, but I didn't know what to do. Should we call the police? The woman who had been given charge of my child for a week was scary, but was she violent? Should we take the high road? And how do you communicate intelligently with an adult who has just threatened to kill your kid?

The director, a techie by trade who organized the summer camp to teach humanist ethics, confessed to being out of her league. She hemmed and hawed, her language skills regressing: "I don't want to say 'Hank bad, D— good' or 'D— bad, Hank good.'"

After offering a thinly disguised apology, D— excused herself and returned to gyrating on the dance floor. Once she was out of earshot, the director said to me: "She's a multimillionaire. I don't want to make her angry since I was hoping to hit her up for a big donation next year." I gaped at the ethics teacher, dumbfounded. Apparently "conflict of interest" didn't figure in her curriculum.

Summer camp's darker side

Every year some 11 million kids go off to some 12,000 summer camps in the United States to experience the ecstasy of nature, instant friendship, and lanyards. Many of them do, but some of them experience something else — traumatic emotional abuse, physical dangers, and weird cultish rules. Standing in the dark, I considered what might have happened had our daughter experienced this alone. Would she have told anyone? Would she have been scared enough to run away? Though we felt powerless when faced with a counselor who thought it was OK to utter death threats about her campers and a camp director who didn't want this niggling fact to get in the way of her capital campaign, our only real power was the ability to comfort our daughter. Once Tallulah saw we took the situation seriously, she begged to return to the dance and her new friends.

Yet under normal circumstances, when things go wrong at camp, parents are not within earshot. At best, they find out later. In an incident that spurred new legislation in Michigan, one counselor at a camp repeatedly shocked campers with a stun gun. Fearing reprisal, the children did not initially report the incident.

Sometimes parents only get the news when it's far too late. In 2005 Anat Gottesman got a call that her 4-year-old son Yoni had drowned at an elite summer camp at Cathedral Oaks Athletic Club in Santa Barbara, Calif. Despite the high price tag and prestigious address, Cathedral Oaks isn't licensed or accredited, hardly an anomaly in the world of summer camps. As Gottsman discovered, there is no federal regulation for summer camps. Rules vary widely from state to state, with 8 states not requiring camps to be licensed and some 32 not requiring criminal background checks. Finally, only about one in four U.S. camps are accredited by the American Camp Association, according to its 300 health and safety standards.

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.

Par-for-the course problems

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.

Screening can save your sanity

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.

