During her job interview, Blanch spoke modestly but articulately about her sophomore-year university honors project. She seemed serious at first but sailed through an acapella folk tune with confidence and flair when the director asked her to “sing a fun song.” Impressed with Blanch’s lack of inhibition, the director made a mental note to call the professor, the businesswoman, and the Girl Scout leader that Blanch had listed as references.
Two months later, just one week into the camp summer, Blanch returned from a night off intoxicated. She passed out on a cot in her cabin, snoring loudly enough to awaken the 11-year-old girl who occupied said cot. Confused and unnerved, the camper remained quiet and still, eventually falling back to sleep when Blanch’s snoring subsided. Only when Blanch began to nuzzle and kiss the girl’s neck at sunrise did the camper bolt out of bed and run to alert the girls’ head counselor.
At first, Blanch denied the girl’s claims about what had happened in the cabin. But after the director shared her intention to speak with every other girl in the cabin, Blanch offered a tearful confession and disclosed that something similar had happened at her previous camp job. Blanch was summarily terminated and on a bus out of town before lunch.
Had the director checked more than one of the three references Blanch provided, she would have discovered that Blanch had arrived late for lab meetings several times in the past year and had been written up by the Girl Scout’s regional director for complaining once to her campers about her hangover. But the spring had been frenetic for this camp director, and Blanch was a late hire whose extensive nanny and Girl Scout experience suggested a strong and wholesome connection with young girls.
During his Skype interview, Reggie had made a great impression. He had joked with Bert, the assistant director, that he “never wanted a real job” and hoped to work at after-school programs and day camps forever. Plus, his purported tennis skills filled a key gap in that year’s staff and added balance to the ratio of male-to-female staff. Like every other hire that season, his criminal background check came back clean, meaning that he had never had a felony conviction.
Midway through the summer, two other staff requested a meeting with Bert, noting that they had some concerns about Reggie. “I know that he is sometimes late to meals,” preempted Bert when the meeting started. “I’ve been planning to speak with him about that.” There was silence in the office for a minute, then one of the staff members spoke up. “He’s late to a lot of things . . . because he’s spending time in the tennis shed with his favorite camper, Luc.”
When Bert and the director questioned Luc, the nine-year-old disclosed that on the third day of the session, Reggie had asked him to stay behind at the end of an instructional period. He had told the boy that he had the makings of a star tennis player. What started as supplementary instruction “to help me with my serve” had progressed to backrubs in the tennis shed “to loosen my muscles.” Tearfully, Luc confided that Reggie had asked him to take off his shirt and shorts “because it was hot in the tennis shed.” Reggie was terminated that day and later charged with endangering the welfare of a minor.
No hiring practice is foolproof, and not all staff who cross boundaries have a history of doing so. None, if any, has a criminal record. Nevertheless, thoroughly checking three meaningful references, properly training and supervising all employees and volunteers, and completing all relevant background checks form a trio of solid hedges against unprofessional conduct. Whether you interview by Skype or use the more reliable and revealing technique of an in-person interview, some key questions can help experienced senior staff identify risk factors for immoral or abusive behavior. With credit to the many camp directors with whom I have had the pleasure of working over the past 20 years, I offer my commentary on 14 questions with significant power to discern corrupt from incorrupt counselors. Perhaps therein lie one or more ways to prevent unsafe behavior at your camp next season and beyond.
Remember that no set of questions can reveal proclivities or intentions that a job candidate is intent on hiding or about which he or she is not consciously aware. Hire thoughtfully, according to recognized industry standards, and then train and supervise your staff as if they were taking care of your own children.
You can use this table like a worksheet, asking questions as written or posing a variation that suits your camp and its philosophy even better. Few owners or directors would ask every question on this list, but I recommend you ask at least half of them; more if any answers to the initial round give you pause.
Does a “possible red flag” answer to any of these questions indicate that the candidate has or will abuse children? No. But any answer that gives you a queasy feeling is cause for concern and ample justification for asking follow-up questions. Try to understand candidates’ thought processes, how they make decisions, what they consider to be healthy in an adult-child or adult-teen relationship, what they find gratifying about working with youth, how they cope with stress, and whether they understand their own human vulnerabilities.
Some directors don’t ask questions like these because they don’t want to believe that anyone would want to harm children. I get it. But turning a blind eye to the profile of an abuser or the risk factors for boundary violations only amplifies the risk.
