ACA Camp Crisis Hotline Annual Review 2015

November 2015
Categories of the Year Graphic

The American Camp Association (ACA) just completed our thirtieth year offering confidential crisis support to camps through the Camp Crisis Hotline! Since 1985, ACA has been providing resources, support, and a calm third-party perspective whenever camps need someone to talk to in a crisis. Available 24 hours a day, every day of the year, camps consistently tell us that the Hotline is one of the most valuable ACA services. ACA tracks the trends and lessons learned from each confidential call, then provides an annual overview of what was learned, as well as case studies for camps to use in their own staff training and risk management planning. All of the most popular resources and case studies from the past two decades can be found online at www.acacamps.org/camp-crisis-hotline

Top Trends 

Continuation of the seven-year trend in health/medical issues as the top calls. Many camps seem to have difficulty finding healthcare staff who understand the implications of providing healthcare in a camp setting – including familiarity with childhood illnesses and common infestations.

Significant increase in calls about the business of operating a camp. Operating a camp business is increasingly complex, so knowledge of applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations is critical.

Sharp increase in the number of calls about accommodation and inclusion of individuals (staff and campers) who identify as transgender, gender non-conforming, and gender–variant. 

A rise in the number of calls about immunization requirements. As state school immunization laws change and media coverage of immunization-preventable disease outbreaks grow, camps are questioning the legal and health issues regarding immunization requirements for campers and staff.

Growth in the need for help in developing communication strategies in the event of unexpected situations (ranging from minor infestations, such as lice – to tragedies such as the death of a staff member).

Health and Medical 

31% of the calls

  • Accidents (water, land, vehicular)
  • Bats
  • Bed bugs
  • Chickenpox
  • Cutting
  • Death from natural causes – 
  • and grief support
  • Food poisoning
  • Health care staff training
  • Immunizations
  • 31% of the calls continued
  • Lice
  • Medication administration
  • Murder of a staff member in 
  • the off-season
  • Mysterious flu-like outbreaks
  • Snakebites
  • Threats of suicide
  • Lice
  • Medication administration
  • Murder of a staff member in 
  • the off-season
  • Mysterious flu-like outbreaks
  • Snakebites

Lessons Learned — Health and Medical

  1. Trained healthcare staff is critical to the health and well-being of your campers and staff. The Association of Camp Nurses (www.ACN.org) provides excellent resources and training for camp healthcare staff. In addition, consider having your healthcare staff review ACA’s Hotline resource pages on health issues and participate in health-related online courses and webinars through ACA’s Professional Development Center
     
  2. In the event of a serious accident, injury, or infestation, an excellent communications plan is critical. Many callers just want help crafting messages about an incident that they can share with families, the media and others. An excellent resource is our Crisis Communications Toolkit.
     
  3. Lice outbreaks happen. It is what you do next that matters. ACA’s single most popular call to the Hotline this year was regarding lice outbreaks and whether to treat and keep those impacted at camp, or send them home. There is no single right answer — and even the experts disagree. Determine if you will be a “nits” or “no-nits” community. Know that there are new strains of lice that are resistant to over-the-counter remedies and prescription treatment may be required (www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/newsreleases/2015/august/lice.html).
     
  4. All staff need to understand the issues regarding distribution of medication. As more people bring prescription medication to camp, and more camps seek to provide “out of camp” adventure experiences (such as overnights away from camp), the issues related to the distribution of medication become complex. The answers to the questions of who can manage, administer, and distribute medication vary by state.
     
  5. Mental health concerns continue to grow. Have a support system in place. ACA has seen a sharp increase in calls of a mental health nature that seem to reflect the trend in society overall. Add mental health resources and experts to your healthcare plan and team.

Staff Training Questions — Health and Medical 

  • If a staff member had a heart-attack and died in their cabin at camp in the middle of the night, what would you do?
  • If one of your day campers died at home one evening during camp season, where would you access grief counseling resources for the rest of the camp?
  • If an adult staff member is ill and your onsite health care staff recommend sending the staffer off site to a hospital or doctor, what would you do if the staff member refuses saying their parents would be mad since they would have to pay a deductible? (The staffer is under 26 and covered under parental insurance.)
  • What would you do if you suspect a camper is self-mutilating?
  • What would you do if you find that a dozen of your campers and staff are infested with lice and not responding to over-the-counter remedies?

