Kanakuk Kamps refuses to hide from a sex-abuse scandal that threatened to sink its massive Christian summer camp network five years ago.
Instead, it has made preventing sexual abuse a central part of its mission.
Prominent on the website of the Branson, Mo.-based camp network — amid idyllic images of children at play or around campfires — is a detailed Child Protection Plan, spelling out the dozens of safeguards the camps vow to take to prevent abuse.
As outlined in a 180-point plan, Kanakuk employees and volunteers are randomly monitored. They can’t be one-on-one with children. All employees must undergo a background check that includes fingerprints. Sight lines on camp are unobstructed. And campers are told of private, safe places where they can report questionable activity.
But Kanakuk Kamps doesn’t stop there.
In an industry in which regulation is so sparse that parents usually can’t even look up a camp’s history of sexual abuse, Kanakuk has promised to do its part to clean things up.
It vows to train 1,000 youth camps nationwide within the next three to five years to weed out sexual abuse and child predators.
Child-abuse prevention advocates say the zeal is more than smart public relations.
“They really are a great example of stepping up to the issue of child sexual assault,” said Marissa Gunther of Missouri Kids First. “Unfortunately, we see a lot of institutions do the opposite because I think they are afraid of how they are going to look and how they are going to look to parents.”
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center could cite no formal studies nor statistics regarding the frequency of child sexual assault at summer camps. But media reports have chronicled the issue.
In Florida, the Palm Beach Post detailed last year how that state’s weak and unenforced background check law allowed predators and felons to move from camp to camp victimizing children, particularly in youth organizations in poor areas.
Other reports have documented the impulse by summer camps to cover up abuse incidents. For example, while the Boy Scouts of America kept internal records of volunteers involved in abuse allegations, news reports say the organization failed to tell police or take strong enough action to prevent predators from moving to other troops and victimizing more children.
And yet, summer camps nationwide fall under a spotty system of regulation. Missouri, for example, is one of six states that have no licensing or regulatory standards, such as requiring background checks.
Unlike many day cares that are licensed and monitored in Missouri, there are no publicly accessible reports chronicling safety violations, crimes or suspected abuse at camps. The Missouri Children’s Division could not provide information about abuse at camps because the state child-abuse registry does not differentiate camps from schools and other educational settings.
Amid that backdrop is an industry that, by its design, is vulnerable to potential sex abuse.
The camps depend on seasonal employees and volunteers who have prolonged access to children in unfamiliar surroundings without direct supervision of parents. Statistics further indicate that many sexual abusers are teens who act out on younger children.
“Perpetrators are looking for those camps where kids are not equipped to talk about it and the camps are not equipped to respond to it,” said Gunther, of Missouri Kids First. “Every person that is employed by these camps needs to be trained to prevent sexual abuse ... counselors, nurses, the cooks, everybody. Even the janitorial staff.”
At Kanakuk Kamps, the sex-abuse prevention plan posted is designed, in part, as an “outer perimeter” to keep child predators out.
Rick Braschler, Kanakuk’s risk-management coordinator since 2003, developed the plan. It alerts potential child predators that they will be caught if they work there, he said.
“We want them to self-select, to opt out, before they apply for a job,” Braschler said.
His plan and training has gained the endorsement of the American Camp Association, despite the fact that Kanakuk Kamps are not accredited by the organization. The plan also has been praised by child-abuse prevention advocates who call it a national model.
That’s a far cry from the kind of attention Kanakuk attracted five years ago, when Peter Newman, a camp director involved with recruiting children for summer programs, was reported to have been sexually abusing teen male campers for a decade.
The incident made national news in part because Kanakuk’s owner, Joe White, is a major speaker with the Promise Keepers and Focus on the Family movements. He recruits campers during speaking events in states such as Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
Two lawsuits were later filed against Kanakuk and its operators out of Texas and Missouri, alleging White had known about Newman’s actions and failed to remove him. They include allegations that Newman rode naked on an ATV at the camp and that other employees witnessed it.
In the course of the investigation, 19 victims, all young teenage boys, were identified, with many alleging the perpetrator groomed his victims under the guise of being their spiritual adviser.
