Camp is a good experience. Nonetheless, the ACA Hotline activity continues to suggest areas for increased diligence. Following is a summary of Hotline activity in 2001.
Three deaths were reported. One involved an automobile accident in which a staff person’s car was hit by another vehicle. This occurred on the day that summer staff was to begin arriving. Grief support services were difficult to secure and local clergy were not welcome into a counseling process by many staff. A second death involved an international staff person crossing a road on foot. A vehicle struck her. Being from Europe, the staff person may have looked the wrong direction prior to crossing. Grief support personnel, family, and close friends of the family were contacted. Media inquiries generated a well thought out response. In a third incident, a counselor-in-training died from viral encephalitis. The health department ruled out Eastern Equine, LaCrosse, and West Nile viruses. A local volunteer organization called all camper families and emphasized that the disease was not contagious. Families were urged to contact their personal physicians for advice or care. Legal and insurance advice was secured. Within two weeks the camp was serving rental groups.
Prior arrangements with support systems allow the most effective response and transition in these difficulty situations.
Sexual Misconduct During Program Time
There were nine reported incidents of sexual misconduct. Seven incidents occurred during program time and they break down as follows.
There were two cases of an adult male staff making advances to a minor female staff. In one incident a child protective service agency declined involvement due to the fact the minor was an employee.
In one of these incidents the perpetrator was a male and in the other it was a female. One of these two incidents occurred during an overseas trip. Because of this, an effective response consumed considerable financial and human resources.
One incident occurred in a day camp setting, and the other occurred in a family camp setting.
One incident involved inappropriate interaction among five male staff. A camper became aware of the situation and reported it to the director.
Two incidents, bringing the total to nine, occurred during staff time off. One incident involved the gang rape of a twenty-year-old female staff person by three males (not camp staff). Consumption of alcohol was involved. A seventeen-year-old “staff friend” and her date were in close proximity to the incident and they did not intervene. In this incident police were notified and they led an investigation. Significant personal and professional support was offered to the twenty-year-old and the seventeen-year-old was suspended from employment pending the outcomes of the police investigation.
The other incident involved the discovery of child pornography that belonged to a cabin counselor. No proof of the creation or distribution of pornography was discovered. This discovery occurred during a routine movement of belongings and cabin clean-up while the staff person was away from camp. The staff person knew his belongings would be moved and the cabin would be cleaned. The camp was wrestling with issues of contacting parents of other campers and dismissing staff through due process.
In all but one of the above incidents, one or more staff persons were released and the camp director secured advice from many parties.
Camps must be explicit in writing and during their training about what they consider appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Further, the consequences of such behavior must be clear. Participation in such training should be documented. How will you handle staff behavior during staff personal time off? Is questionable behavior and lapse of judgement a response to the stresses of working at camp? If so, what is your responsibility in mitigating those stresses?
Camp personnel policies should clearly state how the camp views volunteers and employees who are of a minor age. Will such individuals be treated as adults or children? Are your policies in line with child labor laws? If incidents occur, will parents and other agencies that normally handle child protection get involved? More information on hiring and working with minors can be found at the Knowledge Center on the ACA Web site.
Physical, Mental, and Emotional Abuse
These incidents include behaviors that are not explicitly sexual, yet may involve similar hurtful outcomes. Four incidents were reported. One involved a male staff member exposing the genitals of a male camper when he tugged down on the camper’s low hung baggy pants. Once the child was exposed, the staff person hit the child in the buttocks. The staff person was dismissed.
A second incident involved two male campers mixing water, urine, and mouthwash in a flask and giving it to another camper to drink saying it was Schnapps. When the camper realized what he drank was not Schnapps, he reported the incident to the director. The perpetrators were sent home.
In a third incident, a camper received a sexually explicit card from his parents and then left the card in the open. The parents had hand written a message in the card advising the camper to lie to staff to gain additional telephone privileges.
In a fourth incident two or three girls beat another girl. This appears to have been a premeditated event. Staff may have been absent. Witnesses were present, but did not intervene.
Staff persons must always be thoughtful and prudent in their actions. There should be a clear distinction between acceptable and unacceptable physical contact, and infractions should be handled according to personnel policy. Training for this is paramount.
