WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — By bedtime it already was too late for the boy. The lights blinked out and the camp counselor, a predator, lay down at his feet. Curled up in the dark, he was ready to attack.
Getting here was all too easy for James Roy Melton Jr. When the convicted child molester volunteered at this Palm City church summer camp, nobody stood in his way.
Not the church. It welcomed the tall, rangy 34-year-old as its newest youth chaperone without screening his background.
And not the state of Florida. For 30 years, lawmakers have passed measures to protect kids in child-care centers while ignoring harm at the hands of summer camp workers.
Florida camps are completely unregulated. Nobody knows how many operate here. Nobody checks up on the people who run them.
As a result, children have suffered profound harm, a Palm Beach Post investigation has found.
That’s what happened on this night in the summer of 1997. Melton, who 10 years earlier had admitted raping as many as 12 children, lay down among boys in Palm City. The kids fell asleep. He pulled down one 14-year-old’s shorts and molested him.
Convicted again in the Palm City attack, Melton was sentenced to 30 years. He still is in prison.
But, across Florida, the dangers for children remain.
The state’s system of safeguarding kids in child-care centers relies on licensing. State regulators inspect day cares and other licensed businesses to ensure employees are thoroughly screened. There are no such requirements for camps.
That means molesters like Melton, along with violent criminals or the severely mentally ill, can sign on — and have signed on — as camp counselors statewide.
In a six-month reporting effort, The Post compared millions of corporate filings with records of criminal convictions; pored over tens of thousands of pages of court documents, police reports and news clippings; and conducted dozens of interviews. In coming days, the newspaper will lay out its findings in a series of stories. Among the key points:
Kids have been harmed.
They have been sexually molested in instances of preventable abuse.
And cases of harm — preventable or otherwise — happen regularly in Florida summer camps. Since 2000, at least 50 children have been victimized in summer programs, or abused by workers the kids first encountered at camp organizations.
Because child sexual abuse often goes unreported — one estimate puts the reporting rate at one in 20 cases — that figure likely under-represents the number of victims statewide.
Many more kids are at risk.
All 50 states consider child molesters and other sex offenders so dangerous that the government tracks their movements, but nothing stops them from working in Florida camps. More than a few got jobs in summer programs.
In scores of other cases, rapists, murderers and other violent criminals have led organizations that often run camps. Roughly 170 church or neighborhood youth programs have been operated by felons statewide, including more than two dozen businesses led by child molesters or other sex offenders.
The groups are disproportionately clustered around the state’s poorest neighborhoods.
Lawmakers have known for years.
Since the mid-1980s, legislators have been warned repeatedly of dangers in camps. Even so, they have taken virtually no steps to protect kids.
Jennifer Dritt, executive director of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, said The Post has identified a significant problem.
“I think people should pay attention to it,” Dritt said. “And our legislature should pay attention to it.”
Florida is one of six states that don’t license camps in some form.
Its population of 19 million dwarfs the others on the list: North Carolina, Washington, Missouri, New Mexico and South Dakota.
In Texas, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte sponsored a successful bill in 2001 requiring greater scrutiny for Texas camp workers.
“Children are extremely vulnerable, and particularly children who are in a summer camp,” she said. “Don’t you want to . select a camp that has gone through the types of processes that make sure that everyone who has access to your child has had a background check?”
Florida’s lawmakers haven’t ignored camps altogether. On paper, laws requiring stringent FBI background checks appear to cover summer camp workers. But the same laws make no one responsible for enforcing the rules.
“That is a mistake in the legislature not doing that,” said Pam Huddleston, the detective who arrested Melton in his first child sex abuse case in 1987. She now works as a prosecutor in Tennessee. “Somebody dropped the ball. Somebody should have sealed up that loophole a long time ago.”
The state’s chief child-care regulator, the Department of Children and Families, has the power to close camps that don’t comply with background screenings — but only on a complaint basis. Since 2010, DCF has gotten five camp complaints. None resulted in regulators taking punitive action.
Even if required to, DCF couldn’t easily weed out bad operators. The law doesn’t force camps to make themselves known to the state. That would put the burden of finding them on regulators.
Spurred in part by stories published in The Post in 2010, DCF last year mounted an intense public awareness campaign, contacting more than 1,100 camp operators while issuing news releases that sounded a reassuring note for Florida parents.
The effort yielded a list of 582 camps statewide, according to an internal audit obtained by The Post in February.
Even so, the audit found evidence that most camps had ignored screening requirements.
It concluded that, under current law, the agency doesn’t have the power to police summer programs adequately.
Most parents are startled to learn that Florida doesn’t license summer camps. Among them was Gov. Rick Scott, who reacted with surprise.
Told that child molesters were free to find jobs in camps, the governor replied, “How can that happen?”
The answer can be traced to an episode that spawned Florida’s screening laws, to 1984, when a startling sex abuse case played out in Dade County.
In an upscale Miami suburb, the affable Frank Fuster ran a popular day care called the Country Walk Babysitting Service.
Only after he was arrested did it emerge that Fuster previously had been convicted of manslaughter, and of molesting a little girl.
Children told authorities tales of horrific abuse. They said Fuster wore a scare mask as he raped and tortured his tiny victims.
After the attacks, one boy tested positive for gonorrhea in his throat.
Prosecuted by then-Dade State Attorney Janet Reno, Fuster was convicted of rape and molestation. He went to prison for life.
After Country Walk, the legislature in 1985 passed the state’s first background screening law, requiring day-care employees be fingerprinted.
The law evolved into today’s standards: FBI background checks for employees of any “child-care facility,” businesses that are paid to watch more than five children at a time.
The system hinges on licensing, charging DCF with suspending or revoking licenses of operators who don’t obey the rules.
From the start, there was confusion over whether the law applied to summer camps. And in decades that followed, the issue was raised with lawmakers more than half a dozen times.
In the latest instance, in 2010, The Post reported that gaps in screening requirements allowed even child molesters to work in camps.
Responding, a handful of influential state lawmakers — Senate President Mike Haridopolos; Stuart Rep. William Snyder, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee; and Sen. Ronda Storms, head of the Senate’s Children and Families Committee — immediately pledged changes.
Haridopolos said, “We need to quickly close that (loophole) up.” Snyder said guarding the vulnerable is “one of the primary responsibilities of government.” Storms called the lack of action “appalling” and said it made her want to shake someone by the lapels.
But when the legislature met in 2011, nobody brought up camps. Nothing changed.
Today, Melton is locked in a Central Florida prison cell.
If he were freed tomorrow, he couldn’t get a job at a day care, or a school, or a child rec center.
But he easily could find work at another summer program — or open a camp of his own.
(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)