Risk Management: Managing the Risk of Sexual Misconduct

by Ed Schirick

Life at camp is truly a microcosm of society. Campers and staff come from all types of backgrounds and experiences. This diversity is what makes the camp experience so special and, simultaneously, so demanding for directors. Managing diversity at camp has become increasingly complex for a variety of reasons, one of which is the issue of sexual misconduct. Sexual misconduct no longer simply includes abuse and molestation of children but a broader spectrum of behaviors, including sexual harassment.

Identifying and Reducing the Risks

The risk management process provides a structure for helping directors cope with sexual misconduct. The first step in the risk management process is risk identification. What are the risks and uncertainties? Unfortunately, during the last ten years exposure to loss has increased. The risk now includes molestation and abuse of campers by adult staff, volunteers, and members of the public. Furthermore, it includes inappropriate sexual behavior between children and between staff and sexual harassment.

To cope with circumstances like these, camp directors should practice risk reduction and risk control. Directors should pay attention to the key areas of staff selection and screening, training, and supervision. Take time to think through your operations. How might an incident of sexual misconduct occur? Where could it happen? What steps can be taken to minimize or eliminate the risk?

Staff selection and screening
As part of your first line of defense, review your selection criteria for counselors and volunteers, if you use them. What qualities, characteristics, skills, and experience are you seeking? Spend time developing a solid profile of individual attributes needed for success in your camp environment. If you don't know what you are looking for in a counselor, how will you know a good one when you see one? Check references from previous employers and personal references. Be sure to document your file. Human resource professionals recommend taking notes separately from the application itself. Conduct a personal interview once you have narrowed the field through other selection criteria.

The complexity of selecting staff is increased for camps that hire foreign counselors. Under these circumstances, the organizations you work with must act on your behalf to discharge appropriate responsibility. Check with them to ensure their methods are acceptable and don't increase your risk.

Criminal background checks
No screening method is perfect, and in spite of your best efforts, you may hire an unsuitable person. Should you conduct a criminal background check on prospective staff and volunteers as an additional safeguard?

Presently, confusion reigns in the United States over the issue of criminal background checks. A majority of the states have passed laws related to this issue. But several states have not addressed it.

What is the law in your state? If you are required to do a criminal background check and don't, you are putting your campers at risk, as well as your business and reputation. Ignorance over this issue could destroy your camp program. If you do not carry out a required criminal background check and someone is injured, you may be charged with willful and wanton neglect and you may not be able to find insurance coverage for sexual misconduct liability. If you are sued for damages, your actions may not be covered by insurance.

If you are not required to do a background check, begin thinking about doing so voluntarily. In addition, get involved with your legislators over this issue. A proactive approach is required in all aspects of this issue.

Criminal background checks are not an option for foreign counselors, as each country has different laws. Getting this information through the counselor placement services may be impossible. However, as criminal background checks become more common in the United States, placement services will need to address it.

Training
Criminal background checks will not uncover all unsuitable persons. Educating and training staff represent the second line of defense against the risks of sexual misconduct. Clear explanation of what is considered sexual misconduct and the consequences for this inappropriate behavior is critical for establishing expectations. A solid training program also gives individuals who may have slipped through the screening process a heightened awareness of your commitment to and intolerance of inappropriate behavior. Policies about sexual harassment and sexual misconduct should be in writing and part of the employee handbook. Consult with a human resources consultant or an attorney who specializes in employment law for exact wording of these policies.

Training should also provide staff with skills to identify the signs of inappropriate behavior and information on what to do about it. Under no circumstances should staff persons attempt to resolve an issue on their own. Your policies should emphasize that the camp director be immediately notified of any and all incidents of sexual misconduct. Staff training should also include information about personal risk management to avoid spurious allegations of inappropriate behavior. Likewise, brief staff about personal safety on days off since the risk of sexual misconduct from members of the public continues to be a big concern for campers and staff alike. Documenting your training program continues to be a high priority. Check with the ACA Bookstore for other training resources.

Supervision
In addition to solid programs for screening and training staff, a comprehensive plan for supervising staff is necessary. Good supervisory programs include a comprehensive program for testing skills and evaluating ability. Do staff persons demonstrate the skills they said they had on their applications? Do they have the skills necessary to successfully complete their jobs? If not, is reassignment an alternative? Do your supervisors randomly visit program areas, bunks, pools, and bathhouses? What kind of training program do you have for your supervisors? Do they have all of the skills they need to help reduce the risks of sexual misconduct? Do you conduct documented performance reviews of all staff so you have a track record of their performance? A well-designed supervisory plan can reduce the risks of sexual misconduct and help make your summer happy and memorable.

Implementing Your Plan

After identifying the risks of sexual misconduct and the methods to reduce, eliminate, and control them, implement your plan. Keep in mind that the risk management process is dynamic. Put mechanisms in place to get feedback on how the plan is working, and evaluate your plan constantly. If the feedback indicates a change is in order, refine your procedures. Continuing to strive to improve your plan is important in reducing the risk of misconduct at your camp.

Originally published in the 1998 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.

 

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