A Partnership of Caring: Working Together to Protect Children

by Marge Scanlin, ACA Staff

Scare headlines and emotional media coverage almost always follow tragic situations that involve children — fires, car accidents, drownings, abuse, disabling injury, or death.

Soul-searching and a reaffirmation to vigilance usually follow tragic situations that involve children as well. These are mature responses to situations we hear about from our colleagues whether they involve children, adults, guests on our site, or our staff and family members.

There has been considerable media coverage of several incidents over the spring season, and, undoubtedly, more headlines will appear before your camp year ends.

In responding to parents asking questions this spring, we at ACA have found ourselves repeating the Partnership of Caring concept. This represents an opportunity for parents and camp professionals to work as partners in the development of our participants and staff.

The messages below appear on the parents’ page of the ACA Web site (www.ACAcamps.org/parents/). We want you to know what we are saying to parents and what questions we are telling them to ask you. In our years of talking with parents, these are the issues they have expressed as concerns.

Why not draft answers to these questions and leave them posted by the phone for those who answer parents’ questions? And why not talk with your staff about what it means to partner with parents in the positive development of their child?

A Parents’ Guide to Child Protection Issues and Camp

Child Protection — A Parents’ Primary Concern!
More than one in ten teens aged twelve through seventeen used illicit drugs in 1999, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Many youth experiment with and use alcohol. Gun violence has jumped in our schools. Newspapers highlight allegations of sexual abuse or experimentation. This alarming news leaves parents wondering where their children will be safe.

No institution of society (churches, schools, youth programs, camps, families) has an impenetrable safety net from the ills of society. However, parents can take steps to assure themselves that all reasonable precautions have been taken to provide an environment that make safety for children the top priority.

Parents and camps can form a Partnership of Caring that will help camps stay vigilant and will help parents feel comfortable that their children are participating in programs whose sponsors keep child protection at the forefront.
We urge every parent to ask the day or resident camp directors to whom they entrust their children these questions.

1. Tell me how you screen staff.
The American Bar Association’s Center for Children and the Law recommends that organizations rely on more than one means to identify child predators. All youth organizations should institute a number of screening procedures that evaluate the background of applicants and their acceptability to work with youth.

Look for an immediate sensitivity from the director for your concern for a safe atmosphere for your child. Directors should explain if they use criminal background checks and why or why not. (Be aware that some states do not give access to background checks for camp directors.) Ask about screening procedures used for return staff.

Directors should explain WHAT ELSE they do — such as face-to-face interviews, character references with non-relatives, work history checks.

2. Tell me what training your staff receives in the prevention of child abuse.
Directors should quickly and easily explain their discipline policies, policies about staff being alone with a single child, policies related to training staff in the definition of and criminal penalties for abuse, and camp policies concerning suspension or termination related to allegations or proof of abuse. Directors should be able to quickly and confidently tell you what the state law is concerning the reporting of abuse — who is a mandated reporter and to whom would they report?

What training does staff receive in the recognizing and reporting abuse or other situations that give rise to concern? How are they trained to deal with such situations?

You may ask particularly about the supervision of “free time,” of overnight activities, or of cabin/group dressing and changing times. Are multiple staff present? Are children informed of persons to whom they can report behavior that makes them uncomfortable?

3. Tell me what supervision your staff receives in the performance of their duties.
Directors should explain the supervision procedures for staff. Do staff supervisors rotate through cabins and activities unannounced? Are counselors’ on-the-job skills observed, and is in-service training provided as needed?

4. What methods do you use to make your staff sensitive to the needs and concerns of children?
Look for directors who verbalize specific training for staff in understanding children’s needs, training to immediately stop abusive, hazing, or damaging behaviors and relationships among children. Seek directors who provide training and supervision for staff to use language and activities that do not belittle children or minorities, that develop an atmosphere of caring.

Directors should identify training methods and guidelines that help staff work effectively and appropriately with children.

5. What experience and background do the staff have who supervise children?
At least 80 percent of staff should be a minimum age of eighteen. Those younger should always be at least two years older than youth they supervise. Ask if younger staff-in-training (sometimes called CIT’s or counselors-in-training) are ever left in charge of campers by themselves. It is recommended there always be an adult (at least eighteen) present and supervising.

6. Tell me about your policies on parent-camper communication while in camp.
Under what circumstances will the camp director call you? Will you be called if your child needs to stay in the camp health lodge overnight or leave camp to see a doctor? If your child seems unhappy? If your child is running a fever? Can you send and receive e-mails from your child? Can you call and talk to your child during his/her time at camp? Know that many camps understand the important developmental tasks of childhood — the task of learning to live apart from one’s parents for a short time when under good supervision. They may encourage no direct contact during the session for that reason. There isn’t a single right answer. It is important that you feel comfortable with the director’s responses and assurances that you will be contacted if the situation appropriately requires it.

7. Ask for references from the camp and call those parents!
Ask other parents about the experiences of their children at the camp. Find out if the children seemed comfortable in talking about their experiences with staff and campers and if they are returning next summer. Ask if parents were pleased with the communication they received from the camp. Ask what communication was received. Ask these parents for the names of other parents and children who may have attended the camp.

Camps and parents need to form a Partnership of Caring to help assure the positive development of young people as they transition from childhood to adulthood. Many developmental tasks are in this period, and camps provide an excellent framework to accomplish this important work of childhood.

We urge PARENTS not to assume that just because a camp is sponsored by an organization with which they are familiar or just because their child’s friend went to this camp and had fun that everything will be fine. Ask directors these questions and choose a director and camp whose answers make sense to you . . . a director and camp who convince you that they are partnering with you for the positive development of your child!

Camp experiences have been magical, productive, positive, and growing experiences for millions of children. We want that to be true for your child!


Originally published in the 2001 Spring issue of The CampLine.