Sen. Seminara requests meeting to discuss summer camp oversight

August 22, 2023

CT senator requests meeting to discuss summer camp oversight

Hearst CT Media

Citing recent CT Insider reporting, a Connecticut state senator has requested a meeting with state officials to discuss ways to strengthen oversight of youth summer camps.

Last week, CT Insider reported that the OEC, which oversees private camps in Connecticut, had reviewed 74 complaints about potential regulatory violations in 2021 and 2022 — including some involving allegations of bullying, sexual harassment and other forms of serious mistreatment — but issued formal discipline in only one instance during that time.

In a brief letter addressed to Beth Bye, the state’s commissioner of the state’s Office of Early Childhood, Sen. Lisa Seminara wrote that the subject deserves closer attention.

“I think this story merits discussions among stakeholders as to how we can improve oversight in order to address safety concerns,” Seminara, R-Avon, wrote. “For example, a review of the best practices of other states could reveal model policies which we could review in order to improve Connecticut’s laws in a bipartisan way.”

Seminara, the top Republican senator on the legislature’s Committee on Children, asked for a meeting with representatives from the OEC, the state’s Office of the Child Advocate and other stakeholders.

Bye confirmed to CT Insider on Monday that she had received Seminara’s letter and said she planned to meet with the senator to discuss her concerns.

Sarah Eagan, the state’s child advocate, said the subject of camp oversight was “important and worthy of further examination and review to make sure that if there are changes need that needs to be made that they’re addressed” and that she was open to participating in a meeting.

As part of its role overseeing private camps, the OEC reviews dozens of complaints annually, sending investigators to interview people involved, review documents and assess whether a violation has occurred. In nearly all cases, CT Insider found, complaints against summer camps end either without substantiation or with a “corrective action plan” in which programs commit to changes that will guard against future issues.

In most instances when a camp submits a corrective action plan, OEC investigators do not follow up with camps to see if they have followed through with their proposed changes, a spokesperson said.

In rare circumstances, OEC officials may impose formal discipline on camps, in the form of fines, additional oversight or, in extreme cases, the suspension or revocation of a license to operate. But the agency’s goal, one official told CT Insider, “is to try to have all programs in compliance without having to refer them to legal” for possible punishment.

The issue of camp oversight previously drew attention from state lawmakers after a 2021 report from CT Insider showing that the OEC had disciplined camps only four times from 2015 through 2020. At the time, legislators from both major political parties called for changes aimed at protecting children.

“It’s extremely upsetting,” Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, said then. “It is an absolute failure of the system, and so therefore, that’s another item we will be working on this session.”

But the issue did not come in front of the legislature during the legislative session that followed, nor during the ensuing one earlier this year. Linehan did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

According to interviews with state officials and documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, the OEC seriously considered discipline for three camps during 2021 and 2022:

Camp Shane, a weight-loss program in Kent that eventually forfeited its license amid a state investigation in mistreatment of campers;

Camp Degel Hatoral, an Orthodox Jewish camp in Durham that had its license revoked after investigators encountered “a state of extreme filth;”

Camp Mountain Laurel, a YMCA-run camp in Hamden where officials declined to impose punishment and instead accepted a corrective action plan after a counselor coaxed a camper into the deep end of the pool despite the child not being a strong swimmer.

In all other cases, investigators either failed to substantiate violations or requested corrective action plans and ended the process there.