Baldwin County’s Residential Wilderness Camp in Lottie, where a 15-year-old male camper allegedly sexually assaulted an employee in December, will reopen on Wednesday.
On Dec. 22, authorities arrested the camper for rape. An investigation revealed that the victim observed the 15-year-old walking alone on a nature trail next to one of the buildings at the camp. Authorities say when the victim approached the suspect in the woods she was sexually assaulted.
The juvenile suspect was arrested on scene and has been subsequently charged with second-degree assault and first-degree rape.
At its meeting Tuesday, the Baldwin County Commission voted 3-1 to reopen the camp, which had been closed since the incident. Camp employees will return Wednesday for training, and female campers will return later this week. Male campers will begin to return to the camp Monday.
In voting against reopening the camp, Commissioner Chris Elliott said the county should take a hard look at its spending priorities this year. Elliott said more than $100,000 per day is invested in the camp. According to the information on the Baldwin County Commission web site, the camp “helps struggling teens transition their lives in a more meaningful and positive direction.”
Elliott said he is concerned about rushing to reopen the camp without first having discussions about new policies and procedures to protect county employees from serious incidents with students.
The facility recently underwent a $1.9 million renovation to allow for housing both male and female juveniles. It has a 16-bed facility for females and can house 32 males in a different building on site.
“I want the commission to have a bigger discussion about the overall cost of this facility,” Elliott said. “I don’t doubt there are a number of success stories that have come out of the program, but at some point the commission needs to acknowledge the cost.”
Program director Jennifer Lee said she has met with staff and is ready to get back to work. She suggested letting the female juveniles return to the camp this week, while phasing the boys back in beginning on Monday.
“I think staff is ready to get back to work,” Lee said. “This is a situation where getting back on the bike sooner than later will be more healthy for everyone. The longer you stress and think about it the more anxiety that accumulates.”
Judge Carmen Bosch, who hears juvenile cases in Baldwin County’s Circuit Court, said many of the youths at the camp would have few options if the county stopped funding the program. She said recent legislative changes — like the state’s 2008 Juvenile Justice Act — have made it more difficult to find placement for juveniles who wind up in court for non-delinquent offenses.
“This is a group of juveniles that would otherwise not have a means to receive this sort of treatment if not for this facility,” Bosch said.
Bosch suggested the county could reconsider the vetting process for juveniles who are sent to the camp but said there would be no way to completely prevent incidents from happening there. She also said that just because the children at the camp don’t have delinquencies on their records, that doesn’t mean they haven’t broken the law before.
Commissioner Tucker Dorsey said the commission will discuss the camp’s policies and safety issues at a Jan. 26 work session.
“This incident has caused us to take a comprehensive look at the program,” he said.
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