Amy M. Jacobs, commissioner of the state agency Bright from the Start, which licenses child care centers and home-based child care, visits Suttles Child Development Center at Georgia State University.
Photo: Contributed
Photo: Contributed

This Life with Gracie: What you should know before choosing a summer camp

Few of us will soon forget Benjamin “Kamau” Hosch III, the 5-year-old who drowned last summer during an outing with his day camp at Cochran Mill Park in Chattahoochee Hills.

Kamau, officials said, went missing sometime during a lunch break on one of the park’s nature trails. His little body was found a short time later in a pool of water near a creek, where he and the rest of the children had been playing.

The story drew national attention and prompted the closure of the Camp Cricket Summer Day Camp, which, we found out later, was neither licensed nor had applied for an exemption from the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL).

Despite the tragedy, summer camps are still safe places for children, according to Amy M. Jacobs, commissioner of the state agency Bright from the Start, which licenses child care centers and home-based child care.

That doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t do their due diligence before deciding which camp is best.

It does mean, Jacobs said, asking the right questions. Chief among them is whether the program is licensed or accredited. And if not, if the program has been granted an exemption by DECAL.

Each year, DECAL licenses about 5,000 child care programs throughout the state. Another 4,000 or so operate legally without a license but with an exemption issued from DECAL and the requirement they inform parents they are an exempt program.

What’s the difference?

» RELATEDDay camp where 5-year-old died ordered to close, state says

The primary role of a licensed program is providing supervision and care of children for pay. Exempt programs are only offered on a limited basis and have a primary purpose of something other than providing supervision and care like a short-term program targeted to a specific interest such as tennis or arts and crafts.

Beginning this summer, however, about 10 percent of exempted programs will receive at least one unannounced annual visit from DECAL as well.

Licensed or not, it’s important parents do their research and are careful when choosing a camp for their children.

Pam Tatum, CEO of Quality Care for Children (QCC), recommends parents start their search early.

“By beginning early, families can find child care that fits their budget, alleviate fears regarding child safety, read reviews of the program and find a program convenient to where they live,” Tatum said.

“Many camps and child care programs offer scholarships, sliding scale fees and discounts for registering multiple children.”

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

So what else should parents be asking?

  • Has the owner/operator screened all staff, with what methods, and how thoroughly?
  • What are the hours of operation, fees and payment procedures?
  • Are parents/guardians welcome to visit at all times?
  • Is there a daily lesson plan?
  • What are the program’s health, safety and nutrition policies and procedures?
  • Does the staff-to-child ratio and group size fall within state guidelines? Generally the requirement is one staff member to 20 children for ages up to 5, with a maximum class size of 40. For children 6 and older, the ratio is one to 25 with a maximum class size of 50 with one assistant.
  • Is the staff well-trained? Do they have experience with early childhood/school-age care or children with special needs? What about CPR and first aid training, or appropriate licensing for transporting children?

» RELATED | 5 great summer camps in Atlanta area for kids who love the outdoors

Jacobs said parents should keep in mind that summer camp is about more than child care when school is not in session. It’s also about helping children learn how to work with others, build meaningful relationships, accept guidance, express creativity and become more independent and confident.

“Sometimes, however, families don’t know what to look for,” she said.

That’s why DECAL and QCC have partnered to create resources to help families do their homework and make informed decisions.

By logging onto www.qualityrated.org, parents can search camps by location, types of services offered and even route to work. They can also view the history of a program. Or they can call 877-ALLGAKIDS and speak to a child care expert.

If you’ve already made your choice only to discover a camp isn’t licensed or something isn’t right, call DECAL at 404-657-5562 or send an email to ccscomplaints@decal.ga.gov. You can remain anonymous.

“We depend on citizens to let us know,” Jacobs said. “We are a statewide agency so it’s hard to have eyes and ears on everything that is happening. A lot of times they don’t know about us or know they need to file for an exemption.”

Benjamin “Kamau” Hosch III, 5, died after an incident at the Camp Cricket Summer Day Camp in south Fulton County. Family photo
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Although Camp Cricket, where Kamau was a student, had been operating for a while, the center didn’t fit into any category — licensed or exempt.

» RELATED | Camp director, nature center executive indicted in 5-year-old’s drowning

“That’s why we stepped in at time of complaint and filed a cease and desist order,” Jacobs said.

Terri Clark, the director of Camp Cricket, was indicted early last month on one count of involuntary manslaughter and a misdemeanor reckless conduct charge. Maribeth Wansley, executive director of Cochran Mill Nature Center, faces one misdemeanor count of operating an early childhood learning center without a license.

Even if a program has received an exemption, Jacobs said there are no assurances state health and safety requirements were met or enforced.

With the last school bells set to ring soon, decision-making time is at hand.

What happened at Camp Cricket is still a rare occurrence, but those indictments ought to put all of us on high alert.

Making the right choice can be the difference between life and death.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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