Hendry County’s summer camp programs hung in the balance Tuesday after coordinators were hit with news of a recently passed law requiring all camp counselors to get level 2 background checks.
Merely weeks before summer camp programs were set to begin throughout the county, a newly enacted law made its presence known to recreation directors and board members.
Buried deep within Florida Statute 409.175, dictating the licensing procedures and requirements for family foster care homes, residential child-caring agencies and child-placing agencies, lies the requirement for summer camps to screen all personnel working with children.
The new law may seem like a given, and in some ways, it is. All camp counselors working for the county’s summer camps are screened before being hired. In the case of the city of Clewiston’s summer camp, which is in its 28th year, potential counselors went through a series of local background checks and urine testing to ensure the children attending camp were in safe hands.
With the new law, passed by the Florida legislature earlier this year, all summer camp personnel aged 12 and up, including owners, operators, employees and volunteers, must submit to a level 2 background check through a vendor approved by the Department of Children and Families (DCF). Level 2 background checks require fingerprinting for statewide criminal history checks through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and national criminal history checks through the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and may include local law enforcement checks, according to DCF.
While those involved with summer camp programs want to ensure participating children are in the absolute best care, the new level 2 requirement came as a surprise, and with only a few weeks left before the first sessions of camp were set to begin, directors are in a time crunch to get the screening requirements completed.
There is no DCF-approved vendor in Hendry County to provide the background checks. There is also a $46.75 charge per person getting screened — a cost recreation directors did not anticipate this year.
West Hendry County Recreation directors were the first to hear of the new law last week, after a counselor’s results from the typical screening process bounced back.
As the realization of the new requirements sunk in — including the limited time frame to get the screens completed and the unexpected costs — West Rec announced Tuesday that it would cancel summer camp in the LaBelle and Pioneer areas for the year.
An outpouring of angry parents — who rely on summer camp when they are at work and their kids are out of school — caused West Rec, within a matter of hours, to announce they would still hold summer camp, though it may be pushed back one week.
Clewiston’s summer camp is still set to begin on June 9 as planned, though Recreation Director Lance Ramer admits there is always a chance it may be pushed back, as well.
Ramer and his team have been scrambling — as have those in the western half of the county — to find a DCF-approved vendor near the area who could provide the screenings without costing too much money.
According to Ramer, mobile services who serve the coasts will not travel to Hendry County for the small number of counselors who need to be screened.
There are restrictions to how Ramer can get his counselors to DCF-approved vendors in neighboring Lee and Palm Beach counties. Many of the counselors are minors, and will need to be accompanied by their parents to complete the background checks. Ramer said it will be difficult to coordinate a day when all potential counselors could load up in a van or bus with their parents and travel the distance to be screened.
Difficult, yes. Impossible, no.
Ramer is working diligently to adhere to the letter of the law while making sure summer camp kicks off without a hitch. A mobile service through Belle Glade’s Glades Initiative may be the most viable option. But he is still looking into all possibilities.
To ensure summer camp is successful and starts on time, he is asking all parents to sign their children up by May 22 (payment is due June 1). The number of counselors are typically chosen after registration closes and the number of kids participating is known.
With a price tag of $46.75 per counselor, plus vendor fees, knowing how many counselors are needed (Ramer typically hires one counselor per 10 kids, plus one counselor-in-training per 10 kids) will help reduce costs that, as of now, the recreation department is absorbing.
Whether or not these costs will be passed down to the parents through registration fees in subsequent years has yet to be decided.
To sign up for summer camp in the city of Clewiston or Harlem, register online at www.clewistonrecreation.com.