SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
City recreation facilities were overrun this week with children celebrating spring and a welcome break from school. And before long, summer break will have them again filling the city’s fun centers, including the Durango Community Recreation Center.
But in a county where child care options are sometimes limited, some parents are left wondering what age is the right age for children to be left unsupervised at a city recreation facility.
One local mother says the city should be responsible for establishing an age threshold and believes the rec center’s current policies do not protect the children.
“There are too many transient people in this area – it’s a tourist area,” said Ignacio mother Bernadette Dickenson.
Dickenson recently learned the rec center allows children as young as 6 to play and swim in the facilities without an adult present. The lesson came unexpectedly when she learned her 10-year-old daughter was dropped off there without supervision and without her knowledge during a play date.
She feels city staff should have stopped the children at the door.
“I am mortified,” Dickenson said. “These were two little kids who can’t defend themselves against anything. I can’t possibly be the only parent who didn’t know this was considered OK.”
She worries a child could be abducted from the facility, or molested in a locker room. She also questioned how rec center employees would reach her if her child was injured while there.
“There needs to be a better policy,” she said. “It shouldn’t take something bad like a child going missing to address this.”
Cathy Metz, director of the city’s parks and recreation department, said the city doesn’t receive many complaints about the policy. They canvassed other community recreation centers in the state before opening the Durango center in 2002 and found policies allowing children 6 and older to enter without a parent or adult chaperone were common.
Various parents interviewed for this story viewed the rec center’s policy as reasonable, and they said it is not the city’s job to police parental authority.
“Everybody’s kids are different,” rec center visitor Chloe Jackson said this week.
Responsibility for determining if a child should be left unsupervised somewhere should rest with parents, said Jackson, whose children are 9 and 14. City officials should write rules based on the center’s own needs and its ability to provide a safe place for children and families to recreate.
Several other visitors and locals agreed. Most said they felt the city’s rec center is well-staffed and safe for children. Some cautioned, though, that too many unsupervised children could cause the policy to be changed.
“It’s a parent’s decision,” said Adam Koch, a former Durangoan who was visiting his children, ages 4 and 7, who live here with their mother. “I think the rec center is safer than most places in town, but parents have to be smart. It’s not a lifeguard’s responsibility to raise your children, and you shouldn’t be sending a child alone who doesn’t swim well.”
Metz, with the city, said the facility is well-staffed with capable employees. Surveillance cameras and constant cooperation with local police also keeps the center safe, she said. Serious crimes such as child abduction or molestation have never occurred there, she said.
And a policy that allows families to decide when children are ready to be there alone creates benefits communitywide, she said.
It provides a safe gathering place for kids who may not have supervision outside of school, thereby reducing juvenile crime on the city’s streets. And it gives some children more opportunities to participate in sports and extracurricular programs offered at the center, Metz said.
Children sometimes do get injured when their parents aren’t around, she said. But most unsupervised little ones are there with one or more other children. Between the city’s extensive database of current and former customers, and the children’s playmates, they have always been able to reach the injured child’s parents, Metz said. And employees never hesitate to call an ambulance when a child needs medical attention, no matter where the parent is.
“We’re well-staffed,” Metz said. “We watch the kids, so it’s not like they’re unsupervised. That’s why parents feel comfortable.”