Top Resources 

Communicable Diseases

Crisis Communications Toolkit

Immunization Issues

Business Operations

12% of the calls

  • Applicable laws
  • Arrest of former staff member
  • Camp business closing
  • Handling negative social media
  • International insurance considerations (See Case Study 3 on Page 18)
  • Legal counsel
  • Liability questions 
  • Rental group requests for 
  • increased security (See Case Study 6 on Page 22)
  • Risk and release waivers

LESSONS LEARNED – Business Operations 

  1. Operating a business is becoming more complex — seek and retain expert counsel. Calls regarding business operations issue jumped from near the bottom to the second most popular call to the Hotline this year. While ACA cannot provide legal advice, we do help callers understand w questions to discuss with legal counsel.
     
  2. Understand the laws applicable to your camp — state, federal, and local. One camp called to discuss their decision to keep a camper in camp after discovering her flushing marijuana down the toilet. They stood behind their second-chances decision, but some parents believed that they were required by law to call the police. This decision led to an after-the-fact scramble to learn the laws relevant to their previous decision.

STAFF TRAINING QUESTIONS – Business Operations

  • Who is ensuring that your camp is compliant with all relevant laws and regulations?
  • What state challenge course and zip line laws and regulations are applicable to your camp?
  • If a child tells their counselor that her parents are alcoholics and “always drunk” are you required to report that to the authorities?
  • If an international camper has an “international insurance card” what does that mean for your camp should the child need outside medical care?
  • If one camp nurse trains another camp nurse at your request and the new camp nurse “does something wrong,” are there liability issues for your camp
  • and the first nurse?
  • Do you fully understand the coverages afforded your camp by your various insurance policies?

Top Resources

ACA Buyer’s Guide

ACA Camp Business Operations Report 2015

ACA’s Camp Business Research, Summaries, Data, and Maps

ACA Camp Director Certificate of Added Qualification Course

Releases and Related Issues: Revisited

The Business of Camp book by Anne Sheets and Dave Thoensen available through the ACA Bookstore

All ACA business operations resources can be found online

PERSONNEL AND EMPLOYMENT 

12% of the calls

  • Accommodation of staff who identify as gender non-conforming (See sidebar on Page 13)
  • Advice on terminating employment
  • Allegations of rape off-property (adult-adult)
  • Former volunteer staffer arrested on child pornography charges
  • Staff (adult and minor) drinking alcohol on property (See Case Study 2 on Page 17)

LESSONS LEARNED – Personnel and Employment 

  1. Set and enforce clear policies about acceptable relationships between staff while at camp. Numerous callers wanted to discuss sexual relationships between staff, including both consensual acts and allegations of force. Understand that where adults are concerned, if an allegation of force is made – that is a police matter and the alleged victim should contact the authorities. The authorities will help navigate what happens next with both the alleged victim and the alleged perpetrator.
     
  2. Prepare to address the accommodation and inclusion of staff who identify as gender non-conforming. ACA has seen a rapid increase in calls of this nature. For an in-depth review, see the sidebar on Page 13, and Case Study 4 on Page 19.
     
  3. Have a back-up plan for staff coverage in an emergency or unexpected loss of staff. Supervision ratios are critical to ensuring the safety of your campers. What will you do if you have a policy against alcohol on property and you catch numerous staff drinking? Before the season begins, identify short- term options that you can turn to for staff coverage in an emergency. 
     
  4. Enforce your personnel policies. It’s not enough to simply have personnel policies — you must enforce them as well. Establish a clear understanding of what the consequences are (reprimand, suspension, dismissal, and so on) for the violation of the policies. If you don’t enforce your own policies, you leave yourself open a variety of risks — including lawsuits — especially if you do not enforce consistently (i.e., treating one staff member differently than another when they have both ignored one of your policies). 
     