Most savvy job applicants have learned to answer the hackneyed “What is your greatest weakness?” with “I work too hard” or some equally trite variant. So don’t bother with that line of questioning. Instead, I recommend the Behavior-Based Interviewing approach, pioneered by psychologist Paul C. Green in the early 1980s and later championed by Gary Forster (Green, 2014).
Forster, who was camping specialist for YMCA of the USA from 2001 to 2009, endorses an interviewing technique based around the single, central question: “Tell me about an accomplishment about which you are extremely proud.” Open-ended follow-up questions build on the prospective employee’s strengths and weaknesses, style of coping with adversity, leadership, attitude, and other key parameters of professionalism. Examples include:
“Tell me more about that.”
“What specifically did you do that led to a successful outcome?
“What were some of the challenges you encountered along the way?”
“How did you manage your feelings of frustration?”
“How did you find the process of collaboration?”
“What would you do differently next time around?”
“What did this accomplishment teach you about yourself?”
This approach is clearly superior to dancing the What-Is-Your-Greatest-Weakness dance. Moreover, it gives you complementary insight to my collection of youth leader safety questions in Table 1 (see pages 31–33). Forster, who is now on the faculty of Expert Online Training and works extensively as a process consultant for camps and other youth programs, has told me that anchoring a job interview to this single question is far superior to the spontaneous, piecemeal approach that many employers use. Not only does it help paint a coherent picture of the applicant, it also scaffolds their responses, making it easier to remember what the candidate said.
More than Skillful Interviewing
Comprehensive abuse prevention rests on more than skillful interviewing, of course. You will also need to create a culture of respect, provide staff with frequent and candid feedback (both praise and criticism), analyze industry trends, examine your own incident report data, audit your supervisory practices, train your staff on abuse prevention every year, and give parents and young participants practical guidelines for personal safety.
Owners and directors squirm in response to this last recommendation. Who wants to broach an uncomfortable topic with families or talk with parents about the risks of under-informing their children? It’s not exactly marketing gold to remind moms and dads about the importance of having frank discussions about safe touch and safe talk with their sons and daughters.
But let me be perfectly clear: Uncomfortable boundary crossings and traumatic boundary violations are far less likely to occur at day camps, overnight camps, parks and recs, and summer schools where all children arrive with an understanding of healthy adult-youth relationships and the assertiveness skills to thwart an inappropriate advance from a misguided staff member.
Obviously, the message owners and directors want to share with new and returning camper families is not: Teach your kid about abuse prevention before they come to camp.
Rather, I’m suggesting your message be: Like all parents, we are invested in a sensible approach to year-round child safety. In that spirit of health and wellness, we select emotionally intelligent staff and carefully train them all on the parameters of safe touch, safe talk, and healthy adult-youth relationships. We hope you will join us in this enduring commitment to positive youth development by reviewing and discussing one of these excellent resources with your son or daughter. (Here, you can list your favorite book or video; see Additional Resources sidebar for suggestions. Conscientious parents will understand your wise counsel, not react with concern.)
Adults who take advantage of children are, above all, opportunists. They are unlikely to violate boundaries when either the workplace or the youngster makes it difficult, even just a little bit. Your deft questioning during each face-to-face interview, combined with explicit staff training and sage partnerships with parents, will dramatically minimize the likelihood of unwholesome behavior. The mere fact that you are asking boundary questions in interviews with a new or returning staff member sends a clear message about the camp’s values and expectations. And although my recommendations are a tall order, we all know that a bit of discomfort before anyone has been harmed is far better than substantial pain and regret after a preventable incident has occurred.
The case studies of Blanch and Reggie are anonymized aggregates, but they are based in fact. Do everything you can, as you prepare for next season, to keep them hypothetical fictions at your camp.
Behavior-based interviewing: Watch Gary Forster and David Betz demonstrate this interviewing technique at ExpertOnlineTraining.com. (You can set up a free, demo account by calling 877-237-3931.)
Books on Abuse Prevention:
Green, P.C. (2014). Understand behavior-based interviewing. Retrieved from slideshare.net/MikeDurand2/understanding-behaviorbased-interviewing-by-paul-c-green-phd
Christopher Thurber, PhD, ABPP, is a board-certified clinical psychologist who enjoys creating and delivering original content to professional educators and youth leaders worldwide. He co-founded ExpertOnlineTraining.com, co-wrote The Summer Camp Handbook, and crafted the ACA’s homesickness prevention DVD for new camper families. Contact him through his website, DrChrisThurber.com.