Nobody Told Me My Son’s Camp Counselor Was Accused Of A Sex Offense
By Catherine Gigante-Brown
Editor’s note: Certain facts in this piece have been obscured to protect the children and families involved.
Four months after my son David, then 15, finished his two-week stay at a sleepaway camp in New York, we received a telephone call from the communications department, informing us that one of their directors had been arrested for downloading kiddie porn onto his work computer. The arrest had taken place on September 4 — but we were being notified on January 11.
I was so shocked by the call that I hung up without asking why there was a four-month delay in notifying us. The camp’s associate director of communications, Ms. H., had stressed that the accused, S., was an administrator who had very little contact with campers, who range in age from 8 to 17. “We take matters like this very seriously,” she’d assured me. Since S. had downloaded the images from the Internet, Ms. H. said there was no evidence that any child at camp was harmed.
Still, the more I thought about it, the more upset I became. When I told my husband about the camp’s call, Peter shared my rage. Our first concern was our son’s safety, so we asked our now-16-year-old if he recognized S.’s photograph — both with his natural brown hair and with bleached blonde spikes. Our son said he didn’t. When we told him about the accusations against S., our teen was mortified, and insisted that nothing abnormal had happened that summer.
But what if a camper had been abused, and was too embarrassed to come forward? This hypothetical child would have gone months without crucial counseling. Had the camp administrators recently seen Spotlight, the Academy Award-nominated film about a sexual abuse cover-up in the Boston Catholic church, and misunderstood it as a how-to manual? Did their legal team advise them to call parents as part of year-end housekeeping?
I began to question my rights as a parent. When a potential abuse situation like this arises, what is the camp’s legal obligation regarding parental notification? What are their moral duties, especially for an organization that purported to be Christian?
I wanted answers.
I sprung into action to find them.
A Legal Morass
S., a handsome, charismatic 32-year-old British citizen, first started working at the camp in 2008. He was so well-liked that he was invited to return each summer. Around 2012, he took on the role of Program Director. S.’s online profile on the camp website is rife with what now seems like double entendre: “I very quickly realized that (the camp) is a magical place, with steep traditions and full of amazing/life changing experiences.” The words S. uses to describe his enthusiasm — “so excited,” “super pumped” — take on new meaning in light of his September 2015 arrest for possession of child pornography.
The camp’s website notes that its staff is hired from across the U.S. and around the world. “We have an 80% counselor retention,” the website reads. “We look for people who have a genuine interest in working with children, infectious enthusiasm, display positive role modeling, and work well with others.” The administration conducts interviews, reference checks, and a vigorous background check — including a criminal history — on every single staff member each year. International staff like S. must also have J-1 authorization from Immigration and Naturalization in order to be hired.
With such a stringent vetting process, how could an alleged pedophile like S. have slipped through the cracks?
The day after we were informed of S.’s arrest, my husband spoke to the director of camping services. When Peter asked why there was a delay of 100 days in telling parents about the arrest, his response was a practiced, “It was a police matter and we were cooperating with the police.” The director stressed that camper safety is a top priority. “No camper is ever left alone with a counselor,” the man said. “There are at least three people with a child at all times.”
However, the director repeatedly evaded Peter’s question: Why did it take almost five months to contact parents when an employee had been arrested on felony charges while still in their employ? (S. was fired immediately after.) The director repeated, “It was a police matter.”
The anxiety a parent faces when they think their child may have been harmed is hardly soothed by this kind of legal hair-splitting. The camp contended that they couldn’t inform parents because it was under investigation. Shouldn’t parents have been part of the investigation?
Mom Turned Investigative Reporter
My own investigation was going nowhere fast. The local police, the authority which had arrested S., weren’t readily disclosing information. In fact, the officer who answered the telephone was more worried that I was calling from an attorney’s office than he was about my child’s safety.
Once I satisfied him that I wasn’t a lawyer, the officer told me that, while it wasn’t a crime for the camp to keep S.’s arrest a secret from parents, this negligence could be fuel for a civil case. In order to bring a civil suit, we would have to prove that not informing parents sooner had done material harm. Reluctantly, the officer gave me the telephone number for Central Records so I could request S.’s public arrest records, which I did.
I also checked the sex offender registry online. When it proved fruitless, I decided to call them. The exasperated gentleman on the other end of the line said that he couldn’t search for information unless I provided a piece of S.’s personal data — social security number, driver’s license number, place of residence. I gave him the camp’s address, which still generated nothing. “But he wouldn’t be registered here until he’s convicted,” the man explained. “And if he serves jail time, he wouldn’t be registered until after he’s released.”
After posting about my frustration with the situation on social media, I learned that both sons of a former coworker had attended the very same camp as my son last summer. Nina Durante found out about S.’s arrest from a newspaper article back in September, and called the camp when she read it. “I asked why they weren’t calling parents,” Durante recalled. “They explained that they were cooperating with the police investigation and couldn’t talk about it. I thought it was ridiculous. They offered to send me materials on how to talk to your child about it, which I declined. I couldn’t believe how poorly they were handling it!”
