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Checking Out Summer Camps

Every year, about 10 million children in the United States head off to camp. And even though most kids return home safe and sound, it doesn't stop parents from worrying.

So "In The Family Circle," Susan Ungaro, editor-in-chief of Family Circle magazine, offers advice on how to pick a safe camp for your child.

According to the American Camping Association, summer camps are regulated by the state, and laws vary. While many require that camps be licensed, the state health department usually handles this licensing, and regulations may not cover much.

The national American Camping Association (ACA) has an optional accrediting process that requires camps to meet stricter standards. So you want to make sure a camp is accredited by the ACA at the very least. Most aren't accredited, because parents don't demand it.

"Licensing in many states requires a minimal inspection of the kitchen and a look at the swimming pool," says Pat Hammond, director of standards for the ACA.

And Will Evans, director of safety education for Markel Insurance in Glen Allen, Va., one of the largest insurers of camps in the country, says, "Ask a health department inspector how to evaluate a challenge course or staff training for various activities, and you'll likely get a blank look."

The results of a series of focus groups conducted two years ago by the ACA indicate that most parents are unaware of this lack of oversight.

The following is Ungaro's advice:

Do your homework: You have to go beyond what's in the brochures or on a camp Web site and learn much as you can to make sure a camp is not only the right place for your child, but also a safe place for your child, especially if it's far from home.

Second, write down all the questions you need answered before you can decide if a camp is right.

Third, make sure you get answers to every one of your questions before you commit.

Get a contact person: You want to talk to the camp director. In fact, you should insist on it. If you get put off, scratch that camp off your list. Parents need to ask hard questions on everything including the number of returning campers, whether a camp is accredited, and whether any campers have been seriously injured or killed in the past.

Visit the camp: That's the only real way to get a sense of what a camp is like and whether your child will like it. The best time to visit is while a camp is in session. So if you're thinking of sending a child to camp next summer, visit this summer during camping season.

Interview staff: You can't sit down with every staff member, but there are things you do want to know about how counselors and other staff are screened and trained. Don't be afraid to ask about the camper-to-counselor ratio, the safety training staff receives, or if any counselors have been fired or subjected to disciplinary action over the past seven years.

Check staffers' disciplinary records: If you're concerned about a specific staffer, you should ask about them. And you should ask more generally about disciplinary policies for staffers who violate camp procedures. You also want to ask if anyone has been fired or disciplined in the past few years and why.

Look into high-risk activities: Pay special attention to high-risk activities such as hiking, wilderness camping, swimming and canoeing. Ask: What's the camper-to-counselor ratio for these activities? Do campers get safety training? How are counselors trained? And, very important, are counselors tested on paper or are their skills actually tested in the field?

Finally, find out if any campers have been injured or killed during any camping activities and how it happened.

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