In the Trenches: Staff-to-Camper Communication Guidelines

In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter

Dear Bob,
We have a veteran staff member who is excellent with children. He is a school guidance counselor known for his good work with students. He doesn't seem to have a strong peer group apart from the youth he spends time with, and he is constantly creating opportunities to befriend boys through the ski trips, concerts, church fellowships, and other outings he takes with them. He has on more than one occasion invited small groups of boys to stay over at his house, which has raised concern with parents that may or may not have been brought to the attention of the school.

What should our response be to the parent from his school who also has a connection to camp and has inquired about this staff member?

— Concerned at Camp

Dear Concerned,
The issue of staff contact with campers off-season is being raised by directors all over the country. With increased use of the Internet and Instant Messaging (IM), communication between campers and counselors has increased dramatically in the last few years, creating a need for a well-thought-out policy or set of guidelines regarding this contact. I will respond to your specific question about your staff member and use it to address this broader concern.

The staff member you describe has some characteristics that raise my concern. Having what seems like stronger ties to boys than to his peers — coupled with what would appear to be a social-emotional life that centers on young boys — are both classic warning signs. You did not say whether he was married or in a relationship, but if he is single, it would only be another indicator that he has not developed a close, intimate bond with someone his own age.

Having highlighted these patterns, I hasten to add that none of these realities are evidence that he is doing anything inappropriate with the boys he spends time with. Everyone who enjoys working with youth gets a certain amount of emotional fulfillment from doing so. In the overall scheme of things, it is part of what ensures that children will get the care and attention they need from adults to thrive.

However, the man you describe has no apparent adult outlet for his intimacy needs, and away from camp (or school) there is not the structure or presence of other adults to keep things in balance. In this regard, this man is taking a risk in that he is leaving himself open to becoming emotionally over-involved with the boys whose company he keeps — which could result in hurt feelings, inappropriate intimate behavior (IIB), or an accusation, true or false, of an IIB. For these reasons, it is no surprise that several parents have been concerned about boys sleeping over at this man's house. At this point, I can hear my readers asking the same question that is on my mind, which is, where are the parents of the boys who are staying over? It seems to me their children's well-being is at some risk — a risk the parents must at least share — if they are being allowed to participate in these sleepovers.

You also never mentioned exactly what your camper parent's question was about this man, but let's assume it is a general question about his appropriateness with boys. What you will say is that he is great with kids and that you are lucky to have him at camp. You will add that you do not condone outings between staff members and campers outside of camp not so much because you don't trust the people you hire, but because such outings do not have the built-in structure and safeguards of camp, which includes the presence of other campers and multiple adults. You might throw in the camper-to-staff ratio required by the American Camp Association Standards, which is a way of ensuring that proper supervision of children and adults is maintained — and that such a ratio would probably not be maintained once outside of the purview of camp. You might also say that as a general rule you do not recommend that parents allow their children to go on such outings, again because the kind of supervision or structure you have at camp would not be present. You will emphasize, of course, that this is the policy you have with regard to any staff member, not just this particular man.

The Internet Connection

Many camp professionals have spoken to me about their concerns of post-season communication and contact between campers and staff being fueled by the exchange of e-mail and IM addresses at camp. Some of this contact may be very positive, as it helps keep the nourishing experiences campers have at camp alive and helps maintain their connection to camp.

However, as with any such communication, there is the challenge of oversight — one can never be exactly sure what is being communicated or whether that communication is appropriate. I wouldn't always count on campers to tell their parents if the communication became inappropriate. For this reason, I recommend that e-mail exchanges between campers and staff be allowed only with the awareness and approval of the camper's parents. I suggest this policy be communicated to the staff both at the beginning of the summer and several days before the end of each session. I suggest campers and camper parents be informed of this policy both before and after camp. What you say is that you hand pick your staff and you stand by their ability to care properly for campers — in camp! That outside camp you cannot guarantee that the kind of supervision, oversight, or program structure will be present. Parents should also be made to understand that staff members do not represent camp once the season is over (unless, of course, they are full-time employees of the camp doing camp business).

Shift the Burden

What I am doing with this policy is shifting the burden of responsibility and oversight of campers back to their parents. If parents wish to allow their children to have contact with camp staff after camp, whether by e-mail or in person, you can not stop them. However, you can make it clear that they, not you, are then responsible for whatever occurs as a result. You, after all, have no way of knowing how the relationship between a staff member and a camper will develop outside of camp.

Sensible Guidelines

As in the case of your veteran staff member, if parents do decide to allow their children to see or have contact with camp staff outside of camp, you might, after clarifying that parents do so against your advice, suggest they at least follow some guidelines in such instances. Those guidelines would include no one-on-one outings between a child and an adult. In other words, other people should be included in any such outing, preferably another adult.

It would also be inadvisable for a child to sleep over at a staff member's house, and if a staff member were invited by the family to stay at the home of a camper, he or she should be in a separate room and not with the child. In the case of the boys from school staying at their guidance counselor's home, those parents (and the guidance counselor himself) are taking a risk. At minimum there should be other adults present, and the boys should sleep in a room separate from the adults. It should also be made clear that by recommending these guidelines, which is optional on your part, you are not implying in any way that you or camp then takes responsibility for whatever does or does not happen.

The safety of campers is and should be a top priority for all camp professionals — one in which camper parents share.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He supervises content for Bunk1.com and can be reached via e-mail at BobDitter1@aol.com or by fax at 617-572-3373. “In the Trenches” is sponsored by American Income Life Insurance.

Originally published in the 2005 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.

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