Sexual abuse. Sexual misconduct. Child pornography. Your camp's nightmare.

These events represent the majority of crises we respond to on behalf of summer camps, schools, and youth-centric organizations.

The onset of the event is usually the same. A victim comes forward, rarely right away, but sometimes. They allege a staff member caused harm. Camp leadership expresses surprise and shock. "We did a background check. It was clean." "We trained our staff on boundaries." "They know they are not allowed to be alone with a camper."

Is there truly surprise when management learns of the allegation against that staff member? Rarely. Once a perpetrator is identified, memories of moments in time often come flooding back into consciousness — a touch that lingered too long, photos posted online of a staff member's visit with the victim and his family outside of camp season, jokes about a staff member, a sense in your gut that something just doesn't feel right. Nothing blatant. Nothing that you believed at the time would have warranted termination. But here we are. A child may have been harmed.

What should your priorities be the moment you learn about an allegation of abuse? They include:

  • Removal of the threat
  • Mandated reporting
  • Care for the victim(s)
  • Communication (Who do we tell? What do we say? When do we tell them? Who tells them? How do we tell them?)
  • Legal protections

What you do in the initial moments of learning of an allegation of abuse may define your camp for years to come.

The following actions to be taken are not listed sequentially. Rather, many will be conducted simultaneously, as you will be in an all-hands-on-deck mode with multiple members of camp leadership assisting.

  • Contact your insurance agent. Ask that a crisis management firm be assigned to assist you — a firm that is experienced with sexual abuse. Make sure your insurance policy has coverage that pays for the firm. If it doesn't, that's something to address in the future. (Read the language closely. Understand what type of crisis event the coverage will apply to. Many policy provisions are not broad enough to include crisis management services for allegations of sexual abuse.)
  • Contact your legal counsel. Legal counsel should coordinate with the crisis management firm to cloak communications with attorney-client privilege and to protect the camp's liability exposure. The law firm should retain the crisis management firm directly, and the retainer letter must be drafted carefully. If it lacks the appropriate language, privilege will not attach.
  • You are a mandated reporter. The allegations must be reported to the appropriate agency, regardless of how far back the allegations may go in time. Know who your reporting agency is and have the contact information readily available.
  • Have resources lined up to provide support to the victim and their family, such as a psychologist or social worker with experience in assisting victims of abuse. The family may not accept your offer to assist; after all, you allowed this to happen to their child — so if the family does not utilize the resources, that's OK. You should still offer. Regrettably, because there may be more victims, you will need a resource who can coach families on how to talk to their children about the issue. This resource can also counsel others who were close to the victim or the perpetrator and may be in need of support. These resources should be identified and on call long before camp season begins. Speed matters.
  • Do not launch an investigation unless directed to do so by counsel. Investigations should only be conducted by experienced professionals. Again, attorney-client privilege is what you are seeking for both communications and work product.
  • You will be contacted by law enforcement, and they will arrive on site, often unannounced. If you have advance warning, have your attorney present. If they appear unannounced, be cooperative. That said, we offer this guidance:
    • Whether they are in uniform or not, meet with them in a private location at camp. If they ask for computers, do not turn them over at that time. Indicate you must first speak with legal counsel. Without a subpoena they don't have a right to take them. The problem is that once they take them, everything on the computer, including private information (e.g., personnel and medical records) becomes part of the investigation and may become public later.
    • If they seek to interview campers (when camp is in session), do not allow them to do so until the parents have been notified. Some parents will require they be present for such an interview. Depending on your relationship with the parents, they may trust you to handle the interviews.
  • Your words matter. The way you communicate about an event can become your next crisis.
    • Timing. How quickly? How broadly? What medium do you use? What do you say? You have many competing interests at this point — victim privacy, potential additional victims who may come forward when they learn of the event, victims who have been silent and need support. Your brand and reputation can be destroyed depending on what you do or don't say, how you say it, and when you say it. A crisis management firm with hands-on experience will help you navigate these issues.
    • The key is stakeholder identification, prioritizing those stakeholders, and communicating in order of priority. Those closest to the crisis come first (i.e., victims and their families). Next, parents of campers who the perpetrator also had access to, with the goal of providing enough information so they can have a conversation with their children about whether they ever had an abusive experience with the accused staff member. What about the rest of camp? When do you tell staff? How much do you tell them? What if the accused staff member worked with you for years and years? Do you contact parents of campers from previous years who are no longer at camp? If so, when? When are alumni contacted? We understand how important the alumni network is to driving enrollment.
    • What do you say and to whom? Every camp we have ever represented wants to issue an immediate written communication via email. They want to express shock and sadness. They want to explain that they did everything they could have to prevent an act of sexual abuse. The reality is, it's not about your feelings, your shock, or your sadness. It is about the victim. And there is no explaining away that a child became a victim of sexual abuse. Nothing you can say will change what occurred. What every parent cares about initially is: Could my child be a victim too? Once they determine their child is OK, they want to know what the camp is doing to make sure something like this can't happen to their child in the future. Once they get a comfort level, they want to reclaim the mindset of "my child is away at camp having a great summer." They want to hear about how their child is doing in their activities and see photos evidencing smiles and fun times.
    • About that email. Don't send it. We recommend phone calls be made to every family you need to contact — no matter how many. The subject is too important to address via email. Parents will have questions. Providing answers in that moment will de-escalate their fear level. Additionally, it will prevent any unfortunate wording from being reproduced on social or traditional media. You must make the presumption that every sentence you write will end up in a newspaper somewhere in print and online. Depending on the severity of the event, the article may be shared and re-shared, taking on a life of its own.

Think Differently

We live in times of the #metoo movement and the next chapter of reported sexual abuse spanning decades in the Catholic Church. Sexual abuse of children is your number-one exposure. Because of that, you cannot take too many precautions. It is time to think differently.

  • Hiring practices: Interviews, reference checks, background checks. Do you conduct these annually? You should. People change. More is learned by others over time.
  • Policies, procedures, and training: Boundaries. What is appropriate/ inappropriate touching? Practice the rule of three (always two plus me). Consider new policies (e.g., no home visits or babysitting of campers).
  • Staffing assignments: Just because your camp has always conducted operations in a certain way doesn't mean you have to in the future. For example, consider pairing male and female counselors for the youngest of children, who are the most vulnerable.
  • Anonymous reporting methodology: Have a system that encourages staff, campers, and alumni to come forward and anonymously express concern about another person. Reports must reach someone in real time, and there must be a process for investigating and responding to each report. If you hear rumors or jokes, do not laugh them off — investigate.
  • Decisive action: When in doubt, terminate the employee. Go with your gut. Jokes about a staff member? Take them seriously. Many a true word is spoken in jest. You can't afford to be wrong.

Managing a sexual abuse crisis is an art, not a science. Crisis management organizations have assisted many camps in these situations and have learned many lessons. Reach out and learn some of these lessons before you have an incident at your camp.

#yourcamptoo? We hope not. Take steps now.

Suzy Rhulen Loughlin is co-founder of Firestorm Solutions, a nationally recognized leader in crisis management. Suzy utilizes her decades of experience as an attorney, insurance executive, and crisis consultant to advise clients ranging from some of the world's largest global companies to educational institutions and summer camps on crisis communications, crisis management, emergency response, workplace violence, and threat assessment.