Indiana University Media School Camp Fever Series


The Indiana University Media School has produced a series of data stories on summer camps.

The stories, which are written by students, look at state data, state laws, safety and health reports, and criminal background check requirements.

The full series is available on the Media School’s website:

Read the first story in the series below

Camp fever: Injuries, illnesses missing from Indiana state records

By Andrew Maciejewski, Alyson Malinger, Joshua Margolis, Jackie Melichar, Nikos Potamousis, Kacey Ross and Jenna Wilen

Bradford Woods. (Andrew Maciejewski | The Media School)

When 11-year-old Jadyn Larky was killed by a falling tree at Camp Livingston in Switzerland County in 2016, the camp was supposed to immediately file a report with the Indiana State Department of Health.

Three years earlier, when three campers were seriously injured in a lightning strike at Goldman Union Camp Institute in Zionsville, a report should have been filed as well.

But, despite mandatory reporting rules for such incidents, the state health department has no records of either one.

Under state law intended to help ensure the safety of children at summer programs, overnight youth camps are required to file injury and illness reports soon after any event that results in hospitalization, a positive X-ray or lab result or a child being sent home.

Unreported deaths and injuries like those at Camp Livingston and Goldman Union Camp Institute, however, indicate the state’s records are far from complete. Those omissions and other problems, including a lack of enforcement by the state, are among the revelations of a three-month investigation by an Indiana University Media School student reporting team.

The investigation raises concerns about how much the state – and parents – really know about summer camp safety.

After the team questioned the completeness of the safety records and the state’s enforcement of the requirements, however, the health department indicated it is working to remind summer camp operators of their obligations under the law.

Camp rules and regulations

The Youth Camp Inspection and Approval Program, part of the health department’s environmental public health division, is charged with keeping track of residential camps in Indiana.

Division director Mike Mettler said the 133 camps on the roster are inspected annually or biannually to ensure they  follow Rule 410 of Indiana’s Administrative Code. The rule provides guidelines for maintaining youth camps, from on-site water sampling to how many smoke detectors a building must have. Section 17 specifies how youth camps must report camper illnesses, injuries or deaths.

Camps have 10 days to report injuries or illnesses that result in a camper being sent home or hospitalized. A positive X-ray or laboratory analysis also falls within these requirements. If a camper or staff member dies, the deadline for filing a report is shortened to 24 hours. Incidents must be reported on State Form 51866, or an equivalent.

For this report, the Media School reporting team requested all the forms on file. Although health department officials initially said they would provide safety reports going back to the 1990s, they provided records only from 2006 through 2016. Since April 21, no additional reports have been released, and no explanation has been provided for the lapse in complying with the records request.

An incomplete paper trail and a lack of enforcement

A review of the reports the state did release indicates a wide range of injuries and illnesses occurring at summer camps. Last year’s reports, for instance, covered problems including dehydration, a medication error, aches and bruises, fractured bones and vomiting.

But only seven of the 133 youth camps registered with the health department – about 5 percent – filed reports in 2016. And that year is not atypical in the official records. Over the entire period, there are only 145 injury and illness reports from only 21 – or about 16 percent – of the registered camps.

That doesn’t mean the other camps are incident-free, however. The Media School investigation found several apparent lapses in reporting:

  • First, incidents such as those at Camp Livingston and Goldman Union Camp Institute should have been reported.
  • Second, a spot check of ambulance runs to some camps revealed emergencies that may have been reportable incidents if they involved campers. For instance, Epworth Forest Conference Center in Kosciusko County had four emergency runs during the summer camping seasons in 2014 and 2015 for incidents involving an injured person, head trauma and two separate cases of difficulty breathing.
  • And third, officials at some camps indicated they were not even aware of the requirement to file reports with the state.

“There’s nothing state-level that we report to,” said Scott Helmkamp, director of leadership development for the YMCA of Greater Fort Wayne, which operates YMCA Camp Potawotami in South Milford.

YMCA camps are among those registered with the state health department that did not file any safety reports during the time frame examined. According to Helmkamp, Camp Potawotami uses an outside insurance agency to report illnesses and injuries.

Likewise, Bradford Woods in Martinsville – operated by Indiana University – has an internal system for documenting injuries and illnesses.

“It’s a full page, front-and-back sheet that’s got all of the pertinent information that all of our staff have, that all of our staff are trained on,” said Nicholas Hunter-Shields, the recreation therapy administrative assistant at Bradford Woods.

He said the camp fills out the forms for incidents ranging from tripping and falling on a branch to golf cart accidents.

Such methods of incident reporting do not meet the requirements of Indiana’s health code, according to Mike Mettler, director of the state health department’s environmental public health division.