  5. If you utilize international staff, understand your obligations to the U.S. Department of State Cultural Exchange Program. By committing to infuse cultural exchange into your program, and welcoming international staff to your camp, you’ve accepted the obligations required under law. It is critical that you understand those requirements. 

STAFF TRAINING QUESTIONS — Personnel and Employment 

  • Would you recognize the signs of depression or other mental health challenges in your staff? If you did, what would you do to support that staffer?
  • What would you do if a disgruntled terminated employee harasses you and threatens irrational acts?
  • If you walk in on a 23 year old staffer engaged in sexual activities with a 17 year old staffer, what would you do?
  • If you notice an adult staffer not taking care of themselves (not treating a rash, not bathing, not eating) and they do not respond to positive coaching, what would you do?
  • What are your staff sexual harassment policies? What are your policies regarding the relationships between staff?

Top Resources

American’s with Disabilities Act www.ADA.gov 

Camp Director and Day Camp Director Certificate courses

Governmental Agencies Related to Employment

Medical Marijuana and Camps

International Staff Resources

All ACA personnel resources can be found online

CAMPER BEHAVIOR

7% of the calls

  • Allegations of bullying
  • Daily deposits of human excrement on the bathroom floor
  • Suicidal comments

LESSONS LEARNED – Camper Behavior 

  1. Take all comments about suicide very seriously. ACA saw an alarming increase in calls from camps regarding campers making suicidal comments. Often the camp thought the comments were “just to get attention” or “just joking.” However, unless you are a trained mental health professional, assume the threat is serious. Educate staff on the indicators and symptoms of mental health problems. Information breaks down the stigma surrounding mental health issues and enables people to recognize when to seek help. 
     
  2. Attentive and engaged staff supervision is the key to reducing negative camper behavior. Almost all reported incidents of alleged bullying and inappropriate behavior occurred when staff was not alert or even in the area. In one situation, the camp found human excrement on the bathroom floor over the course of a number of days. The number one question for that camp is – where was the staff?
     
  3. Camper’s (and staff) belongings can be searched if you suspect illegal or unsafe activity. It is a common question to the Hotline —“Can we search a camper’s belongings?” Generally, the answer is “yes” — with a few exceptions. Check out the top resources above for more details.

STAFF TRAINING QUESTIONS – Camper Behavior 

  1. During the off-season, a staff member receives a private Instagram® message (or other communication) from a former camper expressing suicidal thoughts, what would you do?
  2. What would you do if a camper reports to you that another camper claims to have marijuana at camp?
  3. At a day camp at an urban park, a camper sees and picks up a discarded syringe. What do you do? (See Case Study 3 on Page 18.)
  4. When is camper “rough-housing” actually incidents of bullying and or abuse? Practice scenarios with your staff. (See the Abuse Allegations Report on Page 9 for further examination of this issue.)

Top Resource

Behavior Management – Parenting Skills for Counselors

Bullying Prevention

Dangerous Games Every Camp Must Know About

Mental Health

Time Tested Strategies for Dealing with Challenging Behavior

Understanding a Camp’s Right to Search

All ACA camper behavior resources and online courses can be found online.

PARENT BEHAVIOR 

7% of the calls

  • Divorced parents disagreeing about camper enrollment.
  • Drunk/high parents delivering campers to day camp.
  • Parents complaining about the hiring of a staffer who identifies as gender non-conforming (See sidebar on Page 13).
  • Threats of a media story about camper behavior management policies

LESSONS LEARNED – Parent Behavior 

  1. Communication is the key to positive parent behavior. An informed parent is more likely to exhibit positive behaviors. Be upfront about your policies: your camper behavior management policies, your employment policies, and anything else parents need to know. When in crisis, utilize the above resources to communicate with parents.
     
  2. You need not — and should not — be the private investigator, judge, or jury. If you suspect a parent is neglecting or abusing their child, if you suspect parents to be driving drunk or high, if divorced parents are battling out custody issues, etc. — then contact the authorities and/or legal advisors. You don’t have the legal authority to investigate or judge, so let those that do handle these situations.

