Preventing sexual abuse at special-needs summer camps

In the era of #MeToo, and in light of recent scandals involving Jewish summer camps, there has been a lot of discussion about the sexual abuse of children in the Jewish community. A certain slice of the population, however—as per usual—has been largely ignored: children with disabilities.

Several studies have shown that children with disabilities are three times more likely than typically-abled children to be victims of sexual abuse—and those with intellectual and mental health disabilities are at even higher risk.[1]

Why are children with special needs such easy targets for molesters, and what can we do to protect them?

Greater Vulnerability

Sexual abuse is a form of violence, and violence is an exertion of power over another human being. Perpetrators of sexual assault tend to seek out the most vulnerable victims—those who they think will be easy to control and less likely to resist their dominance, such as women, children, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

Children with disabilities are a prime target, as their physical, cognitive, and/or communicational limitations can make them more dependent on others and less able to defend themselves. Societal discrimination against people with disabilities reinforces the idea that they are weaker and less intelligent, they are taught, to defer to the authority of the adults around them even more than typically-abled children, and their personal boundaries tend to be subject to less respect than those of other children. All this both emboldens their perpetrators and weakens their perception of themselves.

Easy Access

Children with disabilities are also far more likely than other children to find themselves in isolated settings with adults providing services such as transportation, physical therapy, or intimate personal care.

“My son, Schneour, is in the care of and exposed to so many different people on a daily basis—teachers, aids, volunteers, therapists, and bus drivers, many with no professional qualifications or proper vetting,” explains Chava Lesselbaum, 31, whose eldest child has Down Syndrome. “It is hard to know who they are or what is going on.”

Child molesters require trust, opportunity, and secrecy to successfully abuse their victims, and it is much easier them to maintain compliance with children who are less empowered or able to speak up, especially when they plenty of private access to the children.

Communication Difficulties

Children with special needs are not only more likely to be molested; they are also less likely to get the help they need when something happens. Communication or cognitive difficulties may make it hard for them to understand or express their experiences, especially when parents and educators rarely speak to them about their bodies or provide adequate sexual education, further limiting their ability to comprehend and communicate what’s going on. But even if they don’t fully understand what’s happening, the effects of the violation on their physical and mental health are bound to be just as devastating as for children with typical needs.

“We are always told how important it is to keep open channels of communication so that our kids can trust us and tell us if something happened,” explains Chava, “But the thing with Schneour is that he just won’t. He can’t. He is not verbal enough for me to understand. I have such fear that, not only could something happen to him, but that I would never know about it or be able to get him the help he needs.”

The Particular Problem of Summer Camps

Summer camps offer incredible benefits: a chance for a change of scene, to develop social connections, to boost confidence and independence, and to enjoy physical activity and exercise—all while offering parents a much-needed break. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires all US camps to make reasonable accommodations for campers with disabilities, but many kids benefit from camps that cater specifically to the needs of children with similar physical or emotional needs.

However, the conditions of a summer camp pose particular risk, due to the distance from home, being in a new environment, more opportunities for isolation, and working with less trained and qualified counselors who are generally not screened as carefully as all-year staff members.

Thankfully, there has been an increase in awareness about abuse at summer camps in general, and more and more scamps are providing training to their staff members on preventing and properly coping with sexual abuse. However, these programs are not sufficient to address the needs of children with disabilities. The standard protocol of “no one is allowed to touch you in your private areas”, for example, simply can’t apply when a child needs help with intimate care. Therefore, guidelines must be developed to create transparency and safety when the standard protocol does not apply.

One such program, created by ASAP, a nonprofit organization founded by Yedidut Toronto that offers free sexual abuse prevention training to Jewish institutions, has recently added specific guidelines to their regular program that address the specific limitations, needs, and vulnerabilities of children with disabilities.

“Children with special needs are at extremely high risk of being abused,” confirms Kayla’s Children Centre, an organization providing programming for children of all abilities in Canada. “It is the cause of much anxiety for all of our campers’ parents, and it’s especially frightening for those whose children are non-verbal. At Kayla’s Children Centre we take this very seriously and are grateful to have the ASAP curriculum and guidance to follow. The videos are clear and easy to implement and the recent adjustment to include specifics for kids with special needs has been very helpful.”

Other Jewish summer camps that have adopted the program include HASC, Simcha and Simcha Special, Kaylie, Chaverim, Yaldei, Yaldenu, Shutaf, and Maarava.

Preventing and Properly Handling Incidents

Preventing sexual abuse of children with special needs involves raising awareness among the staff and implementing protocols that create an environment of transparency, where perpetrators do not have the opportunity or the secrecy they need to abuse children. Jewish summer camps must learn how to provide campers with disabilities with the help and support they require, while protecting their personal boundaries and physical safety.

For example, there must be clear policies requiring the presence of two staff members when tending to a child’s personal or intimate physical needs, such as dressing or toileting. Each child’s specific needs must be discussed and agreed upon with the parents ahead of time, and campers must be encouraged to file a complaint or request a change in the assignment of staff members if need be. Staff members must check in with campers frequently, giving them the opportunity to report anything that makes them uncomfortable. Additionally, a robust system for reporting and dealing with complaints must be established so that any incidents are handled immediately.

Creating a camp environment where abuse cannot flourish is simple and, in many cases, free of cost, but the suffering and damage these steps can prevent is beyond measure. Camps, institutions, educators, and parents must learn about these policies and find a way to ensure that the kids under their care, especially those who are most vulnerable and require intimate care support, are protected.

[1] 4.6 times more likely, according to Lund, Emily M., and Vaughn-Jensen, J. (2012), Victimisation of Children with Disabilities The Lancet, Volume 380 (Issue 9845), 867-869.).

About the Author
Daniella Levy is the author of Disengagement, By Light of Hidden Candles, and Letters to Josep. Her prose and poetry — in 3 languages — have been widely published, and she was nominated for the Pushcart Prize for her short fiction. She is also a copy and content writer. Born in the USA, she immigrated to Israel as a child, and currently lives at the edge of the Judean Desert with her husband and four kids. You can learn more about Daniella and her work at
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