On September 12, 2001, we had no idea what kind of summer 2002 would be for camps. Would enrollment be affected? Would international staff be available? Would campers want to leave home? Would parents let them?
Now that summary information is coming in from summer programs, it appears that enrollments were strong. Staffing, while still challenging, appeared to be a little easier to contract this year for many camps, perhaps due to the myriad of economic issues affecting the job market.
But the hotline? My, was it busy! We had almost double the number of calls we had a year ago, and those calls brought information concerning:
- Eleven allegations of sexual abuse including three staff to camper allegations, three staff-to-staff allegations (all involving a “victim” who was a minor), and five camper-to-camper incidents (three being between female campers, one between male campers, and one male-to-female incident)
- Eight deaths — seven campers and one staff member (all but one being water-related and at least three occurring in a guarded swimming pool).
- Eight staff/employment issues — staff behavior, termination, sexual activity in front of campers, former staff members now arrested for sexual activity with children.
- Nine medical concerns from anaphylactic shock from an unknown cause, eating disorders, possible Hepatitis A diagnosis, questions about enrolling children with Hepatitis A and B, dead animals on the camp property testing positive for West Nile virus, ADA requirements as they affect camper enrollment, and a camper sent home with an undiagnosed broken leg.
- Two vehicular accidents — one with a bus whose brakes failed, and a boating accident that injured two campers with the boat prop.
- Seven behavioral incidents ranging from behavior that was an alleged result of a Ritalin holiday, several suicide threats, violent camper behavior that aroused a violent reaction from the parents of the camper, and questions about whether to accept children with a past record of sexually abusing other children.
- Five physical abuse allegations including camper-to-camper incidents, staff to camper incidents, and reports of incidents from home.
- Numerous miscellaneous situations involving the right to search camper belongings; drunk parents arriving to pick up their children (would you send them home with a drunk adult?); camps unable to obtain insurance; theft of camper property; demands for refunds; trespassers and security assessments; international campers unable to get entry visas; and missing campers.
While there are many resources available on the Internet (health information sites, sites to help address problem behaviors such as suicide, lists of phone numbers of abuse agencies, etc.), there is clearly benefit to discussing difficult situations with an objective “ear” who can advise based on what other camps have done and what experts suggest.
What Would You Do If…
. . . parents arrived drunk to pick up their children? Send them on home with the “real” parent, or insist on some other arrangement? This director insisted that the parents call someone else to come and pick up the kids. The parent obliged.
. . . there was a death in camp? Most directors immediately bring in a mental health team to help campers and staff deal with the loss. The toll on the director is incredible and for understandable reasons. The toll on the parent is unfathomable. Have you already identified mental health teams, trained counselors or psychologists, crisis teams, or trained clergy who can be at your side upon a moment’s notice? Have you thought about who and how you would notify staff? Campers? Families? These are sensitive issues and hard to sort through when you are dealing with your own emotions. We suggest a meeting with your senior management/ownership to discuss such issues and create a plan. The book Crisis Response Planning for Camps & Conference Centers  can be a real help in this matter.
. . . state police informed you that there were terrorist threats in your area? Would you be able to report to your camp families and your board/owner that security concerns and practices on your site had been reviewed by security professionals and that their recommendations were being implemented? This is becoming a “best practice” in our industry. See the article, Camp Security: Who to Call, What to Ask, in this issue of CampLine for guidance.
. . . it was reported to you that adult staff members were allegedly having sex in the view of campers? Would your personnel policies give you any guidance? Would specific information have been discussed during staff training about the consequence of such behavior? If not, why not?
. . . with the staff on duty at an activity where there was a serious accident or death? Would you release them? Keep them on duty? Provide counseling for them? Review their record and suspend them until an investigation is complete? While the circumstances will vary, the impact on this staff member and others who observe what you do in this situation will be significant. Again, this is a good topic to discuss with senior staff prior to the season. Access to professional help can make a real difference in this staff member’s life in the days and months to come. What if those staff are internationals? How will you provide the mental health support they need at this time?
. . . if there were unusual medical conditions potentially affecting camp — conditions unfamiliar to your health personnel? There are many Web sites the American Camping Association uses for information to help directors talk knowledgeably with their camp doctor or with county health personnel. Among them are sites from the Centers for Disease Control . This is an excellent site that allows many search capabilities and gives unbiased information.
. . . if a camper, recently convicted of crimes against other children, applied to your camp? We have had several situations in the past few years where camp directors have become aware of such situations before the start of the season. Should they deny admittance? Can they? Your lawyer, the child’s school guidance counselor, and local mental health agencies may provide you with the best sources of information. You have the safety of other children to consider when they have been crimes of violence or crimes of a sexual nature. Make your decision carefully and deliberately.
Lessons to Learn
- You need legal counsel. Ideally, this should be legal counsel that is expert in liability issues and who knows your program and staffing patterns. The more they know about you, the better advice they will be able to give. Investing several hundred dollars in a legal opinion in the midst of the crisis can give you invaluable guidance.
- You need medical counsel. Hire (if you have to) a camp doctor. This may be someone on site or may be someone in town whom you call for advice. He/she should review your protocols and advise you when you have a camper apply to camp whose conditions you are unfamiliar with handling. He/she will also be your first contact in case of illness or injury.
- You need staff who are ready to partner with parents. Camps that involve parents immediately when there is illness (requires overnight stay in health center), injury that requires a trip to the doctor or the hospital for x-rays, or incidents that can traumatize kids, usually find parents much more responsive and loyal to the camp in succeeding summers. They need to know that you care first about their child.
- You need mental health counsel you can call on in an emergency for campers and staff. Death in the camp family or the home family? Other family emergencies? Suicide threats or attempts? Situations where you have a camper who has been a victim? Quick access to trained people with whom you have made prior arrangements can make all the difference in the world.
- You need to know the child abuse reporting laws in your state. We say this every year, but every year there are directors who call the ACA Hotline and do not know the reporting law or to whom they report alleged incidents.
When we compare ACA Hotline results and the information we gather from parental complaints against camps, the camps with the best practices are those with active and sincere efforts to provide a positive experience for all children. When something unexpected happens, communicate with parents! Keep them in the loop. Treat their concerns with respect. Put the needs of children first. The benefit you reap in the long run will make a big difference.
To this end, take the following positive steps:
- Have a “customer service” oriented person answer your phone. This is important in communicating what you value in your camp and can help you identify problems before they become big.
- Have a policy to contact parents immediately if there is something out of the ordinary. This underscores a commitment to putting the needs of the child first. Camps who convince parents that the child’s needs are uppermost are camps that build family loyalty, strong staff, and campers in whose lives you have succeeded in making a difference.
- Make plans now to address the issues identified above. Work with your senior staff team over the winter to address the kinds of issues raised this past summer.
- Finally, let your ACA section president or executive know if there is training you feel would be helpful on the local level. Now is the time to have your plans evaluated and updated in preparation for the year ahead.
About the ACA Hotline
The ACA Hotline is available year-round to ACA-accredited and affiliated camps to help you think through and identify issues related to camp crises. Experienced national staff members including Connie Coutellier, Pat Hammond, Marge Scanlin, Cathy Scheder, and Susan Yoder staff the Hotline. The ACA Hotline may be accessed twenty-four hours a day by calling 317-365-5736.
Originally published in the 2002 Fall issue of The CampLine.