STAFF TRAINING QUESTIONS – Parent Behavior 

  1. What would you do if you find that a package that a parent has sent their child contains items that are not allowed at your camp (e.g., a cell phone)?
  2. If a custodial parent enrolls their child at camp, what would you do if the other parent calls demanding to see all the “paperwork” because they have not agreed to allow the child to come to camp?
  3. What would you do if a an irate parent calls upset because her daughter came home from camp talking about another camper who is gay – the mother is outraged that the camp would “allow” gay kids to “influence” her child?
  4. At a day camp, when parents are picking up their children, what would you do if you smell alcohol on the breath of one of the parents who is driving a vehicle?

Top Resources 

ACA Communications Toolkit

In the Trenches, Working with Camper Parents

When Behavior Becomes a Legal Issue

Who’s in Charge?

Working with Camper Parents, A Prescription for Success

ACA online courses

All ACA parent behavior resources can be found online.
 

ALLEGATIONS OF ABUSE

11% of the calls – Allegations of camper-to-camper abuse

7% of the calls – Allegations of abuse at home

2% of the calls – Allegations of staff-camper abuse

1% of the calls – Allegations of camper abuse by a member of public 

  • Allegations of camper to camper inappropriate touching.
  • Allegations of camper sexual abuse by multiple other campers.
  • Allegations of physical or sexual abuse by a family member.
  • Allegations of sexual or physical abuse by a friend/significant other/acquaintance.
  • Allegation of a camper being punched in the face while out of camp at an evening event (by someone not associated with the camp).
  • Allegations of sexual abuse of a camper by a counselor. 

LESSONS LEARNED – Allegations of Abuse

  1. Don’t hesitate to contact the authorities if a child alleges and/or you have reason to believe that they are a victim of abuse or neglect. Whether the allegation is that the abuse occurred at camp by another camper, by a staff member, or at home — it does not matter. Make the call. (See Case Study 1 on Page 15 for more on what can happen after contacting the authorities.)
     
  2. Mandated reporting is the law, and you can be arrested for failure to contact the authorities. ACA is aware of at least one situation where a camp director was indeed arrested and prosecuted for failure to make the call. 
     
  3. Don’t try to investigate. It is critical that you contact the authorities promptly so experts who are trained on these issues can begin their processes immediately. Resist the temptation to start your own “investigation” prior to contacting the authorities, even if you think it is possible that the child is “making it up.” The camp should rely on the proper authorities to step in and take over the matter.
     
  4. Don’t be surprised when a child reveals an allegation of abuse at home. It has been ACA’s experience that children who are the victims of abuse or neglect at home (or some other place outside of camp), once experiencing the safe environment of camp, can sometimes — for the first time — reveal their abusive situation to a caring adult at camp.
     
  5. Attentive, active, and involved staff supervision is the key to keeping campers from harming each other. In most of the situations explained by callers, the allegation of camper-to-camper abuse came in those brief moments in time when staff was not directly engaged with campers — shower time, trips to the restroom, changing for the pool, the time between program and mealtime, just prior to bedtime, etc. It is imperative that your staff be trained to be even more watchful during these vulnerable times. If your camp does not have staff sleeping in the same room with campers, you must consider what you are doing to ensure there is no inappropriate behavior in the middle of the night. 
     
  6. One person’s description of bullying is another person’s description of abuse. Camps and other youth-serving organizations find distinguishing between “bullying” and “abuse” challenging. For an excellent overview of the issues, read this resource: www.acacamps.org/child– health– safety/bullying. For your camp, make bullying prevention a priority from the first day of camp, and let all campers and staff know that bullying behaviors are unacceptable. Set bunk rules with explicit examples of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. Post these rules in the cabins and talk about the issues often.
     
  7. One staff person should never be alone (out of the sight of others) with a camper. Period. If nursing/healthcare staff are concerned about the privacy of a camper when they are being medically examined, be sure you have established procedures that still avoid a situation where a staff person could abuse (or be accused of abusing) a child. (See Standards sidebar on Page 6.)
     
  8. Staff training and supervision policies must support the above.
     
  9. Is your staff to camper ratio high enough to ensure that one staff person cannot be alone with a camper, especially in unique times such as the middle of the night when a camper needs to use the restroom? Develop policies and procedure`s that support staff in avoiding one-on-one situations and practice strategies for avoiding these types of situations.
     