Newman pleaded guilty last year in Taney County court to three counts of second-degree statutory sodomy, two counts of first-degree statutory sodomy and two counts of enticement of a child. He is currently serving two consecutive life sentences, plus an additional 30 years.
Braschler, who has worked as a risk-management coordinator with Kanakuk since 2003, declined to elaborate on how Newman eluded scrutiny and continued to work at the camp for 10 years. But he said the discovery of a predator was a catalyst for change.
“It devastated our knowledge of what we do,” he said. “And it devastated our organization and everything it stood for.”
Kanakuk operated like most camps until Newman was discovered, Braschler said. It followed child protection guidelines set forth as early as 1993 by the insurance industry. Those include background screenings of employees, reference checks, interviews, awareness training and bans on one-to-one interactions with campers and staff.
Braschler said the strategies — some governed by state laws — were ineffective in rooting out a predator.
“First off, America seems to believe that background checks are a competent way to inform me or you as a parent that this person has no prior deviant behavior,” he said.
Federal statistics show that fewer than 10 percent of people charged with a sex crime are convicted, and that fewer than 10 percent of alleged pedophiles have a previous record.
There is also a lack training about child sex abuse for leaders in camps, schools and churches, Braschler said.
“We’ve graduated an entire population of leaders from institutions where they have been taught to coach, lead Bible studies ... teach math,” he said. “Yet it’s not surprising that those processes nationwide are not built to identify a potential abuser.”
Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association, said child protection is a growing area of training among quality, accredited camps. She noted that her members supported the federal Child Protection Improvements Act, which would offer low-cost, one-stop access to nationwide background searches at the federal and state levels.
She said parents should always choose accredited camps that meet industry-accepted and government-recognized standards for quality and safety practices, including child protection. But parents are the first line of defense, she said. They need to reach out to camp directors, and they need to call families who have participated in the camps.
“You don’t want to scare parents and not give your kids these great experiences,” Smith said. “All everyone is saying is be a knowledgeable parent, be an informed parent partner with the camp and learn its policies.”
SPREADING THE WORD
Braschler describes his system for fending off offenders in the military language of fortifications and zones.
It starts with the “outer perimeter” to discourage predators from stepping foot on camp. It progresses inward with “Sandbox” and “Alamo” zones, each spelling out more detailed safeguards as employees have contact with children.
But the key is changing the whole culture, he said.
Boundaries are addressed with campers during orientation (hugs, no; high-fives, yes), and everyone is urged to “recognize, resist and report” anyone who breaks the rules.
That includes staff members.
“We tell kids if one of the boundaries is broken, we want you to resist that,” Braschler said. “We want you to blow the whistle if the ball goes out of play.”
Robert Queen, a retired superintendant of Mingo Valley Christian School in Tulsa, Okla., said he and his staff took the Kanakuk training after learning that two teachers had been sexually abusing students. One was a graduate of the school from a respected family who had come back to teach.
Queen said he failed to realize that the qualities that make a great teacher — such as compassion, kindness and taking special interest in a child — are also qualities projected by child molesters. And the school had no training to weed out the good from the bad.
“We spent so much time on ‘stranger danger’ instruction, and that’s not the problem here. They’re known to the victim.”
After the training, the school revamped its hiring practices, training and communications with parents.
For Kanakuk, part of the struggle is regaining its reputation.
In the summer of 2011, two years after Newman was arrested, another counselor, Lee Bradbury, abused three boy campers ages 9, 10 and 12 in a span of four weeks. Bradbury, 23, was later found guilty of second-degree statutory sodomy, sexual misconduct and two counts of child molestation.
Braschler said the incident didn’t mean Kanakuk’s efforts to prevent abuse had been in vain.
Before the camps adopted its abuse-prevention protocol, he speculates, Bradbury’s abuse might never have been discovered. This time, the predator was caught within weeks because fellow campers knew the boundaries had been broken, Braschler said.
“The Alamo Zone. The kids reported it,” Braschler said. “That’s where it was caught.”