Parents Never Dreamed Sending Their Kid to Camp La Junta Would Turn into a Sexual Abuse Nightmare

An 11-year-old sent to summer camp returns to his family with a horrible secret.

"I should have come to pick you up. I'm sorry. I feel like I failed you," she said.

Mark dropped his head and looked away.

"You did," he said.

Kelly didn't realize Mark was being watched by Blake Smith, the camp director, and Matthew Bovee, the counselor who was molesting him, when her son called her.
Illustration by Peter Ryan
Kelly didn't realize Mark was being watched by Blake Smith, the camp director, and Matthew Bovee, the counselor who was molesting him, when her son called her.
Bovee used shower checks to touch Mark in increasingly inappropriate ways. Mark didn't tell his parents about the abuse until months later.
Illustration by Peter Ryan
Bovee used shower checks to touch Mark in increasingly inappropriate ways. Mark didn't tell his parents about the abuse until months later.

That same summer, Camp Stewart, one of the oldest camps in the area, located down the road from La Junta, had a case of abuse. Counselor Scott Zirus was charged with and eventually convicted of sexual abuse. When the story broke, Smith sent an email out to all Camp La Junta parents with the point of the message in bold letters: "Camp La Junta is NOT the camp involved."

Smith's letters to parents took on a different tone when he was writing about his own camp after police started investigating Bovee in May 2010. First the letters went to Mark's parents and to the parents of everyone else in Cabin 6, reassuring them in soothing language that he had everything under control. In every letter sent out about Bovee before his conviction, Smith wrote that the camp stood firmly behind the victim, but he usually noted that the abuse claim was just an accusation or that Bovee was maintaining his innocence.
_____________________

After Bovee was arrested in fall 2010, Smith sent out a letter to every parent of a child who had had Bovee as a counselor, including Mark's parents, declaring that after a thorough investigation, he was sure their son was not the boy who had been molested. The lawyer and Mark's parents say Smith never sent a letter informing parents that Bovee was convicted of endangerment to a child in a deal with the assistant district attorney. Bovee was required to abide by sex-offender rules — no contact with children and no alcohol, firearms, pornography or unmonitored access to a computer — and would be on probation for ten years, but he would never have to register as a sex offender.

Sexual abuse of a child can shape much of how that child grows up and sees the world, Megan Mooney, a psychologist who specializes in this type of trauma at the DePelchin Children's Center in Houston, said. An abuser will start out by grooming a child, doing things to earn the child's trust and touching him or her in increasingly inappropriate ways as the predator closes in. "The special attention often feels good, but when it crosses that boundary over into sexually explicit behavior, they can get confused," Mooney said. "Children's brains aren't designed to understand that."

According to Mooney, the effects of abuse are wide-ranging, depending on the severity of the abuse and how long it lasted, with many victims blaming themselves and believing there was something they did that made the abuse happen. "Unfortunately, sexual abuse is often perpetrated by someone a child knows. That can make it even more devastating if it was an adult that was supposed to be someone who they knew and trusted and who was supposed to care for them," Mooney said. The immediate aftermath of abuse can show up in behavior, changes in how victims interact with friends, in how they do in school, she said. They might show a lot of anxiety and fear and start having nightmares, she noted. A trigger in the memory — specific settings, sounds, smells, someone who looks like the abuser — can leave victims panicked and watchful, she said. "They become very worried about future relationships and about trusting people in the future, because someone they were supposed to be able to trust abused them."

This can also persist through the years as victims mature and develop. "We always try and prepare kids and teens and their parents to watch out for coming developmental stages and further anxieties," Mooney said. "It can be difficult to form the levels of emotional and sexual intimacy. Some kids are extraordinarily afraid and fearful, while others are too free."

People can get past it, Mooney said. In those first days, it's key that when the child speaks out about abuse, people believe him or her. "Someone has done something horrible to this child, so they need to feel loved and supported and believed," she said. Support and connections that are healthy with family and friends will do a lot to help counter the effects of abuse, she said. "People can get past sexual abuse, and the wonderful thing about children is they are very resilient, but it takes work," Mooney said.

That was what John, a Houston man, was worrying about just after he learned his son had been abused in 2004 at Camp Balcones Springs in Marble Falls. It was the final day of camp, and all the children and their parents were there for the closing ceremonies, held in a field. The sun glittered down, and the light was so sharp and clear it hurt John's eyes. He looked around at all the families and wondered at the odds that the abuse had happened to his son. Feeling helpless, he started looking for something to do about it.