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from readers

"This article doesn't even cover the risk of child molestion. And how it can impact your child's life even if they have never set foot in a summer camp. A neighbor boy spent every summer at an all-boys camp. His mother came to me very upset over a newspaper article. Her son's counselor was arrested for raping several of the campers. Within days of this conversation, my daughter caught this boy taking pictures of my much younger son in his underwear. The boy's mother refused to even discuss it claiming it never happened. She still sends her son to that camp. Here is what I want every parent to know. That camp and others participate in a program that brings camp counselors here from other countries. This counselors was an accused child molestor in his home country but was hired because the camp's background check only included American records. He later plead guilty and is currently in jail. "
"I find this article very disturbing, because the vast majority of accredited summer camps are fantastic experiences. The family profiled at the beginning of the article did not do proper research into the camp's credentials, and a red flag, giant warning sign should have been the volunteer counselors... Obviously, what happened was awful, but this is not a typical camp experience. These are exceptions, not the norm, and I am surprised at Great Schools for promoting such sensationalized material."
"After that last comment I feel the need to defend summer camps a little bit. I went to overnight camps for years as a camper, and I have worked for the past four years as a counselor. I don't want any parents to get the wrong impression from the story. My weeks as camp each summer were some of the most rewarding and memorable experiences of my life, and I became a counselor because I wanted to help make camp a memorable experience for other campers. What I found was that campers were not just learning to tie knots, but also crucial social skills, responsibility, and self-confidence. I had a camper sing a song in the camp talent show and received an amazing boost of confidence. She was very, very nervous, and it was obvious from the audience's perspective. At the end of her song the entire camp gave her a standing ovation, and the hollering, clapping, jumping, and high-pitched screaming (from my little campers) did not stop for several minutes. She could not stop smil! ing for the rest of the night. As far as safety at camp, every counselor had to be CPR, AED, and First Aid certified (and Lifeguard certified if you could swim at all). We received almost two weeks of all-day training before camp starts to ensure the safety of the campers in every area (from arts and crafts to horseback riding). We were also trained in a little child psychology (so we knew what we were up against). I worked at a camp for children with medical needs as well, where we spent at least one day learning how to care for specific illnesses. EVERY WEEK at camp we would also have fire drills and different emergency drills (how we pull off search and rescue missions in the event of a runaway camper). Yes, children will get bumps and scrapes because it is camp and they are participating in rough activities every day, but the vast majority of visits to the camp nurse are for calamine lotion. Lastly, I believe the point of the author's article is to know about the camp before you send your kids there. Not every camp is good, but camp can be fantastic for any child. As a parent it is your job to do the research, but you shouldn't just dismiss the idea before doing so. PS - I am applying to be a teacher now and the 20 page application, multiple interview process of becoming a camp counselor was FAR more intensive than any of the applications I am completing now."
"Hm, all the better reason why to not send children to overnight camps. My son has never been to an overnight camp and reading horror stories only makes me glad he hasn't. Afterall there are plenty of daycamps out there that have alot of the same activies without having to send children away overnight."
"It was my impression that the author was using the term 'death threats' loosely. While Carol is not completely clear in her article what she and her husband ultimately decided to do about the situation, it should be pointed out that they DID, in fact, question whether or not this was serious enough to consider calling the police. Assuming they didn't (because WE don't have all the facts) doesn't mean they don't have every right to be angered by-- and write an article about their outrage over the clearly inappropriate behavior of an adult who should otherwise know better. Let's give a little benefit of the doubt here-- if your child came to you 'sobbing and trembling' and an adult that was charged with the health and well-being of said child is brazen enough to defend their own inappropriateness, it is reasonable cause for alarm. For the parents to question this 'caregiver's' intention is not out of line. It could be argued that the words 'catastrophe' and 'harrowing' in the ! title might be a little dramatic, but we have so few details. Besides, it got you reading didn't it? And anyways, why do you care? As far as allowing their daughter to rejoin her friends for the remainder of the dance, the parents were right there to observe and protect. It wasn't an act of misplaced priorities and if I were the author, I'd take umbrage at your insinuation that my 'priorities' needed to be 're-examined.' We all have difficult jobs as parents to protect and defend our children, the most vulnerable of our society. The parents made a judgement call, just as we all must do when faced with parenting challenges. Perhaps I just object to your tone. But then again, it's easy to criticize when you're behind the anonymity of a computer. It actually takes effort to be diplomatic and well-spoken. The only minor point I might bring up to the author is more about semantics. She said, '[their] only real power was the ability to comfort [their] daughter.' Of course there are certainly other 'powers' available to you... police, legal action, boycotting, ...writing an article on but then I'm assuming that you're not hanging your hat on this one statement. As a side note, I went to a Christian camp in PA as a child and was also a counselor-in-training at the ripe old age of 16. I recently marveled with an old camp friend that our parents allowed us to go away on these trips. While I didn't personally witness sex or drugs, I did witness children playing the 'fainting' game and the annual sneaking into the snack barn at night only to be set up by the counselors to be scared silly by a REAL chainsaw (we all scattered-- running over 1/2 mile back through the open field, in utter darkness). As a counselor, I had no CPR or First Aid training. It simply required 4 weeks of 'in training' counseling during one summer where we basically just provided free labor."
"If there was so much anger and outrage over the cabin mom's poor choice of words, why didn't you just take your daughter and leave, or better yet CALL THE POLICE if she threatened her. You state that your daughter overheard her cabin mom speaking to another counselor. So how did she threaten your child? If she was really going to 'kill your child', she would not have admitted saying what she said. Come on, there was no 'death threat'. Granted, the camp should have had some guidelines regarding language used at the facility, especially when that language can be overheard by children; schools and daycares do. Were there any instances of abuse alleged against that cabin mom by your child or others? On the other hand, you say that, 'once Tallulah saw we took the situation seriously, she begged to return to the dance and her new friends' and you let her?? So just because she saw you go off on the cabin mom, that made it ok for her to return to the dance? What about the importance! of her 'safety'?? If this woman was the threat that she was portrayed to be, why wasn't the police called??? The fact is, everyone will not feel the way we feel about our children whether they have them or not. The cabin mother was wrong to use those words. Priorities need to be re-examined here: the camp counselor who was more worried about the money the cabin mom could give than your child's fear, and the desire to see your daughter have fun dancing with her new friends than her 'safety' over a 'death threat'. And yes, I speak as a mother of a child who attended camp away, so I know of what I speak."