Counselor’s arrest prompts abuse fears

Background checks are common, but gaps remain

By Carolyn Johnson and Emily Anthes,
Globe Correspondents  |  July 27, 2004

A Massachusetts man’s removal from a camp counseling job because of child
pornography charges renews concerns about children’s safety at camp,
despite increased efforts to check workers’ criminal backgrounds, child
advocates say.
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The possibility of sexual abuse at camp is a major concern for parents,
although it sometimes takes a dramatic case to elevate the risk to public
attention, said Richard Rice, a Northampton resident who founded the Camp
Safety Project in 1999 after a relative was sexually abused by a camp
counselor. He said that State Police in Massachusetts told him last year
that 38 cases of sexual abuse occurred during the previous five years at
camps.

”This is continuing, even though the background checks are being done,”
Rice said.

Matthew Elansky, 22, of Jamaica Plain, was arrested Friday night at Camp
Takajo, a camp in Naples, Maine, for boys entering second through 10th
grades. . Acting on a tip, Massachusetts state troopers searched
Elansky’s computer Friday and discovered pictures and movies of boys
engaged in sexual activity, according to the Massachusetts attorney
general’s office. Within six hours, Elansky was arrested.

”Because of our priority on protecting children, hearing those charges
we quickly put everything else aside and acted,” said John Grossman,
chief of the division of corruption, fraud, and computer crime at the
Massachusetts attorney general’s office.

Elansky is charged with one count of possessing child pornography. If
convicted in Massachusetts, he faces a maximum of five years in prison.
Investigations are ongoing into whether Elansky had been involved in
making the pornography or had acted inappropriately at camp, Grossman
said. Elansky was arraigned yesterday in Maine, but officials said they
couldn’t provide additional information.

Bette Bussel — executive director of the American Camping Association,
which accredited Camp Takajo — has been in contact with camp director
Jeffrey Konigsberg and said that the ”camp is moving forward as it
should” and that none of the boys had reported any incidents with
Elansky. Konigsberg did not return calls seeking comment.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which sends tips
on child sexual abuse and molestation to local authorities, passed on a
tip to the Massachusetts State Police, saying that Elansky had a child
pornography collection. Since the center introduced a online tip line in
1998, it has received more than 260,000 tips, 237,000 of which have been
related to child pornography, said Kelly Burke, supervisor of the
Exploited Child Unit at the center.

”It’s not illogical to think that child molesters are going to go where
children are, just like a car thief is going to go where the cars are,”
said Nancy McBride, the director of prevention education at the center.

But a national camping group official said camps are diligent, because
they know even a rumor could destroy an establishment’s reputation.
”Camps do a very thorough screening process or are supposed to, and it’s
in their best interest and the best interests of the campers to do so,”
said Jeff Solomon, executive director of the National Camping Association.
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Criminal background checks are not mandatory in Maine, as they are in
Massachusetts, but the director at Camp Takajo performed a criminal
background check and reference check on Elansky, according to Bussel. The
attorney general’s office would not comment on whether or not he had a
criminal record.

Massachusetts has required background checks on all camp staff since
1998, but enforcement was difficult because local health inspectors did
not have enough resources. In 2002, the state strengthened the
regulations with a law that expanded the information available to camps.
A case involving a Middleton youth minister and camp counselor in 2000
prompted the stricter rules. The counselor, Christopher Reardon, was
suspected of molesting up to 250 boys and was later convicted of rape,
indecent assault, and disseminating pornography to minors. He was
sentenced to 40 to 50 years in prison.

Most of the other New England states do not require background checks,
but will perform the service if asked.

It’s now common practice for camps to run background checks on potential
employees. Private accreditation through organizations like the American
Camping Association requires a criminal background check, reference
check, employment check, and supervision at camp, so that no camper is
ever alone with a counselor.

Barrett Hubbard — vice president of marketing at Markel Insurance Co.,
which insures more than 2,000 youth-related camps — said that the
criteria for underwriting includes background checks, whether or not it’s
required by the state, and no one-on-one time between counselors and
campers.

Background checks, though, only probe the records of individual states.
Because there is no national registry available, such checks are limited
in scope.

“Criminal background checks really are not the be-all, end-all, because
there’s no national reporting system,” Bussel said.

A spokesman for the YMCA, which runs camps nationwide, said that it
suggests background checks on employees who work with youths, but that
policies vary from state to state.

”Massachusetts is perhaps the most stringent state in the country, if
not the world, in regulating camps,” said Chris Egan, director of Camp
Nawaka and the legislative chairman for the Massachusetts Camping
Association. His group is lobbying for access to information on a
national level.

© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company

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