Staff members at summer camps hold a legal responsibility to act in loco parentis—in place of parents—to safeguard those entrusted into their care. Camp owners and administrators possess a legal duty of care to hire staff members with clean records; to train and supervise staff members in recognizing and preventing sexual abuse; to limit one-on-one opportunities between campers and staff members; and to provide a safe environment that protects patrons from danger or abuse.
When a child is sexually abused while in the care of staff members at a summer camp, that trust is violated. If you are wondering what to do if your child was sexually abused at summer camp, the following will offer information regarding taking legal action and pursuing civil litigation.
An experienced California sexual abuse attorney will provide you with answers as well as help you determine who’s legally responsible. In some cases, in addition to the actual perpetrator of abuse, the organization can be held responsible; especially if they turned a blind eye or failed to properly handle the situation.
How Prevalent Is Sexual Abuse at Summer Camps?
Summer camps are designed to be a place for learning, play, sports, enrichment, and fun. Yet, in some cases, they provide an opportunity for sexual abusers to gain trust and access to children. While there are no exact figures on how many instances of sexual abuse occur at California camps, about 30% of sexual assaults on children are committed by surrogate “caregivers”—including babysitters, teachers, church ministers, scout groups, and camp counselors.
Recent stories in the news confirm these findings:
- In San Jose, a Walden West camp lifeguard was arrested and convicted of child molestation after being found in his car with a teen he met online. After serving eight months in jail, the perpetrator went back to jail after being found committing the same offense, violating his probation. In 2012, he was convicted of molesting a young relative between 2001-2005. Since the arrests did not involve a camper directly, no notification was sent to parents. The camp’s blind eye to the lifeguard’s misconduct only came to light after another worker at the camp was charged in possession of child pornography and later with child molestation after being the target of a federal probe.
- A 19-year-old after-school coach and camp worker in San Mateo County pleaded no contest to the molestation of four children under the age of six. He agreed to a three-year prison term and registration as a sex offender.
- In 2016, a San Francisco YMCA counselor who sexually abused three teenage girls during field trips, was caught in possession of child pornography, and reportedly sent sexually explicit material to kids through social media.
- The owner of a popular Seal Beach sports camp and former high school basketball coach was charged with nine felony counts of lewd acts upon a child under 14, seven felony counts of lewd acts upon a child age 14 or 15, one felony count of sodomy with a minor, and one felony count of displaying pornography to a minor. The Long Beach school, which employed him at their after-school program 10 years ago, was found liable for $25.3 million in damages paid to one victim, when a jury determined the school failed to act on suspected sexual abuse.
The betrayal from a person of respect, trust, and authority can be confusing and overwhelming for a child to process until years later. Through civil litigation, your child may be eligible to receive compensation to cover past, present, and future medical expenses (including psychological counseling), and additional allowances for undue emotional pain and suffering.
What to Do If My Child Was Sexually Abused at Summer Camp?
Step 1: Seek Help for Your Child (and Yourself)
A doctor is an important first stop for a medical examination and a referral to pediatric mental health counselors. You can also contact the National Sexual Abuse Hotline at 800-656-HOPE(4673) to learn which local resources are available to your child. Sexual abuse counselors say it’s most important that your child knows you love them and that what happened to them is not their fault.
Keep a cadre of loved ones close, set aside time for pursuits that do not revolve around dealing with the abuse, eat healthy, exercise, and consult with a mental health counselor one-on-one. There is no “right” way to react. Taking care of yourself helps maintain a healthy healing environment for your child.
Step 2: Report the Crime to the Authorities
As soon as you can, file a police report. The National Child Abuse Hotline has volunteers trained to coach you through properly reporting a case of sexual abuse. Once a formal complaint has been filed, the police department will conduct a criminal investigation. It is customary for officials to remain silent about the proceedings until the assessment has wrapped up, but you will know when to expect a response and where to turn for counseling services at the very least.
Once the allegations are confirmed, it is up to the district attorney to decide whether or not to press criminal charges against the perpetrator. The goal of pressing criminal charges is to determine whether or not the accused is guilty of crimes against the State of California. Abusers may be sentenced to time in prison, ordered to pay fines to the state, put on probation, and/or placed on a sex offender registry. Pressing criminal charges isn’t your only option. While the abuser is tried in criminal court, you can also pursue civil litigation.
Step 3: File a Civil Lawsuit
Regardless of how the criminal case against the perpetrator turns out, you also have the option to file a civil lawsuit on your child’s behalf for compensation to cover medical bills, counseling expenses, and emotional pain and suffering related to the abuse.
The list of defendants in civil sexual abuse lawsuits can go well beyond the perpetrator of the abuse. Molestation is often aided and abetted by institutions—such as summer camps—who turn a blind eye to complaints of inappropriate conduct. While the ultimate objective of any civil lawsuit is financial compensation, many find that holding institutions accountable for wrongdoing is a key step in the healing process as well.
In addition to suing the individual perpetrator, you may also file a lawsuit against:
- The camp owners and administrators
- Staff members who knew or should have known about the abuse and did nothing
- The summer camp’s state licensing agency
An experienced civil attorney will build a case that these entities owe a “duty of care” to parents of children who attend a summer camp. All camp attendees have the right to safety, including sufficient supervision and protection from abuse.
Who Can Be Held Liable in Civil Lawsuits Against a Summer Camp?
- Adult Abusers: When a camp counselor or staff member violates a child, you may hold that person liable for damages in civil court. Your recovery will be limited to what the perpetrator can afford. California allows wage garnishment to cover civil lawsuit damages up to 25% per paycheck.
- Camp Owners, Administrators, Insurers, and Coworkers: Camps carry liability insurance to cover incidents that occur on their watch, including accidents, corporal punishment, sexual abuse, molestation, abduction, and other crimes. Anyone working at the camp and possessing knowledge of child abuse is required by law to report what they know to the proper authorities. Failure to do so can result in civil court liability.
- Minors: More than 25% of all sexual abuse crimes involves child-on-child offenses, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). The State of California does not initiate criminal proceedings of children under age 14. Adjudicated minors may receive informal punishment ranging from probation to commitment into the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Juvenile Justice Division. Depending on the severity of the crime, minors over age 14 may be tried as adults. Minors can be sued in civil court, though it is unlikely that a minor will have the necessary funds to compensate for damages they have caused. In most cases, the parents are not held liable for the actions of their children, unless gross negligence can be proven. For this reason, third parties are usually brought into the suit.
- Other Third Parties: Sometimes your civil lawsuit can extend one step further. If the camp was run by a school, then the school district may be deemed liable. When camps are sponsored by churches, dioceses can be held accountable. Camps run by sports organizations may result in their liability.
Obtain a Recovery With the Help of an Experienced Attorney
Parents entrust camp counselors and organizations with the safety of their children. When this trust is violated, the ramifications can have devastating effects for the abused that last a lifetime. Working with a California attorney who specializes in sexual abuse cases is about more than legal advice and paperwork. Lawyers can also point you in the right direction for seeking medical attention, connecting with crisis social workers and counselors, dealing with insurance issues, and getting your life back in the wake of disturbing events that were beyond your control.
DISCLAIMER: The information in this blog is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this blog or on this website should be construed as legal advice from Lewis & Llewellyn LLP. Neither your receipt of information from this website, nor your use of this website to contact Lewis & Llewellyn LLP creates an attorney-client relationship between you and the firm or any of its lawyers. No reader of this website should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this website without seeking the appropriate legal advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s jurisdiction.