Holiday camps are fun exercises where kids learn a lot and make new friends. However, Hema Vijay warns they are also places for potential child sexual abuse and that parents must be cautious

It is that time of the year now, when parents make a beeline for enrolling their kids at camps or workshops to learn something new, or just to keep them away from television. Summer camps are no doubt fun and give our children new perspectives, friendships, skills and learning experiences. But parents should keep in mind that while child sexual abuse is perpetrated mostly by someone known to the child, plenty of child sexual abuse happens in holiday camps too. “Every summer, we note an increase in the number of cases of child sexual abuse, with a good many reported from camps,” shares Vidya Reddy, Tulir, Centre for Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse. “Remember that child sexual abusers seek situations / jobs that give them access to children, and camps give them this opportunity.”

Unfortunately, many parents fail to see the safety implications in these situations. “I would never send my child out alone at night. But I never suspected this,” admits S. Seshadri, a parent.

“Parents today imagine that working to earn for the child supersedes every other parental responsibility such as spending enough time with the children or keeping them safe,” rues V. Jayanthini, child psychiatrist and retired HOD, Child Guidance Clinic, Institute of Child Health and Hospital for Children. Vidya cautions, “Parents shouldn’t abdicate parental responsibility and park their kids at camps / places without ensuring safeguards.”

In the West, summer camps operate with training and accreditation from statutory bodies. The code of conduct and safety protocol of the camp is mandatorily made known to parents. Meanwhile, the U.S.’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention advocates six components for keeping children safe in camps: Screening for selecting employees / volunteers; Guidelines on interactions between individuals; Monitoring behaviour; Ensuring safe physical environments; Responses to inappropriate behaviour / breaches in policy / allegations or suspicions of child sexual abuse; and Training about child sexual abuse. We need to bring in such safeguards in India too.

Listen to the child

“I don’t want to go to the camp, I don’t like the people there,” wailed Nirupama. But her parents told Nirupama that ‘she should adjust and be outgoing’ and dropped her at the camp. As it turned out, Nirupama was being abused at the camp by her math instructor, who touched and fondled her under the pretext of staying close to check her work. Likewise, Rahul, a budding tennis player, was asked to come to the office room to be given special training and exercises. In the office room, Rahul was molested, with the coach feeling Rahul up on the pretext of training him for body-building. Meanwhile, 13-year-old Shwetha was ‘escorted’ by a ‘trusted’ family friend to her grandmother’s house in a neighbouring city for the summer vacation. Shwetha was sexually molested all through the journey. When she called up her parents, cried and spoke of a ‘stomach ache’, parents suspected nothing, and simply assuaged her that she would be with granny soon.

In all these real-life incidents, the kids could have been spared much of the abuse, if their parents had recognised the children’s hidden cry for help. Our society trains kids to obey and adjust to all elders. We don’t understand that many ‘known and trusted’ friends / relatives / caregivers have turned out to be child sexual abusers. Parents should be able to recognise subtle signs of sexual abuse, be it physical, emotional, verbal, behavioural, or social. “Many kids will not explicitly reveal that they are being abused. Parents should accept children’s statements on trust, rather than put their trust in the caregiver / organisation / friend / relative,” advises child psychiatrist B. Subha.

Know About The Camp

Before enrolling, parents should visit the place, meet the people who would be interacting with their child, and observe a few sessions

Ask Questions

Ask the organisers if they have a code of conduct for their staff for appropriate behaviour and boundaries of touch and proximity, when interacting with children. Is this protocol shared with the children? Whom can the children approach if the code of conduct is violated? Will there be more than one adult in the room, so that there can be a mutual check? How do they monitor adult-child interactions? How do they screen staff? What would their response be to a medical emergency or an allegation of abuse? How would they handle bullying?

Safety Over Convenience

Do not drop your child at the camp much ahead of the scheduled time. Don’t let a child be the last one to be dropped off from the bus or the first one to be picked up. Such situations create situations of your child being alone with a potential abuser.