Child protection is job one at UM camps

Warren Willis UM Camp

Summer is fast approaching, and it’s time for parents to make decisions about the long school break. For many kids that means camp: day camp, overnight camp, weekend camp, sports camps and recreation camps.

With so many options, and a state regulation culture struggling to stay ahead, what mom and dad want more than anything is good information and reassurance.

The Florida Conference Connection talked to several key Conference personnel about child safety. The bottom line, according to interim executive camp and retreat ministries director Mike Standifer, is that the Florida Conference Camps go above and beyond when it comes to protecting absolutely anyone who enters their facilities.

“We think we’re doing everything possible to make sure we’re keeping every kid safe,” Standifer said. “Our goal is to enable young people to come and experience Jesus in a way that they might not somewhere else.”

Heather Pancoast is assistant director at Warren Willis UM Camp in Fruitland Park, where almost 4,000 kids will attend summer programs.

“Because the state of Florida does not license camps, we decided several years ago that we needed to become accredited through the ACA (American Camp Association,” Pancoast said. “[This] is a clear indicator to parents and churches that we are following strict guidelines to have the best, safest camp possible.”

Pancoast outlined some of the screening procedures:
- We interview all summer staff and collect references.
- All Adult Volunteers must provide references as part of their application every year (one must be from their local church pastor).
- All volunteers and worship leaders must pass a [Level 1] background check, including a background screening for all staff and volunteers using a local, state and national criminal check and a check against the national registry of sex offenders.

“Additionally,” she said, “a new 2010 Florida law requires a Level 2 background check for camp summer staff. This new requirement requires us to use fingerprints rather than just a name and social security number.”

The camp also abides by the extensive Florida Annual Conference Child Protection Policy and mandates an 11-day training prior to working with campers.

Wendy McCoy, who works as the Florida Conference Director of Human Resources and Benefits, reiterated the thoroughness of the child protection guidelines.

“We prescribe standards, a process for hiring, recruiting and screening,” she said. If they follow the process, they can be confident that they’re screening at the highest level.

“We’ve gone the extra step,” she said. “There is an expectation that we do the best job of screening folks in a position of trust.”

Discussion Sparked by Negative Press
Much of the current discussion was initiated in response to a Palm Beach Post news article that ran under the headline “Felons easily hired at summer camps.” The article was picked up on the news wires and ran in several locations, unnerving parents planning for the summer break.

“I think the 24 hour news cycle is drawing more attention to bad people,” camp and retreat ministries director Standifer said. “I don’t want us to live in this fear of, ‘Oh, my gosh, something’s going to happen.’ We want to make sure everything we do has kids’ safety in mind. That’s one reason we voluntarily went through the ACA certification process.”

Standifer said that the Florida Conference Riverside Retreat Center also plans to go through the ACA process in 2013. In addition, the Life Enrichment Center is a member of IACCA (International Association of Conference Center Administrators). In fact, all facilities controlled by the Florida Conference are moving toward a high standard of accreditation in the near future.

Mark Thomas works as Director of Ministry Protection for the Florida Annual Conference, with a primary focus on safety issues.

“We secured a legal opinion in response to Florida statute 409.175 (the 2010 law that addressed adequate screening),” he said. “We determined that summer camps are expressly subject to the (enhanced) screening requirements. However, the Conference is not only interested in the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law as well.”

Thomas was surprised that the Palm Beach Post news report failed to mention the Florida statute, as 409.175 already provides protections that should prevent such predators as those cited in the article as working with children.  “The camps have experienced leadership and staff that do a fine job ensuring the safety of the children in their care.”

For questions concerning screening, risk, camp personnel contact Mark Thomas, Heather Pancoast, Mike Standifer or Wendy McCoy.


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