The criminal case went to trial, though it had to be retried in a different county after the jury deadlocked. Once John knew the counselor was safely in prison, he started looking at the law. The concept of laws protecting children from sexual abuse at all is quite new — it's been around only since the 1970s. However, John learned there was almost no legislation governing summer camps in Texas or most other states. The Texas Department of State Health Services oversees the camps, and at the time that meant making sure they followed health codes so children wouldn't catch diseases. But there was nothing about sexual abuse in the camps, or even anything about training counselors to watch for the red flags that could indicate a predator in their midst.

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21 comments
springs.vicki
springs.vicki

Before you judge a person,or tell a story you should hear the other side of the story to especially when you are hearing a side that is coming from a compulsive liar...

mom2011
mom2011

I love my children very much, AND I send them to camp - THIS camp, for nine years in a row now.  As I type this, one of my sons is till there, and my other son recently returned from his first term there as a counselor, following seven great years of camp experience.  It's heart-breaking that this happened to this poor child, but to blame the entire institution of summer camp, and to label any parent that sends their child to camp as neglectful, uncaring, or insensitive, is absurd.  Sadly, abuse happens in schools, parks, churches, scout troops, and locker rooms too, but do we jump on parents and blame them for neglectfully and uncaringly putting their children in harm's way by sending them to any of those places?  Having had children at this camp when this incident happened, knowing what the camp's staff did in follow up for months afterwards to make sure it hadn't happened to other campers (one of my sons was in the same cabin as this child, with this same counselor), and knowing the precautions they have put in place to protect the campers and train the staff, I am confident that this may well be one of the SAFEST camps a child could attend at this point.  We will always have to be vigilant in protecting our children, and predators will always be out there.  Summer camp is one of many choices parents can make among potential activities for their children.  For mine, it has been one of the most valuable experiences they have had.  I don't insist that parents who chose not to send their children to camp are doing the wrong thing, and for readers to suggest that I am an unloving parent by choosing to send mine to camp is equally ignorant.  And, to suggest that this camp, which continues to provide great, and in some cases life-changing, experiences for more than 500 children each summer should be categorically "shut down" over the actions of one sick person is like suggesting that every school, church, activity center, youth athletic league, etc., in which a predator has managed to slip through the cracks, should be shut down. 

And BTW, the counselors, and senior-level campers, almost all have sporting/utility knives in their pockets or hooked on their belt, at all times.  It is a tool they are carefully trained to use, in their day to day responsibilities as outdoorsmen and ranch hands.  The campers see them in use throughout every day. To sensationalize that detail in this story is incredibly misleading.

myhealthtoo
myhealthtoo

don't send your kids to camp if you love them!!!!

over55phillips
over55phillips

What do we have to do keep kids from these kind of people! I don't have kids, but what I'm 

is a person who whose raped. And I get mad as hell when a child goes though the same 

thing that I went though. And I praise the parents who shows love & care for not just for they kids, but for other kids


sp91546
sp91546

Nice article. Well done. So does anybody know the status of the camp?

Thanks

Rodney Barnes
Rodney Barnes

I stopped after page 2. If children are not off-limits to these scum, then they shouldn't be off limits to the victims family.

Ken Cornelius
Ken Cornelius

read this on the bus this afternoon. Guy next to me saw the front page and asked to read it afterwards. All my youth was mad at my mom for not letting me go to camp. Now I completely understand why.

robinvtx
robinvtx

heart wrenching story of the evil that goes on every day in this ugly world. 

falcon130013
falcon130013

This sick person needs prison time this child needs help.

pgc77099
pgc77099

I feel so sorry for Mark. I pray he can get through this, and bless his loving mother who put herself in the middle to get this story public.

Jerise Harris-Henson
Jerise Harris-Henson

Ugh, how awful. I hope this family gets justice and this camp is shut down.

Elisa Flores
Elisa Flores

Very very sad...makes me thankful that I couldnt afford to send my son to camp when he was younger...plus being that far away for a week is just too much for me, i need to know and see for my own eyes that my son is ok.

sarahperry24
sarahperry24

Beautifully written. I'm glad someone wrote about this so that poor child can hopefully have justice. Well done, Houston Press and Dianna Wray.

Katy Parks
Katy Parks

Records are always clean until it happens. They have to be caught to have it show up in their record. Until they're caught it doesn't mean it's not happening. Scary and disgusting that people do this.

Kelley Jones Workman
Kelley Jones Workman

Camp Cho Yea in Livingston Tx has a very clean record. But this makes me think twice.

Daniel Rex
Daniel Rex

Trust me Boy Scouts and Christian camps are not innocent of these things happening either. Please guard your children

 
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