  10. Teach your staff to be ever vigilant and question what they see. It takes just one person to step up and question when they see something not right about the way an adult is interacting with a child. You may be the one who is able to free a child from serial abuse. Always have the best interest of the child in mind!
     
  11. Establish clear policies about appropriate physical interaction between staff and campers. Be very clear where you draw the line. Does your camp allow hugging, back-patting, lap-sitting, etc.? If so be sure that your staff understands what is appropriate and what is not. Use role-playing in staff training to crystalize your policies.
     
  12. One in four girls, and one in six boys are the victim of abuse before they reach age 18 — thus, many children may be arriving at your camp already the victim of abuse. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has excellent resources to help you recognize the signs of abuse. Become knowledgeable. Online resources can be found at www.acacamps.org/child– health– safety/child– abuse. 
     
  13. Keep the phone number of your local child abuse reporting authority in a place you’ll find easily accessible. Often, the call to the Hotline is simply to ask for help in finding the correct phone number. The Hotline team is always ready to help and provide the correct number, but be prepared and have the number ready. If you don’t know who to call (generally you call the locality where the abuse is alleged to have occurred), don’t hesitate to call your own local authority and ask for guidance.
     
  14. Documentation is important. As with any important issue at camp, documenting everything is key to ensuring that the authorities have what they need to proceed with their investigation. Remember, your job is not to investigate, but to record the details of what was said by the child, who they said it to, etc. 

STAFF TRAINING QUESTIONS – Allegations of Abuse

  • Two boys aged 6 and 8 get into a scuffle over a football. Staff break it up and remind the boys that those behaviors are not acceptable at camp. The boys stop and complete the day without incident. One boy goes home and tells his mom that he was “pinched in his privates.” The mom calls you, irate and demanding that the alleged abuser not be allowed to come back to camp. What do you do?
  • A 13 year old male camper is alleged to have stuck his head under the shower stall of another 13 year old male camper and watched him shower. Camper B was extremely upset and crying and reported it to his counselor. What do you do?
  • A female teenaged camper tells her counselor that her dad “hits her sister with an open hand.” What do you do?
  • An 11 year old female camper alleges that a 9 year old male camper “touched her butt” inappropriately. She tells her mom. The mom demands that charges be filed. What do you do?
  • The morning after an off-site trip to another camp for an evening event you find out that a female camper alleges that while at the other camp “she was just standing alone” and a male camper from the other camp came over and “punched her in the face”. The nurse at the other camp allegedly examined the girl and determined that she was “OK.” You speak with the girl, noticing no bruises on her face. The girl says that she is fine and she did not see who did it. What do you do?
  • Your camp uses a buddy-system and campers must find their buddy in order to go somewhere (such as the restroom in the middle of the night). What are you doing to ensure that those campers cannot abuse one another?
  • A father says that when he picked up his 7 year old son from camp, the boy alleged that while roughhousing in the cabin, another boy inappropriately touched his privates. In addition the boy said that he told his counselor but no one did anything. Your staff tell you that the boy never said anything to them. The father demands something be done and informs you that he “works for the FBI” and can make “life difficult for the camp.” What do you do?
  • If your camp serves campers with special needs that require personal care (e.g., toileting, bathing) how are you training staff and monitoring interaction to eliminate the risk of abuse?
  • You’ve just found out that a staff member was goofing around with his campers and one of the boys “mooned” the counselor. The counselor took a short video of the mooning and general goofing around. What do you do?
  • See Case Study 1 on Page 15 for more scenarios to consider.

Top Resources 

All allegations of abuse resources have been collected in one place online.

MISCELLANEOUS 

10% of the calls

The remainder of the calls concerned varied issues. These ranged from responding to natural disasters such as fire, flood, and tornadoes; to rental group contracts, and requests for leadership resources. See Case Study 5 on Page 21 for a review of an issue related to a storm warning at departure time. In addition, see Case Study 6 on Page 22 for the review of a challenging issue where a rental group was requiring armed guards on the property. All of ACA’s most frequently used resources can be found online at www.acacamps.org/camp–crisis–hotline.