What may be a “harmless prank” to a camper can have significant effects — especially when transmission of communicable diseases can occur. The excuse “kids will be kids” will not exempt the camp from responsibility.
Appropriate supervision is the first responsibility of staff. Failure to do this is equivalent to abandoning job responsibilities. In addition, staff need to understand the value in developing relationships with campers. If campers think that staff will listen well and act appropriately when confided in, then the camp staff are well equipped to prevent premeditated harmful behavior.
Responding to Mental Distress
The Hotline was used four times concerning individuals exhibiting behavior indicative of excessive mental distress. In two incidents, staff observed warning signs of suicidal behavior. In one of these incidents, the parents were out of the country. The camper’s attending physician and the emergency contact person named by the parents were contacted. In a third incident, a child was observed in the process of self-mutilation and vomiting following meals. The camp staff consulted with the youth group pastor. The pastor offered counseling support for the girl. Parental contact was initially left to the pastor (this was a rental group) and then later followed up by camp staff.
In the fourth incident, a staff person began showing erratic behavior when asked to participate in a staff training activity. In agitation, the staff person left the camp property and eventually left his position. After leaving camp and his position the staff person harassed remaining staff through telephone calls. The director scripted a response and all camp staff were trained accordingly. The harassing staff person also contacted local the city mayor and other local officials in the camp’s community to describe the training processes he was concerned about.
Camp staff need to be trained in the identification of and response to symptoms of mental distress. Prior arrangements with trained mental health professionals will help you obtain help for the individual and support for the camp staff.
Mandatory Reporting Responsibilities
Three incidents involved camp personnel trying to determine their role and responsibilities as mandatory reporters. In each case, information was given to camp staff that a camper was the victim of sexual abuse outside of camp and not involving camp staff. In each case, camp staff was advised of their obligation to report.
In virtually all states, the camp director and/or the camp medical staff are mandated to reports suspected abuse. The camp director must educate staff in your state’s laws.
Three calls asked advice on how to respond to accidents. One involved the serious injury of a camper who fell from a moving hayride. The camp had contacted the parents, denominational leadership, legal counsel, and insurance counsel. The father of the child and denominational leadership were preparing to visit the site and examine the trailer.
In the second incident, a staff person had sprained his wrist while fulfilling responsibilities. The camp director wanted to know their OSHA reporting responsibilities. The OSHA Web site can be very helpful in these situations.
The third call in this category involved a fall from a horse. While the fall was clearly painful, it was not obvious that medical attention was needed. The camp was determining whether to have the child seen by a medical professional.
Camp directors need to be familiar with a variety of other organizations that provide valuable support and accountability.
There were two incidents, other than the one described in the first section, involving illness. In one incident something “flu like” had rapidly spread through camp. The first wave of sick individuals seemed to be getting better even as the second wave began getting sick. Many supports had been called including parents, local physicians and specialists, and local and state health departments. A media response was formulated and came in handy when the media made inquiries. The camp director also called the Hotline to inform us of the situation and “just to talk with someone.”
In the second incident, many camp and staff had developed a very irritating skin rash. The camp director had called one physician who was not able to identify the cause of the rash. Now the camp director was calling the Hotline looking for information.
Again, the relationships a camp director develops prior to crisis, including government agencies, can pay back many times over when a crisis does occur. A team approach to supporting the well-being of campers and staff makes sense.
It was discovered that a staff person not directly responsible for camper supervision had been convicted in a case involving sexual relations with a minor. This camp does offer employment to people who may have broken the law in the past, though this scenario had not occurred before.
A camp director called to review processes and standards that are applicable for changing their swimming program from on-site to off-site. The on-site facility needed to be closed. He was directed to the appropriate standards.
While the Hotline was not significantly more or less busy this year than in the past, the calls received do reflect the growing complexity of the camp experience and the professional resources that are needed to respond to that complexity. Directors are encouraged to view themselves as one of many individuals and organizations that can be effectively involved in making sure that “camp gives kids a world of good.”
Originally published in the 2002 Winter issue of The CampLine.