The ACA Camp Crisis Hotline remains one of the most valuable services ACA offers to the camp community. While the hotline is a year-round service, the majority of the calls are received during the summer season. (From September 2002 through August 2003, 84 percent of all calls were received from June through August). As the popularity of the hotline increases, we anticipate that a larger number of calls will be received in the nonsummer months. All camps face challenges year-round, and it is our hope that through this review of calls and the lessons learned, all camps can be even better prepared for future emergencies.
This review covers all calls from September 1, 2002, through August 31, 2003. Although hotline use was busiest during the summer months, there were 19 percent fewer calls received than the previous year. The nature of the calls handled were:
- Ten deaths: seven staff, two adult campers, and two minor-aged campers. All except two of the staff deaths occurred during staff time-off away from camp. One minor-aged camper death was a drowning at an off-limits lake that counselors allowed campers to swim in; the other was caused by a medical condition.
- Nine medical concerns: including outbreaks of viruses, infections, rashes, and bed bugs. One was about a previous summer’s camper’s injury that was being brought to litigation.
- Seven personnel-related issues: including hiring and firing, overtime requirements, staff contracts, breach of personnel policies, and the arrest of a staff member after camp was over.
- Six allegations of sexual abuse at camp: including four camper-to-camper allegations and two adult staff-to-camper allegations. Many callers are unclear about reporting requirements.
- Five issues concerning camper behavior: including inappropriate language, stealing, bullying, and a camper believed to be intentionally cutting herself.
- Three allegations by campers that they are abused at home: most cases involved campers accusing parents or siblings of physical or sexual abuse.
- Two issues concerning parent behavior: one concerning a parent who refused to pick up their child from camp; the other concerning one parent requesting that the camp not release their child to the other parent.
- Numerous other issues: including one fire (big reduction compared to last year’s outbreak of forest fires that affected many camps); the arrest of an international staff member after camp ended for the downloading of child pornography; and keeping a terminated staff member from participating in public events of the camp.
In addition to the calls received by the hotline, ACA was made aware of a number of other camp-related incidents this past summer, including:
- Deaths: including the drowning of four staff (several of whom were lifeguards) while off-duty, off-site, and swimming in rain-swelled waters; the automobile accident death of two off-duty counselors riding in a car without wearing their seat belts; and the death of a camper riding in a camp van that blew a tire and ran off the road.
- Flooding: a camp’s access roads were inaccessible because of tremendous rainfall and flooding in the area.
- Loss of power: resulting from the August 14 blackout in the northeastern United States.
- Inappropriate activities: counselors arranging the pay-to-watch fist fighting of campers.
While most camps that contact the hotline have already taken some actions regarding their crisis, they generally want to talk to an objective third-party about options and things they might not have thought to do.
In many cases, the hotline staff do not know what the final actions were in particular situations. Because the hotline serves as an avenue to discuss alternatives, ACA does not always know what a camp decided to do in the end. Since the hotline is confidential, it is not our normal practice to initiate follow-up calls when the camp has not asked for that additional assistance. Nevertheless, the following true-life examples can help your camp expand its risk management plans and procedures. These scenarios are an excellent starting point for staff discussion.
What would you do if . . . .
. . . you found out after camp was over that a number of campers had bullied and threatened other campers? All of your staff left weeks ago, and you were unaware of what had happened.
Things to consider — contacting staff to find out what happened; legal/liability issues; how would you respond to the parent who called to complain about the treatment of her son; what about other campers who may have been mistreated?
. . . an international staff person, still in the country after camp ended (staying with another staffer for a week or so), is arrested for downloading child pornography from the Web? You are confident that nothing happened at camp. Staff had no access to the Internet, and you have a strict “three-person” rule where no one goes with another person alone.
Things to consider — would you notify your camp families?
. . . an international staff person collapsed and died while leading a session with campers?
Things to consider — who would you contact; what kind of support will be needed for campers and staff; what/how will you tell camp families; what steps would you take that may or may not be different than the death of an American staff person; will you hold a memorial service; do your medical screening procedures require a review?
. . . money was being stolen from your campers. You’d already provided campers with a safe place to keep their money, but some campers chose to keep money in their possessions and it was stolen.
Things to consider — gathering campers together to discuss the problem; providing an easy option for the money to be returned anonymously; more vigilant staff supervision.
. . . a camper returns from an off-site overnight and shows evidence that she was cutting herself. You talk with her and she admits the problem and asks you to keep watch over her so she does not do it again.
Things to consider — contacting her parents; discussing mental health counseling opportunities; vigilant supervision of her.
