Mother of four, Kim Reese, considers herself a bit of a summer camp "expert."
She's spent hours checking the credentials of the camps where son, Tyler, and daughters, Noel and AmberLeigh, spend their summer days.
"Summer camps are inherently dangerous, they just are," Reese said. "And as a parent, I want to make sure that my kid is hopefully in a very safe environment."
But despite having done her homework, Reese was clueless that many Georgia summer camps are unregulated.
"Theoretically, you could have a person that's watching a child that's been convicted of a sexual offense, driving a van with bald tires, chain smoking, texting, taking your children to a place where they're going to go swimming, and not paying attention to them. I think that's a pretty bad scenario," said Georgia Child Care Association Executive Director Carolyn Salvador.
It's estimated that there are between 1,000 and 1,300 camps in Georgia, and according to records CBS46 requested from Georgia's Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL), more than 700 of them are operating without state oversight.
"We have what's called an exemption to regulations, which means that those camps that file for an exemption don't have to abide by any of the same regulations that licensed child care centers and family providers have to abide by," said Salvador.
That means they aren't required to meet even basic health and safety standards, or run background checks on their staff.
To qualify for exemption, a camp must fall into one of 14 categories. For example, a recreational camp for kids 5 and older that's open for fewer than 12 hours a day is exempt.
"I was shocked by that, it really surprised me because we're talking about our children," Reese said. "If they're not licensed, how do you know if they have the proper protocols if something were to happen?"
Most parents are oblivious. In fact, a national study finds 81 percent of parents assume all child care programs are licensed in their state.
"They're pretty certain when they put their child in a camp, that just because there's a sign out front that someone's watching over and someone's monitoring that camp and that's really not the case here in Georgia," Salvador said.
Licensed child care facilities and camps are subject to surprise inspections. They also have to conduct criminal background checks on all staff, be trained CPR and first-aid, and meet state-imposed child-to-counselor ratios. There are nearly 100 pages of regulations.
"It's all about safety and we want to make sure we're providing top quality care in environments that are conducive for children to thrive," said Sandi Douget, with KidsRKids Mableton.
Child care advocates say exemption should be the exception, and that legislators need to fix the problem.
"I know that we have legislators that care about children in our state so I hope somebody steps up," Salvador said.
When asked if Georgia camps should be regulated, DECAL Commissioner Bobby Cagle said that's something his department is trying to figure out.
"What we have done is to strengthen the rules around what must be present, what camps must provide us, so that we can be sure they fit the guidelines for exemption," Cagle said.
While policy makers debate, parents should consider it their responsibility to thoroughly check out the camp before sending their child.
Just because a camp is exempt does not mean it's unsafe. In fact, many camps are accredited by the American Camp Association, which sets its own standards for health, safety and supervision.
Tuesday, April 20 2010 11:21 PM EDT2010-04-21 03:21:00 GMT
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