Lessons Learned From Another Year With the ACA Camp Crisis Hotline

In June this year, ACA took a significant step to improve the crisis hotline service we provide to camp professionals. While the service has been offered for twenty years, for the first time, we were able to offer a toll-free number! In addition, to make the service as easy as possible to reach in a crisis, we provided all ACA camps a sticker to place near their phones. With these improvements in service, we saw a significant increase in the number of calls received — approximately a 20 percent increase over last year. Each year, we review the types of calls received and share with camp professionals some of the lessons learned in order to help you prepare for what might happen at your camp in the future. Read through these case studies — talk with your staff about what you would have done in a particular situation and learn from the lessons other camps experienced!

ACA Camp Crisis Hotline Report

While the ACA Camp Crisis Hotline is offered year-round, the majority of calls are received in June, July, and August. In fact, only 14 percent of the calls received this year were in the non-summer months. The busiest time is July with 45 percent of the calls coming in that month. The categories of calls are as follows:

Abuse Allegations

As has been the trend in recent years, the largest percentage of calls we received concern an allegation of child abuse
(22 percent). However, the majority of those calls are not about abuse allegations at camp — instead 47 percent of the calls concerning abuse issues were as a result of a camper revealing that they had been abused at home (or somewhere else that was not associated with the camp). Forty-one percent of the calls concerning abuse issues where allegations of camper-to-camper abuse. The final 12 percent were allegations of staff abuse of a camper.

Lessons Learned

  • Clarification of mandated reporting laws were the most common concern for callers. In fact 59 percent of the callers were confused about mandated reporting. Mandated reporting laws are clear across the states. If you have reason to believe that abuse has occurred, you are mandated by laws to report to the appropriate authorities (usually within twenty-four hours), regardless of whether the abuse was alleged to have happened at your camp. Generally, you should call the authorities in the state where the abuse is alleged to have happened. Thus, if a camper reveals that they have been abused by a family member and that camper is from out-of-state, you should call the state where the camper resides. It is not your role to investigate allegations of abuse. Investigations are best made by trained professionals. If you are unsure of what agency to call to report an allegation of abuse, simply look in your phone book under the blue community pages — the listing should be something similar to "Child Abuse and Neglect." Look up the phone number now. Have it available now — instead of fumbling for it if something does happen. (You can also find the phone numbers online at: www.nccanch.acf.hhs.gov)
     
  • It is not unusual for abused children to reveal at camp that they have been abused in another environment. Many
    children feel safe at camp. They feel that people there care, thus what they might not have revealed at home is sometimes more easily revealed at camp. In these situations, children often say "Please don't tell anyone." You cannot promise them that. Instead you need to assure them that you care and that you must tell the people who can help. You needn't say "the authorities" to the child — this can be intimidating — instead focus on saying "the people who can help."
     
  • Ensure that your policies do not allow for a staff member to be alone with a camper, out of the sight of others.
     
  • Ensure that groups of campers are not alone without staff. A number of the camper-to-camper abuse allegations were alleged to have happened when campers were left unattended. One situation concerned a staff member walking in to a cabin late in the evening to find the campers filming inappropriate acts on a video camera. Could this happen at your camp? What policies are in place that would keep this from happening?

Personnel Issues and Staff Behavior

Twenty-one percent of the calls received this year were related to staff behavior/personnel issues. These ranged from: "Can I hire someone who has a misdemeanor on their record?" to "What do I do if a staff member reveals half-way through the season that she is pregnant?"

Lessons Learned

  • The ACA Camp Crisis Hotline is not a legal hotline. It is important that you have excellent legal counsel and especially someone who is familiar with the employment laws in your state.
     
  • Make sure your employment agreements and policies are clear (again, you need the advice of someone familiar with your state laws) about what behaviors are unacceptable and may result in immediate termination. For example (as happened to one caller this year), if you have a staff member who makes inappropriate racial comments, what would you do? What about a staff member who shows campers inappropriate photographs stored on his or her cell phone?
     
