While the ACA Camp Crisis Hotline (800-573-9019) is offered year-round, the majority of calls are received in June, July, and August. Now is a good time to understand how to make the best use of this service available to all ACA camps. It is important to remember the hotline is not a medical, insurance, or legal advice hotline, but it does serve as an "ear" to help you talk through your crisis. The hotline staff can help you think of issues and questions and identify other resources that can assist you.
What can you do when a crisis arises? While the hotline is there to assist you in times of need, there are some things you can consider ahead of time. Based on calls taken last year, several issues tend to have more frequency in being reported to ACA. Following are lessons we can all learn from:
- Mandated reporting laws are clear across the states — if you have reason to believe that abuse has occurred, you are mandated by laws to report to the appropriate authorities (usually within twenty-four hours) — regardless of whether the abuse was alleged to have happened at your camp. Generally, you should call the authorities in the state where the abuse is alleged to have happened. Thus, if a camper reveals that they have been abused by a family member and that camper is from out-of-state, you should call the state where the camper resides. It is not your role to investigate allegations of abuse. Investigations are best made by trained professionals. If you are unsure of what agency to call to report an allegation of abuse, simply look in your phone book under the blue community pages — the listing should be something similar to "Child Abuse and Neglect." Look up the phone number now. Have it available now — instead of fumbling for it if something does happen. You can also find the phone numbers online at: www.nccanch.acf.hhs.gov/pubs/reslist/rl_dsp.cfm?rs_id
- Ensure that your policies do not allow for a staff member to be alone with a camper, out of the sight of others.
- Ensure that groups of campers are not alone without staff. A number of the camper-to-camper abuse allegations were alleged to have happened when campers were left unattended. One situation concerned a staff member walking in to a cabin late in the evening to find the campers filming inappropriate acts on a video camera. Could this happen at your camp? What policies are in place that would keep this from happening?
- Make sure your employment agreements and policies are clear (again — you need the advice of someone familiar with your state laws) about what behaviors are unacceptable and may result in immediate termination. For example (as happened to one caller this year) if you have a staff member who makes inappropriate racial comments — what would you do? What about a staff member who shows campers inappropriate photographs stored on his or her cell phone?
- Review your staff hiring policies. What are your staff screening systems? Do you perform background checks? What on a returned background check would make the difference in hireability? Understand the laws in your state. Some states have requirements about what types of previous offenders can and cannot work with children. In addition to state requirements, make sure you have camp requirements. For example, would you hire an individual who was convicted of shoplifting seven years ago? Would it make a difference if you were hiring for the camp store manager job versus a job doing facilities maintenance? Ask yourself these questions now.
- Develop a plan of action to follow if you determine that you need to remove a staff member from camp immediately. Why would you need to immediately remove a staff member? For one ACA Hotline caller, he had just heard from the authorities that there was a convicted sex offender on his staff. This camp used a voluntary disclosure statement (and did not perform a background check) and the individual had said "no" to all the arrest and conviction questions.
- It is imperative that your camp have policies about acceptable behavior. A helpful addition is to explain why your camp has chosen those policies. Engage campers in dialogue about your philosophies. Children don't want to just be told "no." They will respond when you explain the philosophy of your camp. For example, explaining why bullying is unacceptable. (ACA has excellent resources about bullying issues, visit: www.ACAcamps.org/bullying/ ).
- Be clear what the ramifications are for the infringement of your camper behavior policies. If you do not intend to send every child home who engages in bullying — then don't say you have a "zero tolerance" policy. If you do allow some leeway and opportunity for teachable moments when a policy is broken, then be fair and consistent in how you deal with each situation. Camp is indeed a time to learn and grow, but make sure you've established boundaries. For example, if you catch some campers smoking cigarettes (illegal for them to use) what would you do? Would you do something different if you caught them smoking marijuana? What about if you caught them smoking crystal meth? And the list goes on. Know your threshold for balancing justice versus mercy and equity versus compassion. Talk about these issues with your staff — they will learn and grow as well. These are issues where each camp's philosophy may vary. There is not a single "right" answer. The more exploration and discussion your staff have to establish boundaries, the better.
- Identify medical advisors. You need experts to talk to if an unusual medical concern arises. Know that there is a lot of excellent information available to you to help you understand a whole range of medical issues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov ) has an excellent Web Site that ACA Hotline staff frequently use as a reference.
Death of a Camper or Staff Member
- Know the resources available to you. There are excellent grief professionals available virtually everywhere. These professionals can help you think about issues such as: should/could we have a memorial service, how should the belongings of those killed be respectfully returned to family, how do you share information about the accident with campers, staff, media, others? One excellent reference that is used frequently by the ACA Hotline Staff is a manual prepared by Grief Recovery, Inc., www.griefrecovery.ws/index.htm .
- Do you have a plan for notifying your parent organization and camp board members? What support can your board or parent organization offer you in the event of a death in camp? Have a plan for notifying camper parents, alumni, and supporters of camp. Who have you identified to support to your campers, staff, and yourself during this time?
Review Your Risk Management Plan
- ACA standards state you need to have a risk management plan in place (OM-4). Have you reviewed it with experts in each area of consideration? Have you reviewed your incident and accident reports to determine where adjustments to the plan may need to take place to minimize or eliminate high risk areas (OM-5)?
A quick review in each of these areas will help you be proactive and have a plan in place in the event of a crisis in your camp.
ACA has developed an online communications toolkit exclusively for ACA members and available on a password-protected page within ACA's Web site. This media-savvy toolkit guides camps and staff through a variety of media relations issues, including a brief "media relations 101" overview covering the basics of media communications and terminology, steps in crisis communications, and important tips for the media interview. Members can access the toolkit online from the members-only area, www.ACAcamps.org/members .
Originally published in the 2006 Spring issue of The CampLine.