What Safety Standards Exist?
The Texas Youth Camp Safety and Health Act (‘Youth Camp Act’ Chapter 141 of the Texas Health and Safety Code) became effective June 1, 2006. At first glance, the Youth Camp Act looks like hundreds of other legislative initiatives that relate to entities that are licensed by the state of Texas. Upon closer examination, the act may have a profound impact on every church in the state. The act sets safety standards requires sexual abuse awareness training for children and student ministry activities, ranging from church ‘VBS’ to high school mission trips.
Who Is Affected By The Act?
A ‘day camp’ is defined by the act as any Camp that operates during part of the day between 7am and 10pm, for a period of four or more consecutive days. This would include most Vacation Bible Schools, day Camps or any other Camp or retreat activities.
A ‘youth camp’ is defined using the same parameters as ‘day camp’, accommodating at least five children under 18 years of age, for recreational, athletic, religious or educational activities. Again, Vacation Bible School and many other church camp or retreat activities fit this description.
Does it Really Apply to the Church?
Because most church activities do not require licensure, the enforcement provisions in the act cannot be used by the licensing entity, the Texas Department of State Health Services (TDSHS), to force compliance. The purpose of the act, however, is to “establish health and safety standards for youth Camps.” Anytime the state sets a legal standard (regardless of whether or not your program is licensed), that standard impacts organization or church participating in the defined activity. Question: Is my Church engaging in any activity that gathers more than five youth or children for a period of four or more consecutive days for religious purposes? Answer: For most churches, YES.
When the state sets legal standards for certain activities, as it has here, it gathers the input of professionals in the field. In this case, the advisory committee consisted of camping professionals and representatives from the Council on Sex Offender Treatment.
These experts have concluded that whenever there is a gathering of children for at least four days in a row, during any part of the day, for purposes which are recreational, athletic, religious, or educational, there is a higher risk of harm to children – including sexual abuse.
Does the act create a yardstick which applies to church activities? YES. In the future, lawsuits filed holding an organization responsible for sexual abuse of a child at a Vacation Bible School will argue that the act describes minimum standards for all four-day programs which serve at least five children for religious or other activities.
What is a Reasonable Standard of Care?
The widespread nature of child sexual abuse is inescapable. When a child is sexually abused in a Church program, the consequences to child and family are devastating. The impact to a ministry is enormous, and the tarnish to the name and reputation of Christ is immeasurable. Legal exposure related to these issues is large, and growing.
Sexual abusers looking for access to children will gravitate to programs or organizations where few protective measures are in place. With the introduction of the Youth Camp Act, the state of Texas is raising the bar of safety in day Camps and youth Camps. The ‘minimum standards’ set by the state are rising because the state legislature recognizes the risk of sexual abuse occurring in day and youth Camp programming.
The Texas legislature has clearly blown a trumpet of warning for all of those with ears to hear. Prior to these changes introduced by the Act, few Churches have taken a pro-active or protective stance related to the possibility of sexual abuse of children. If the Church fails to respond to this change in the standard of care for youth activities, it is ‘left behind’ in denial and vulnerability.
Should children in Church activities receive the same protections they would receive by law in secular Camps? Is the Church willing to meet minimum standards set by the state?
Let’s heed the call. Let’s not be left behind.