Why camps can avoid oversight Loophole in law lets 42 operate without permits

September 10, 1992|By Traci A. Johnson | Traci A. Johnson,Staff Writer

Nearly half of the overnight youth camps registered in Maryland -- including a Carroll County camp where 16 people were injured in a stagecoach accident Aug. 18 -- operate without state oversight because of a loophole in the law, officials say.

At least 42 of the 101 registered sleep-over camps fall under a clause in state law that exempts them from having to obtain permits regulating their activities and hiring practices.

The clause defines residential camps as those that are open at least seven consecutive 24-hour days, said Michael Hurney, chief of the state division of community services, which oversees youth camps.

A camp can become exempt merely by closing for part of one day, he said.

"In theory, you could operate all week, but on the seventh day send everybody off the property for an hour and be exempt from the law," said Mr. Hurney, whose office began working last year to certify camps.

The office sent letters to all 101 sleep-over camps saying they were required to register their summer programs. Only 70 responded. Of those, 42 had schedules that made them exempt from the law.

The exempt camps can operate without certified lifeguards and instructors for such activities as archery and riflery, and are not subject to safety regulations.

River Valley Ranch, an Old West-theme Christian camp in Millers where the stagecoach accident occurred last month, advertised in its 1992 brochure that a "new regulation" made it mandatory for children staying more than one week on the ranch to leave on Saturday afternoon and come back Sunday afternoon.

Gill Miller, a River Valley Ranch employee, denied that the six-day schedule is intended to avoid regulation by the state. He said the hours were set up to give employees a break once a week.

"We give them one day a week off during which they can leave the camp," said Mr. Miller, "Without the time off between the groups coming and going, your counselors are baby-sitting 24 hours a day."

Mountain View Bible Camp in Manchester, another exempt camp, also operates on less than a seven-day schedule. Director Bruce Schwarz said that is because the camp provides space for groups that operate their own activities on their own schedules.

"We rent out to groups who come out here, and they bring out their own counselors, nurses, lifeguards," said Mr. Schwarz, director at the camp for two years. "They stay different amounts of time, some coming on Sunday or Monday and leaving on Friday or Saturday."

Camps exempt from the permit process have free rein over much of their operations, with the exception of food, water, sewer and swimming pool inspections by the state health department, Mr. Hurney said. Inspections are made before the camps open and monthly during the summer.

In addition to having certified lifeguards and instructors, regulated camps must report accidents, injuries and fatalities by each Dec. 31 to the Youth Camp Safety Advisory Council, which helps the health department oversee the camps.

Those statistics, which are being assembled by state officials for the first time this year, will be sent to the secretary of health and mental hygiene. Information on the number of accidents in the past is unavailable because the state has not kept the records.

Mr. Hurney said he thinks the law ought to be changed to require that all overnight youth camps be regulated.

"As a parent, I wouldn't send my children to a camp that wasn't certified," he said. "I can't guarantee that an accident won't happen at a certified camp, but at least you are assured of certified personnel on hand to lead the activities, which may cut the probability of accidents."

Mr. Schwarz, the Mountain View Bible Camp director, said he does not wish to see a change in the law that would mean state regulation of the camp. "A change in the law to include us would definitely affect us in a negative way," said Mr. Schwarz. "I believe that if we were under the restrictions of the current law, we'd lose half the capacity of the camp . . . because our bunks for the campers are too close together."

"If the regulations were to change, we'd have to reconsider [the camp schedule]," Mr. Miller said. "I'm sure it would change our hours of operation, but we'd have to consider it when it happened."

In addition to requiring all camps to be regulated, Mr. Hurney said he thinks the law should be fine-tuned. Some regulations are vague, he said, such as those on what camps must do when someone is hurt.

For example, he cited the Aug. 18 accident at River Valley Ranch in which horses pulling the stagecoach were startled and ran off, causing the coach to roll over on its side and injure 16 people aboard.

Under the state law on accident situations at youth camps, Mr. Hurney said, officials at River Valley Ranch were not required to call for an ambulance -- although six were called to the aid of those injured on Aug. 18.

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