Like my son, Durante’s oldest boy had gone to the camp for the last three years, while her youngest, had gone last summer for the first time. She added, “Although S. didn’t have direct contact with the campers, I know for a fact that he had contact with teenage counselors in training. We’re still trying to figure out what we’ll do this year. I really love the camp but their handling of the situation has left a sour taste in my mouth.”
If S.’s arrest was “public information” and written about in the press, why didn’t the camp tell parents about it sooner? The camp was unwilling to answer this, or even take responsibility for their sin of omission.
It took New York State’s Public Information Office two days to respond to my request for information about S., basically to tell me that I had to ask via the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request form on their website. When I emailed the Central Records Bureau to get hold of S.’s arrest records, I received a response a week later, telling me that “due to the volume of requests received and currently being processed by this agency, a written response will be sent to you by or before July 13, 2016.” That was almost six months away.
We even tried contacting Assemblymember Kevin A. Cahill, who, as his website states, “stands up for constituents and organizations in the area.” Here’s the last email Peter sent to Assemblymember Cahill:
“This is my fourth attempt at contacting your office with no reply. What are my rights as a parent when an employee of a camp/school is accused of child porn possession? Does the law address this? How does the law address this? Do I have a right to be notified? In what time frame? If no law exists, what are you doing to address this? If nothing, which I have to assume, since I never get a reply, why not?”
Amazingly enough, we finally heard back from Assemblymember Cahill’s office — after that fourth attempt to get a response. A representative from Cahill’s office admitted they’d never heard about S.’s arrest and promised to get back to us after she researched it with her contacts in the police department. After looking into it, Elaine called back and said that the camp couldn’t contact parents until S. was convicted because they could be sued for libel. Couldn’t they have just alerted parents that one of their directors had been arrested and accused of possession of child pornography? No response. And how was it that the newspapers could report about the incident without fear of libel?
In the next breath, Cahill’s representative suggested we contact our local legislative office to protest current notification procedures. If it took us going up against the government to overturn their antiquated protocol, that’s exactly what we would do.
A Professional POV
In the meantime, I decided to seek a professional opinion about the situation. Was I making too much of this? Could the camp have done a better job of screening counselors? Psychologist Jackie A. Castro specializes in fetishes and sexual addiction. “As a mother you have to be furious and feel betrayed that the camp didn’t screen better,” Castro began. “If he had pedophilic tendencies, S. was extremely foolish to take any kind of position where he would be around kids, and then download child pornography onto his work computer.”
Castro also noted that the porn arrest doesn’t necessarily mean that S. was preying on children at the camp. “Pornography does provide an outlet for people,” she said. “Many fetishists look at all kinds of porn but never act on their desires. However, in the case of child pornography, there are minors who participate, which makes it criminal and illegal.”
Clearly, this was a very complex issue with no easy answers. “It seems the only real help for sex offenders is after they’ve been convicted of a crime,” Castro admitted. “As a therapist, I find it disturbing that S. is being called out without evidence that he actually did anything to anyone. You can’t prosecute someone for their thoughts or fantasies no matter how taboo they are.”
Another snafu is that it’s very difficult for pedophiles to get help. Societal stigma often prevents them from seeking counseling. “Imagine if S. had spoken to a therapist,” Castro posed. “He’s got to learn how to channel his desires and understand that sexualizing children is harmful. It scars them for life and gives them the wrong message about their bodies and sexual feelings.”
What’s the solution then? “Prevention and information,” said Castro. “There’s a real lack of both, and the need for more training of qualified professionals who can offer help without judgment. I believe it’s the only way to eradicate this insidious issue. No one seems willing to talk about it.”
Parents, Castro says, should educate themselves about child molestation. “People need to have that difficult conversation with their children early on,” Castro stressed. “As a result, kids will know what to do if they’re approached inappropriately. They’d feel safe coming to their parents about it.”
In her 20-plus years of practice, Castro has found that unfortunately, many parents don’t have “the talk” with their kids. She continued, “Even worse, many parents don’t believe their children when they do come forward about being sexually abused. You’d be surprised at how many of my clients were molested by their mom’s boyfriends. When they told their mothers about it, they were shut down and called liars. I hear it all the time. It’s heartbreaking.”
More than two months after the initial phone call from the camp, I contacted them for an update about S.’s status. Thus began a voicemail dance. A few days later, I received a message from the camp director which said he had nothing new to report. I called him back the following day. I’m still waiting to hear back from him.
Without any concrete answers from the camp or the government, I came to the conclusion that it’s a big, cold, bureaucratic world out there. The solution, for me, at least, is to build a strong foundation at home, a place where my son feels he can come to his parents with any situation, to teach him the difference between a loving touch and inappropriate behavior. Because, when it comes down to it, parents can’t depend on anyone to protect their kids but themselves.
For me, key questions still remain unresolved. Why was I not informed of S.’s transgression right away? I couldn’t help but wonder where S. was now. Was he getting psychological counseling? Was he in protective custody? Was he back on the street? Had any child been harmed? I still had no answers. It was as though an accused pedophile had vanished into thin air. And this was just one person. How many others walk among us, among our children?
Lead image: flickr/Daniel John Buchanan