Longform

A Texas Boy's Summer Camp Nightmare

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People can get past it, Mooney said. In those first days, it's key that when the child speaks out about abuse, people believe him or her. "Someone has done something horrible to this child, so they need to feel loved and supported and believed," she said. Support and connections that are healthy with family and friends will do a lot to help counter the effects of abuse, she said. "People can get past sexual abuse, and the wonderful thing about children is they are very resilient, but it takes work," Mooney said.

That was what John, a Houston man, was worrying about just after he learned his son had been abused in 2004 at Camp Balcones Springs in Marble Falls. It was the final day of camp, and all the children and their parents were there for the closing ceremonies, held in a field. The sun glittered down, and the light was so sharp and clear it hurt John's eyes. He looked around at all the families and wondered at the odds that the abuse had happened to his son. Feeling helpless, he started looking for something to do about it.

The criminal case went to trial, though it had to be retried in a different county after the jury deadlocked. Once John knew the counselor was safely in prison, he started looking at the law. The concept of laws protecting children from sexual abuse at all is quite new — it's been around only since the 1970s. However, John learned there was almost no legislation governing summer camps in Texas or most other states. The Texas Department of State Health Services oversees the camps, and at the time that meant making sure they followed health codes so children wouldn't catch diseases. But there was nothing about sexual abuse in the camps, or even anything about training counselors to watch for the red flags that could indicate a predator in their midst.

He kept his name out of it to protect his son, but John (not his real name) lobbied and testified before the state legislature in support of such a law. After he'd spent four years meeting with politicians and negotiating with youth camp lobbyists in Austin, a law was passed. It wasn't much — counselors are now required to take a class and pass a 25-question test on appropriate and inappropriate interactions between counselors and campers. It's a relatively weak piece of legislation, but it makes Texas one of only a few states that have any laws at all covering summer camps.

But even the training isn't a surefire guard against abuse, said Britt Darwin-Looney, vice president of youth development services with Praesidium, a Dallas-based company that specializes in training organizations to guard against abuse. Summer camps appeal to predators because working at them can be the equivalent of a wolf being asked to guard the flock. If they're young, they're less likely to have a record that will come up in a background check, she said. There's no way guaranteed to keep them out, but training counselors to speak up when they see something and preventing situations in which a camper is alone with a counselor can help, she said. "It's better to report a creepy feeling about a counselor than to be sitting across from someone asking you why you said nothing," she said.


From the moment Mark's family reported the abuse, they started living a double life. Kelly was boiling with anger. Blake Smith had assured her repeatedly that there was nothing to the letter Mark had sent home, and she and her husband believed him. She pulled out the letter and read it over night after night. "Please do something," the last line read. She couldn't change what had happened, but she could make sure justice was served.

Rumors started circulating among the parents. Kelly got very good at keeping a neutral expression on her face when a mother would tell her that she had it on good authority from Smith that there was nothing to the allegations of abuse. "I made a point of never lying, but I would just nod and tell them they might want to get their child checked out anyway," she says, remembering. "I would say things like, 'I just pray for that little boy, whoever he is,'" she said. Playing at his friends' houses, Mark overheard parents talking about the case, assuring each other that the child who had accused Bovee was a liar with emotional problems. He stopped hanging out with most of his camp friends.

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Dianna Wray
Contact: Dianna Wray