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
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
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 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.
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.