‘An absolute failure of the system’: Legislative leaders call for change following Hearst investigation that showed summer camp complaints rarely result in formal punishment

The South Kent School is a boys boarding school in South Kent, Conn. Thursday, July 22, 2021.

The South Kent School is a boys boarding school in South Kent, Conn. Thursday, July 22, 2021.

H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media

Some state legislators are calling for change following a recent Hearst Connecticut investigation into complaints made against summer camps during the last five years that showed the Office of Early Childhood, which licenses camps, is often unable to substantiate the claims and the cases close without the agency taking action.

Hearst’s investigation, prompted by a Connecticut-based weight-loss camp that was found to have violated multiple state policies and eventually forfeited its license, covered more than 100 complaints filed between 2015 and 2020 with OEC. It found that while the agency has a narrow scope for determining wrongdoing — which involves the camp being in violation of their licensure — when violations are confirmed, the OEC rarely hands out formal discipline.

More often, the agency will require camps to sign onto a plan to fix any license violations and prevent the issue from happening again. But not once since 2015 has the agency suspended or revoked a camp license.

State Rep. Liz Linehan (D-Cheshire), who co-chairs the legislature’s Children’s Committee, said she wants to change how complaints— especially those involving abuse and neglect— are handled. Specifically, she wants to make sure there is a standardized protocol within OEC for how substantiation of these claims occurs.

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

Current protocol says the agency brings in the Department of Children and Families for complaints of abuse and neglect for a joint investigation, but there is no formal, written guideline for OEC investigators when it comes to substantiating complaints, according to the agency. Agency investigators make decisions on a “case-by-case basis,” using their own judgment, according to OEC Licensing Division Director Debra Johnson.

Linehan championed new legislation requiring, in part, intensive background checks and specialized trainings for employees on sports teams and at summer camps this past year.

State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-Norwalk) wrote to Hearst Connecticut suggesting a similar course of action within the General Assembly — one that looks at how complaints are handled and whether any state statues need to change.

“We must do everything we can to protect the well-being of our children,” said Duff.

That could entail supporting the OEC through updated trainings, funding, or other measures, lawmakers suggested.

One problem State Sen. Tony Hwang (R-Fairfield) pointed to was the potentially subjective perceptions in the OEC’s complaint substantiation process. Hwang said that subjectivity should be replaced by objective measures.

“Any story of a child adversely impacted is gut-wrenching,” he said, calling it a parent’s “worst nightmare.”

State Sen. Saud Anwar (D-East Hartford), who called Hearst Connecticut’s report “highly concerning,” said it reaffirmed the need for the background checks in the legislation that he and Linehan helped pass.

He added that the report “also suggests we need to follow this closely and not leave it to chance alone.”

Camp licensure qualifications were another avenue Linehan said she wanted to explore. She wants to review requirements to make sure they are strong, and that camps are adhering to them.

“We need to make sure that the safety of children is consistently put first,” she said.

Some of the lawmakers were already familiar with issues at Camp Shane— a weight-loss camp based this past summer in Kent that made national headlines after its abrupt closure.

The camp, whose director said it was shut down due to staffing issues, had a history of violations and multiple complaints lodged against it that summer before surrendering its license. A final investigation later determined that the camp had falsified medical records, among a host of other concerns, and had multilple reports of a lack of proper medical oversight and mishandling of medication lodged against it.

“The fact that any of it happened, and in our mind could have been prevented, is what motivates us as policy makers,” Hwang said, referencing the events at Camp Shane.

Access and accountability

Hwang was concerned that the information obtained by Hearst Connecticut through a legal request process should be already available to the public, and said he voiced this concern to state authorities.

Hwang said he was told that this was the reason a state tool called 211childcare.org now exists.

The OEC has a provider portal on 211Childcare.org that compiles documents and violations found during the OEC’s child care and camp investigations and inspections across the state, allowing greater transparency and accountability. It’s a tool parents can use when seeking up-to-date information about child care for their kids.

A cursory search, however, suggests that the information logged within the site only dates back to 2017. Additionally, many violation filings do not have documents uploaded associated to the violations referenced, so violations may be cited but supporting information is not readily available.

Still, there was one phrase that was repeated in at least two conversations with state legislators: We can do better.

“If you’re going to be open, and if you’re going to take in kids,” Hwang said, “then we have to set the high standards. Because not one child— not one child— should ever be at risk.”