Camp Leaders, Parents Shaken by Allegations

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Allegations that a teenage volunteer sexually assaulted youngsters at a Boys & Girls Club in Moorpark have shaken parents and recreation officials throughout Ventura County at a time when thousands of kids are beginning to attend summer day camps.

On Friday, prosecutors charged a 15-year-old Moorpark boy--whose name is being withheld because he is a minor--with four counts of child molestation after he was accused of sexually assaulting seven children at the club over the past month.

The teenager was one of three youth volunteers helping with the facility's summer day camp.

Officials from some of the more than 50 recreation programs from Ventura to Simi Valley say they will redouble efforts to ensure kids' safety, while many parents say they have little choice but to trust the system.

"It's scary," said Judy Devine, community services manager for the city of Ventura, which operates five summer camps for children 14 and younger. "Any time something like this happens, you make sure you've got everything in place."

Parent Jim Cole, 38, of Ventura said he feels no hesitation about dropping off his 8-year-old daughter at a city-run recreation camp at Loma Vista Elementary School. She has participated in the summer program for the past two years.

"Obviously when you hear these things, it disturbs you, but you have to trust where you send your child," Cole said.

All adults working with children at the Ventura camps undergo background checks, Devine said. Teenage counselors-in-training, who are not paid, are not fingerprinted but are never left as sole supervisors of the children, she added.

That was the policy at most of the programs surveyed last week, including the Moorpark club where the incidents allegedly took place.

Alice Trutner, picking up her two boys from the Ventura camp last week, said she was shocked to hear about the allegations.

"I've never even thought about it," Trutner said. "You just trust the camp and the counselors."

Many parents who hold year-round jobs rely on the camps when their children are out of school for the summer. The best they can do, they say, is go with a reputable program and try to get to know the people there.

Still, just thinking about the possibility of her daughter being victimized brought tears to Kathleen Smith's eyes.

"We really shouldn't be dropping our kids off at institutions," said the Ventura parent, who recently quit her job to start her own business and spend more time with her child. "The less they are in day care the better."

Day camp programs run by city recreation departments, churches and nonprofit youth organizations have expanded in recent years to meet increasing demand, officials said. They range from a day of basic arts, crafts and games to more focused surf or music camps.

Outdoor day camps must obtain permits from the county's Environmental Health Agency, requiring drinking fountains and restrooms, as well as a 10-to-1 ratio of qualified counselors to children, said Diane Eastman, an environmental health specialist. Counselors are required to be older than 18.

But Eastman said it's unlikely that the law is enforced at every day camp.

"We simply don't have the manpower to go out checking," she said.

State law requires that background checks be conducted on employees at schools but does not mandate them for nonprofit groups such as the YMCA or Boys & Girls Club. Checks are not required for volunteers.

To encourage nonprofit groups to check a person's criminal history, the state waives its $32 search fee, said Michael Van Winkle, public information officer for the state Department of Justice.

Most recreation groups in the county conduct extensive background and reference checks on employees and volunteers and have policies that guard against wrongdoing. But the Moorpark allegations serve as a painful reminder that rules can be broken, officials said.

"It shook me a little," said Mike McAdam, a recreation coordinator in the Conejo Recreation and Park District, which oversees four outdoor camps in Thousand Oaks serving more than 250 children each day. "At our next staff meeting, I will talk to them again to make sure everyone knows that no one is to be alone with a child."

Executive Director Robert Dyer said the Ventura Boys & Girls Club will keep its 10 volunteers, now working at three youth centers. Though policies prevent them from being alone with younger kids, all staff members were reminded last week.

"This is a wake-up call, even though we weren't asleep," he said.

Dyer and other camp officials with decades of experience agree that incidents such as those alleged in Moorpark are rare in Ventura County.

"Obviously we do everything within our power to not allow it to happen," Dyer said. "But do I get up every morning and worry about it? No, I don't."

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