Parents still have a few months left to plan for summertime. However, if those plans include sending the kids to a summer day camp or sleep-away camp, safety and verification need to be top priorities.
News recently broke about a well-regarded sleep-away camp in Texas that wasn’t being fully transparent with families. KPRC-TV Channel 2, an NBC-affiliated news station based in Houston, conducted a two-month undercover investigation of Camp La Junta. The camp, located in the Texas town of Hunt, is a boys summer camp that claims to promote “self-confidence and independence.” The camp has been a fixture in Texas for more than 80 years.
Despite the longevity and popularity of Camp La Junta, the camp has a complicated history. The Channel 2 investigation recounted a story from 2009 when an 11-year-old boy at the camp was repeatedly sexually assaulted by his cabin counselor, Matthew Bovee. The boy wrote a letter to his mother, describing a routine Bovee called “shower checks,” where he would touch the boys in the cabin to see if they were “clean.” The boy told his mother he had been forced to shower six times in one day as punishment.
The mother called the camp, knowing something was wrong and wishing to speak with her son directly. One of the camp owners, Blake Smith, shrugged off the allegations and framed them as a homesick boy trying to get out of camp. When the mother did get to speak with her son on the phone, Bovee was present, listening to the conversation. The victim was scared to come clean about the sexual abuse he’d suffered, especially since Bovee said he had knives and firearms on the premises.
A year later, the boy told a therapist what had happened, including details about Bovee molesting him in a sexual manner. Bovee pleaded guilty to a charge of “injury to a child” and is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence. The victim’s family sued Camp La Junta for failing to protect and support their son and not being transparent about issues with Bovee. While Blake Smith repeatedly told the mother Bovee was harmless, personnel files from the camp tell a different story, noting Bovee didn’t get along with other staff members and was “not to be trusted.”
The lawsuit reached a confidential settlement and Camp La Junta sent a letter to parents admitting a camp attendee had suffered sexual abuse on their watch. When KPRC-TV Channel 2 investigated Camp La Junta, it found the camp has been claiming “Praesidium accreditation” on press materials and in presentations to parents. Praesidium is an organization that does risk assessment and risk management for childcare businesses throughout Texas with the goal of helping them create safer environments for kids. Praesidium told Channel 2 Camp La Junta never completed accreditation.
State law requires that camps report cases of abuse or neglect to the Office of Inspector General within the state Health Human Services department. A representative of the office said there is no report on record for the incident with Bovee.
The Bovee incident—and Camp La Junta’s lack of transparency—should serve as a reminder to parents to vet summer camps thoroughly before enrolling their kids. This process might include doing a deep-dive on the camp’s website or reading online chatter. An online search on Camp La Junta would uncover news stories about Bovee and his 2011 conviction.
Parents should ask camps what they do to screen counselors and employees. An answer of “we do background checks” is insufficient. Finding out which types of criminal checks a camp runs—county, state, multi-jurisdictional—is a must, as is confirming that they run sex offender checks. Also ask if the camp does verification checks with references and former employers. These checks can reveal red flags that didn’t lead to criminal convictions or even arrests.
Finally, ask what company the camp is using to screen its employees. Having the name of a business you can research will give you a better idea of how thorough and how dependable the camp’s background check policies are. If your camp is using backgroundchecks.com, you can use our website to learn about our data procedures and find out specific details about the checks we offer. With objective and dependable background check resources at your disposal, judge for yourself whether you think a particular camp is doing enough to keep your kids safe.