Risk Management: Lessons Learned

by Ed Schirick

Our society continues to wrestle with how to protect our children from the injuries and agonies of sexual abuse and molestation. In spite of significant efforts by individuals and government at the local, state, and federal level, abuse and molestation of children continues to be a crime against all of us. Statistics have revealed that most abuse and molestation of children takes place in the home, often committed by a family member known to the child. In addition, there continue to be incidents of abuse and molestation of children reported in our schools, day care facilities, religious organizations, institutions and organizations serving youth, and in organized camping.

I recently took time to recall some incidents of sexual abuse and molestation of campers that have occurred in camps and youth organizations in the recent past. I wonder if there are any patterns in these incidents from which we might learn valuable risk-management lessons.

Case #1

One case involved a resident camp. The director hired a young man in his mid-twenties as a counselor. The director checked references, but did not conduct a personal interview. The counselor was employed at camp for two summers. During this time, no incidents involving this person occurred. Performance reviews seemed to indicate this person was an ideal counselor.

In fact, the counselor stayed in touch with a couple of the boys from his bunk during the balance of the year. The director thought this was great and that it showed commitment to the family atmosphere and community spirit he was trying to build at camp; however, the counselor had ulterior motives. He befriended one of the campers who didn't live far from where he lived. He developed a relationship with the child and with the child's parents all designed to take advantage, abuse, and molest the child. The counselor was such a powerful persuader that he convinced the child's parents to allow him to be alone with their son, take him to baseball games, and on similar day trips.

One odd aspect to this incident is there was no evidence that the perpetrator abused the child at camp. However, abundant evidence proved the former counselor abused and molested the child at home. The parents eventually became suspicious as they noticed changes in their son's behavior. The former counselor was arrested and convicted. He is in jail.

As soon as the criminal matter was concluded, the director was confronted with angry parents who held him responsible for the agony and injury their son suffered. They felt that if their son hadn't been introduced to this man at camp, no abuse would have taken place. The director and the camp were sued in civil court for monetary damages to compensate the camper for his injuries and anguish.

Lessons learned
This case has several lessons for directors, head counselors, and other supervisors at camp. First, the single most effective staff screening tool available for directors, according to research conducted by the American Bar Association, is a personal interview. The director did not conduct one in this instance. Perhaps it would have resulted in a different hiring decision, which might have prevented the whole incident. Perhaps not.

However, one thing is certain. The director or one of the director's associates should conduct personal interviews for all staff, including returning staff, using questions formatted to identify undesirable characteristics and behavior patterns.

Second, it would now appear necessary to make parents aware that any contact between a camper and a counselor following camp could be inappropriate. This probably seems like an assault on one of the values of the camp experience, long-lasting friendship. But, in my opinion, these kinds of warnings are necessary in our society today. I think it is important to remind the parents that it is their responsibility to know who their children are in contact with - whether in person, by phone, or on the Internet.

Case #2

Another incident involved a day camp. A counselor was interviewed by the camp director and hired for a position with the seven-and-eight-year-old group. The counselor was a young man in his mid-twenties. The camp director ran a criminal background check on the counselor and determined he had no criminal record.

After a complete training program, which included an open discussion about the camp's concerns and program for preventing abuse and molestation of campers, the counselor was assigned to his group. He did a fine job. Campers and parents liked him. Because he was a first-year counselor, the director asked his head counselor to keep an eye on him. The head counselor did as he was asked, and everything appeared to be fine.

A couple of months later, the director was shocked to read in the newspaper that the young man who had worked at his camp that summer had been arrested for abusing and molesting two children he had been hired to watch in a "nanny" position for a local family. Even more upsetting was the discovery in the newspaper article that the young man was a fugitive from an adjoining state where he had been arrested and put on probation for previously molesting a child. The counselor moved, changed his name, and obtained a falsified driver's license, social security number, and other documentation, which concealed his past.

An investigation revealed that none of the campers this counselor worked with at camp was molested.

Lessons learned
Was it good luck or good supervision that saved the director of that day camp? Maybe a little bit of both. Experience has shown us that next to personal interviews, increasing staff awareness, staff and supervisory training, and comprehensive supervision are among the more effective tools for minimizing the risks of sexual abuse and molestation of campers. Creating a safe environment for campers also requires hard work and vigilance.

Even a criminal background check in this case failed to identify this predator. Criminal background checks are not a panacea. As this case demonstrates, criminals can find ways to circumvent methods designed to catch them. That is why directors should not rely on the results of these checks alone. Criminal background checks are only one of the tools to be used in creating the kind of environment where children can grow and learn safely. More states are passing legislation requiring camps to conduct criminal background checks on staff. What are the latest developments in your state? Get involved! Be vigilant!

The ACA Bookstore has many publications, videos, and audio tapes to help you refresh your plan for managing these risks. Check out their latest titles. Use these resources and take the time now to review your risk-management plan - while you can still calmly do so.

Originally published in the 1999 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.