  • Review your staff hiring policies. What are your staff screening systems? Do you perform background checks? What on a returned background check would make the difference in whether you would hire this person or not? Understand the laws in your state. Some states have requirements about what types of previous offenders can and cannot work with children. In addition to state requirements, make sure you have camp requirements. For example, would you hire an individual who was convicted of shoplifting seven years ago? Would it make a difference if you were hiring for the camp store manager job versus a job doing facilities maintenance? Ask yourself these questions now.
     
  • Develop a plan of action to follow if you determine that you need to remove a staff member from camp immediately. Why would you need to immediately remove a staff member? For one caller, he had just heard from the authorities that there was a convicted sex offender on his staff. This camp used a voluntary disclosure statement (and did not perform a background check), and the individual had said "no" to all the arrest and conviction questions.

Camper Behavior

Almost 20 percent of our calls this year concerned camper behavior, including: bullying, threats of suicide, cutting, bad language, and telling sexual jokes.

Lessons Learned

  • It is imperative that your camp have policies about acceptable behavior. A helpful addition is to explain why your camp has chosen those policies. Engage campers in dialogue about your philosophies. Children don't want to just be told "no"; they will respond when you explain the philosophy of your camp, and for example, why bullying is unacceptable. (ACA has excellent resources about bullying issues, visit: www.ACAcamps.org/bullying.)
     
  • Be clear what the ramifications are for the infringement of your camper behavior policies. If you do not intend to send every child home who engages in bullying, then don't say you have a "zero tolerance" policy. If you do allow some leeway and opportunity for teachable moments when a policy is broken, then be fair and consistent in how you deal with each situation. Camp is indeed a time to learn and grow but make sure you've established boundaries. For example, if you catch some campers smoking cigarettes (illegal for them to use) what would you do? Would you do something different if you caught them smoking marijuana? What about if you caught them smoking crystal meth? And the list goes on. Know your threshold for balancing justice versus mercy and equity versus compassion. Talk about these issues with your staff; they will learn and grow as well. These are issues where each camp's philosophy may vary. There is not a single "right" answer. The more exploration and discussion your staff have to establish boundaries, the better.

Medical Issues

Medically related questions totaled 16 percent of the Hotline calls this year. Generally, most of the questions were not of a "crisis" nature. However, if you are not prepared for say — an outbreak of lice — you feel you are in crisis mode. ACA's Hotline is not a medical hotline, however, we can provide you with information to connect you to resources that can help you deal with medically related issues. Know that ACA is not a replacement for professional medical advice. Have advisors lined up now — before something happens. Among the medical concerns this year were: Lice (18 percent), Scabies (18 percent), Hepatitis B prevention, eating disorders, and unknown viruses causing flu-like symptoms. A statistic that was higher than previous years was that 27 percent of the medically related calls concerned the potential pregnancy of a camper.

Lessons Learned

  • Identify medical advisors. You need experts to talk to if an unusual medical concern arises. Know that there is a lot of excellent information available to you to help you understand a whole range of medical issues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov) has an excellent Web site that ACA Hotline staff frequently use as a reference.
     
  • Talk through this case study with your staff — What would you do if a camper reveals that she thinks she is pregnant? What are the laws in your state? Can your nurse administer a pregnancy test if requested by the child — the child who insists that they don't want their parents to know? What if the camper is taking other medication and says, "I cannot take that now — I think I am pregnant — but don't tell my parents?" These are the difficult questions a number of callers had to talk through. The most important lesson is that it is critical that you understand the laws in your state and have already identified what you might do if this should arise.