“It is not a violation for a youth camp to keep its own records, but camps are still required to submit the information to ISDH on the prescribed form,” Mettler said.

If the department becomes aware of an injury or illness that should have been reported to the state, the camp in question could be cited with violating state law. But over the past decade, the department has not issued any citations.

When the Media School reporting team sought comment on the apparent lack of enforcement, health department spokesman Ken Severson provided a statement saying the department “is issuing reminders about these requirements to all youth camps, and inspectors will conduct follow-up discussions of the reporting requirements with youth camp operators during their next inspection.”

Injuries large and small

In the safety reports that camps submitted since 2006, the most common health concerns for campers by far have been common colds, hay fever and stomach aches — listed with varying degrees of details on the state forms. One camper was listed as suffering from homesickness, and another was hit by a truck. The latter incident was among 32 that reported broken bones or sprains.

There also were two deaths – one from drowning, and one from an unexplained collapse. Specific cases included:

  • A 5-year-old girl taken to IU Health Bloomington Hospital after fracturing her leg at Jellystone Park at Lake Monroe in 2012. The girl had been playing with friends on the camp’s jumping pillow, an inflatable trampoline, when another camper fell on her, twisting her leg.
  • A girl taken to Goshen Health Hospital after pulling a muscle at Kosciusko County’s Camp Alexander Mack in 2009. The girl heard and felt a “pop” in her back on the right side and was in severe pain until the ambulance arrived. She had been playing a game of blob tag, a variation of the classic game, when the pop occurred.
  • A boy who died in 2009 at Camp Ray Bird in South Bend after using a water slide. According to the report, the boy walked about 15 feet before collapsing and later died.

Camp Ray Bird, operated by Ray Bird Ministries, stands out as a prolific filer of safety reports – 78 from 2006 through 2016. A distant second was Spring Hill Camps in Seymour, which filed 14 reports in the same time span.

But given the fact that some camps are not filing reports, it is impossible to assess whether any particular camp is more prone to problems than others.

Incidents not reported

As noted above, some high-profile cases of death and injuries don’t show up in the state’s records at all.

Last June, Jadyn Larky, of Columbus, Ohio, was sleeping in the east village at Camp Livingston when a bolt of lightning hit a tree next to her cabin around 3 a.m. Larky and two other campers were trapped after the tree collapsed into the building. She was pronounced dead at the scene by the Switzerland County Sheriff’s Department.

Camp Livingston did not report the death to the state health department, nor has it filed any other injury or illness reports since at least 2006.

That also is the case with Goldman Union Camp Institute in Zionsville, which has reported no injuries or illnesses since 2006. Yet on June 29, 2013, three summer campers were struck by lightning in a field northeast of the camp while playing Frisbee on a clear blue day. One, a 9-year-old boy from Columbus, Ohio, required 209 days of hospitalization.

Media reports indicated it would have been almost impossible to avoid the injuries since there were only a few clouds in the sky that day. And police praised camp staff for immediately performing CPR on the three children.

In any case, the incident did not make it onto the state-required injury and illness form.

The forms are public records, but they are not easily accessible for parents who might wish to do research about a prospective camp for their children. The forms are mailed in hard copy form to the health department, which maintains them as paper records. Neither the forms nor any data from them are available online.

At the request of the Media School reporting team, the department released scanned forms in PDF format with some personal information about individual campers redacted.

Complicating the effort to analyze camp safety, the forms often are filled out improperly, with sections occasionally left blank. In three of 17 forms from 2012, for instance, the only boxes checked were those asking for the sex of the camper. Forms also were often completed days, weeks and sometimes months after an injury or illness. In one case, Camp Ray Bird filled out a form two years after the injury was reported.

Parental concerns

Parents who send their kids to summer camp each year say they are looking for experiences that will provide fun, friendship and, in some cases, religious and moral training for their children.

“When you send your kid off to camp, even for the day, you want to know that they are going to have fun and be with their friends,” said Donna Kaufman, who sends her daughter, Gabby, to Still Waters Camp in Lexington, Indiana.

But Kaufman and others said safety is also a key factor. Still Waters has filed six injury/illness reports with the state, all in 2011 and 2012.

“No one wants to send their kid to the care of someone who could actually care less,” said Juliana Henkel, who sends her two young daughters to Camp Rancho Framasa in Nashville. “It is vital that the camp operates at a high rate so parents can be confident that their child is being looked after correctly.”

The camp is not among those that have submitted reports to the health department.

Justin Morseth, whose 8- and 11-year-olds attend a YMCA camp, said he has not had any problems with his kids’ safety there. But he did express concern when informed about the problem of missing safety reports.

“There is no accountability there,” Morseth said. “These camps need to be more accountable with their actions and do the right thing.”

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