Saturday, March 24, 2018

Children greeted the official start of summer with open arms earlier this week, excited for the fun-filled season ahead. Some will learn how to swim for the first time while others will shoot their first layups; all are eagerly looking forward to the best summer ever.

As parents, though, summer comes along with uncertainty. Gone is the predictable weekly routine of carpool and extra-curricular activities along with the structured school day during which our children are under stricter supervision. Instead, we’ll be sending them off to camp under the care of camp counselors who are often only a few years their senior, with minimal formal safety training. Supervision in camps is different and, as a result, children are more vulnerable to becoming victims of abuse in a camp setting. To maintain their child’s safety, parents should be aware of the camp’s hiring procedures, how they train their staff to prevent abuse and how they handle an allegation, as well as the rules governing counselor-parent and counselor-camper communication.

While children should be taught never to interact or get into a stranger’s car, the threat of “stranger danger” is not as high as the possibility that someone the child actually knows, loves and respects could abuse them. In order for a perpetrator to hurt a child, they need access and time alone with the child. Be aware of the adults in your child’s life, especially those who take an unusually strong interest in your child, showering them with special attention and treatment, or  who seek out opportunities to be alone with them.

As parents, we have an opportunity to give our children the tools they need to stay safe and the words they need to express themselves should they find themselves in a situation that makes them feel uncomfortable. Just as we ensure that our children wear seat belts on the bus and wear helmets when biking to camp, we also need to speak with them about how to maintain their own personal safety in a new environment like camp.

As part of our mandate to enhance the safety of our community, over the next week Project S.A.R.A.H.’s expert team of licensed mental health professionals will be meeting with nearly 1,000 counselors in Orthodox day camps throughout New Jersey on how to create a safe environment for both campers and staff alike. We know that nothing is more impactful than the parent-child conversation you can have with your child before they head out for their first day of camp.

Take a break from shopping and labeling their clothes and have a candid discussion with them about what constitutes “O.K.” versus “not O.K.” touch. After all, if you don’t talk to them about it and open that crucial channel of communication, they won’t necessarily know that they can come back and talk to you about such a sensitive topic if something concerning happens to them.

During that conversation, tell them that if anyone touches them or speaks to them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable—including adults and family members—they should tell you about it as soon as possible. Tell them, “It’s good that you told me, I believe you and it’s not your fault.” This helps create an environment wherein your child will feel safe telling you anything without fear of negative consequences and overreactions. Tell them that they should never keep secrets from you and “if someone tells you a secret, come and tell me right away so that I can help you stay safe.”

Among the worst secrets children keep are those regarding their body. Help children understand that their body belongs to them and no one is ever allowed to touch them—especially their private parts—or speak to them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. Teach them that joking, talking about, looking at or touching private parts is never a game, a joke or a secret and that if anyone does that, they should tell you or a trusted adult as soon as possible. Ask them to repeat: “My body belongs to me.”

Check in with them after their first day of camp and throughout the summer to see if there’s anything they’d like to talk to you about related to the safety conversation you had with them at the beginning of the summer.

Finally, supervise, supervise, supervise. Sure, summer is a less-structured time of the year, but that doesn’t mean that children should be supervised any less. Make sure that your child is supervised at all times, whether in your home, at camp, at playdates or sleepovers. Check in with your child after they’re supervised by a babysitter—especially when hiring a new one. Know the name, address and phone number of the family your child is going to for a playdate or sleepover as well as the name of the responsible adult in case your child needs assistance.

We regularly have safety-oriented conversations with our children, and just as we remind them to look both ways each time they cross the street, it’s important to review these personal safety skills again and again so that they have the safest and best summer ever.

To bring Project S.A.R.A.H. to your camp, shul or school and for more information about Project S.A.R.A.H., please contact us at (973) 777-7638, visit our website at www.projectsarah.org or email us at [email protected]

By Rabbi Michael Bleicher, LSW

Rabbi Bleicher is a clinician and outreach coordinator with Project S.A.R.A.H. and the rabbi of the Elmora Hills Minyan in Union, N.J.