. . . a staff member you terminated last year repeatedly shows up at camp events even though you have talked to him about him being unwelcome.
Things to consider — is he trespassing since you made it clear that he is not welcome on your property; does your state law allow you to bar someone from a camp event; how would you handle other trespassers; do you call the police?
. . . a parent of a camper you are trying to send home because of numerous incidents refuses to come get their child. You even have a “contract” with the parent that says they will pick up their child if there are any behavioral, health, or safety issues. What do you do when the parent refuses to come?
Things to consider — would your state’s laws consider this an “abandoned child”; is contacting child protective services in the best interest of the child; can you get permission to transport the child home yourself; what is the purpose of your “contract,” if the parent refuses to abide by it?
. . . a father calls you to say that his ex-wife has been served papers that indicate that she no longer has custody of their son. He wants to be sure that you will not release the son to her at the end of the day when she comes to pick him up (he knows that he cannot get to the camp before her).
Things to consider — can you get a copy of the papers; what does your legal counsel recommend; what are your camper sign-out policies and how are they enforced; what do you communicate to the child?
. . . a returning senior counselor is due to arrive at camp in a few days. You find out that he has been arrested for marijuana possession. He is out of jail and is planning to come to camp. Do you release him from his contract?
Things to consider — should you gauge the issues between that counselor serving as a role model and giving him another chance because what he did was not on camp time nor in season; what might parent reactions or expectations be; can you and do you require a drug test (in many states, yes, you may test employees if you enforce that requirement in a fair and equitable manner)?
. . . a returning camp lifeguard has not produced his current certification card — even after repeated reminders. You tell him that he must produce it or not get paid.
Things to consider — is it legal to withhold pay (probably not); what if he is not really certified; what if he is not really certified and an accident occurs; can you place him on other duty until he produces the card; are any revisions needed in your hiring policies?
. . . last year, a camper who was very upset and homesick asked to go home repeatedly. All your efforts did not change his mind. You called the parents. They refused to come and get him. Your staff spent the rest of the time “babysitting” him. Now the boy has reapplied for this year. You wonder if you can deny his application.
Things to consider — what would be your basis of denying his application; do you consider a “contract” with the parents and the boy that says he will go home if he refuses to participate in the camp program?
. . . your camp’s fifteen-passenger van blows a tire and runs off the road. In the accident, one of your campers is killed. The media hears the police call, arrives, and photographs the accident — including a picture of your wrecked van (with your camp’s name on it). The media is asking you, “Why are you still using a fifteen-passenger van when everyone knows how dangerous they are?”
Things to consider — what is your driver training program; what are your use policies; what would you say to the media if this occurred; who would say it; what does your insurance company and lawyer recommend concerning the use of fifteen-passenger vans?
Some of the most important key issues that arose this year can serve as lessons for your camp. In a crisis, here’s what we know from some of the lessons learned.
- You need to understand mandated reporting of abuse. You are required to report if you have reason to believe that abuse has occurred. It does not matter if the accused is a minor or adult — if the alleged victim is a minor, you must report. Know the specific laws in your state. It is not your job to investigate. Be prepared, however, that the authorities will not always choose to pursue the situation (especially, if they deem it a minor camper-to-camper occurrence). No matter, you still must report it — and decide what other steps you would take — such as talking with parents.
- You need medical counsel. If you do not have a camp doctor, make sure you have already determined whom you would call for advice should something come up — such as an outbreak of a strange rash that your camp nurse cannot identify.
- You need clear personnel policies. Policies up-front concerning hiring, firing, breach of policies, etc., will only serve to make it clear what to do if a personnel issue arises. Stand firm. Don’t break your policies just because “s/he is such a nice guy/girl.”
- You need legal counsel. Ideally, this should be counsel that is expert in liability issues, and who is familiar with your organization. This counsel can give you invaluable advice in a crisis.
- If you choose to transport campers in fifteen-passenger vans, be prepared to explain why you chose that mode of transportation. Before deciding to use a fifteen-passenger van, carefully weigh your transportation strategies and be aware of the sensitivity to fifteen-passenger van use. Be sure all drivers are carefully trained and experienced in driving your vehicles — especially when fully loaded. Seek out training programs specific to the vehicles you use. Be sure all vehicles undergo a visual inspection before each use. Then play out the worst-case scenario and know what you will say to defend your choice.
- You need mental health counsel you can call on in an emergency. Quick access to trained professionals can make all the difference in the world.
Originally published in the 2003 Fall issue of The CampLine.