Death of a Camper or Staff Member

This year, we were made aware of eight situations of the death of a camper or staff member. (Not all of these calls came through the Hotline – some were simply made known to us through other communications.) Four of the seven situations involved the death of a staff member: one was an elderly, ill staff member who passed away after spending significant time in the hospital; three involved car accidents whereby a staff member off duty was killed. The two situations we are aware of that resulted in the death of a camper were: 1) a tree limb from an apparently healthy tree fell unexpectedly on a group of campers and killed one, and 2) a camper and flight instructor were killed when their plane plunged into a lake. One situation caused the death of a staff member and a camper — a brother and sister — they were driving home from day camp and were killed in a auto accident. Another case is the accidental deaths of four adults during set-up of a camp event.

Lessons Learned

  • Know the resources available to you. There are excellent grief professionals available virtually everywhere. These professionals can help you think about issues such as: should/could we have a memorial service, how should the belongings of those killed be respectfully returned to family, how do you share information about the accident with campers, staff, media, others? One excellent reference that is used frequently by the ACA Hotline Staff is a manual prepared by Grief Recovery, Inc. (www.griefrecovery.ws/index.htm).
     
  • Develop and follow a plan for the assessment and maintenance of your natural resources (including trees, water features, soil, etc.). The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service has excellent resources. Visit their site at: www.nrcs.usda.gov.

Parent Behavior

While only a small percentage of our calls were about the behavior of parents, there are still important lessons to be learned:

Lessons Learned

  • What would you do if you determined that a camper needed to be sent home and a parent refused to come and pick up their child? What if you offered to bring the child home and the parent still refused? If keeping the child at camp is not an option, then what do you do? While this is a rare event, it has happened a number of times over the last few years. It begs the question, if the parent absolutely refuses to get their child and also will not let the child be taken home, what are your options? From a purely technical standpoint, this is an "abandoned child," but is calling the police/social services in the best interest of the child? What if this child was so detrimental to your camp that he or she absolutely cannot stay? An important prevention measure is to make sure parents clearly understand your camp policies and what would cause a camper to be asked to leave. Have all families agree that if the child must be sent home the parents cannot say "no, we are on vacation and don't want to come and get him/her."
     
  • What if you run a day camp on public property and a parent keeps "dropping by" at lunch time to "have lunch" with their child? This parent insists that "nothing happens at camp during lunch, so I am not disrupting anything." Share with the parent how important the meal times are to your camp experience — both in building the community of your camp and in teaching independence to the campers. If your camp policies don't allow for unscheduled parent visits, make sure the policy and the reasoning behind the policy are clear.

Accidents

While only 6 percent of our calls involved non-fatal accidents, these types of situations can cause the most panic to the unprepared. How do you prepare for the weird "flukes" that happen (for example, you share a public lake with others and an unmanned boat from somewhere else comes careening toward your group)? Well, sometimes you cannot. The important thing to do is to have an accident response plan of action.

Lessons Learned

  • While you cannot conceive of every possible situation, you can certainly group "risks" by categories such as acts of nature (have a flood-evacuation plan if there is any risk at all in your camp); physical injury accidents; and business processes (your computers with all your data suddenly crash) — what risk management plans do you have in place?

Miscellaneous

The remainder of our Hotline calls ranged from things such as: "My camp is opening on Monday, and I still don't have insurance" to "A parent says that they have a restraining order against the other parent and is telling me not to release the camper to the other parent at the end of the day — what do I do since both names are on the approval list?"

Final Thoughts

A final lesson we learn over and over is what we might call the "front page test." Many times callers want to talk about something that happened and ask whether they should tell their camp families about it . . . and how to tell people about it if they do. The discussion we always have with camp professionals goes something like this . . . . "If you prepare key messages about the incident and are the first to talk about it, then you have the ability to tell the true story. If you don't, someone else will do it for you and then you have no control over the messages being shared. What ends up on the front page of the newspaper will always overshadow the retraction or letters to the editor page usually found in the back of the paper in eight-point type!"

We look forward to continuing to serve camps in need through our Camp Crisis Hotline. The Hotline is available twenty-four hours a day every day. Simply phone 800-573-9019.

Originally published in the 2005 Fall issue of The CampLine.
 

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