ACA Camp Crisis Hotline Annual Review 2019

November 2019
ACA Camp Crisis Hotline Annual Review 2019 graphic

Part of the magic of camp is the unexpected. In most cases, the unexpected means spontaneous, unscripted moments of connection, growth, and renewal — but the unexpected can also mean uncertainty, or even a crisis or emergency. In this article, we share examples of crisis situations that happened at actual camps this summer for you to use as an emergency planning and staff training resource. Each of the situations is based on calls made by camp professionals to the ACA Camp Crisis Hotline in 2019.

ACA Camp Crisis Hotline is a free, confidential, call-in resource for camp and youth development professionals that is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The ACA Camp Crisis Hotline Team consists of ACA staff members who are trained to listen and offer guiding questions a caller might consider when faced with a crisis or unexpected situation. Our goal for each call is to help the caller identify where in their own policies, procedures, and resources they might find a way to address the situation. We also share resources, many of which can be found on the ACA Camp Crisis Hotline web page.

How do we define crisis? We don’t. A crisis is any situation for which a camp professional — regardless of their ACA membership or accreditation status — might want support. From bedbugs to wildfires, difficult parents to bullying, we take every call seriously and do our best to provide resources and considerations for next steps. We are not legal experts nor medical personnel, yet many of us are former camp professionals and know from experience how easily a crisis at camp can occur.

Historically, calls to the ACA Camp Crisis Hotline fall into broad categories, and we track the number of calls in these categories over time to give us a sense of emerging issues. With this information, we create professional development resources to help camp professionals prepare for and mitigate crisis situations that might be new or particularly challenging. We typically receive about 150 calls per calendar year, and these calls fall into the general categories described below.
 

Health and Medical Issues — 25% of calls

The health and medical category includes a broad range of topics from mental health issues to the treatment of common childhood illnesses and injuries, from questions about healthcare procedures (e.g., how to perform a lice check) to dealing with a death at camp.

Emerging issues included: 

  • Measles/immunizations
  • International staff in need of medical and mental health care
  • Outbreak of communicable illnesses and notifying parents
  • Medication management, including CBD oil and essential oils

 

Abuse Issues — 19%

While most often calls in the abuse issues category are about clarifying the mandated reporter laws and whether to call the authorities, the conversation often leads to identifying the need for techniques/ tips to manage the way campers treat one another.

Emerging issues included:

  • Increased reporting in #MeToo era; concerns related to investigating and reporting
  • Accusations of sexual assault involving international staff
  • Campers disclosing abuse that occurred at home
  • Inappropriate touching, camper-tocamper and staff-to-camper

 

Personnel/Staff/Issues — 19%

Calls in the personnel/staff issues category are commonly related to gaps in a camp’s personnel policies and/or inconsistent enforcement of currently established policies and practices.

Emerging issues included:

  • Staff burnout/mental health concerns
  • Nursing shortage/medical coverage if nurse not available
  • Lenience in enforcement of staff policies
  • Gender-based supervision in cabins, particularly in situations of shortage of male or female staff
  • Medical marijuana use and use of recreational marijuana in marijuana-legal states
  • Lack of active and engaged supervision

 

Camper Issues — 16%

Calls in this category primarily focus on an individual camper’s behavior in general and not toward another specific camper.

Emerging issues included:

  • Vaping/e-cigarette use among campers
  • Mental health concerns, including suicidal ideation
  • Camper behavior
  • Missing camper situations 

 

Business Operations — 11%

Calls in this category are generally related to issues regarding the business of running camp and can include everything from taxes and wages to insurance and workers’ compensation.

Emerging issues included:

  • Response to weather-related events, including evacuation protocol and camp cancellation
  • Managing response to crisis in the media and social media

 

Infestations — 4%

Bedbugs, bats, lice, scabies, pinworms, spiders, and ticks, etc.

Emerging issues included:

  • Containing outbreak and follow-up communications 

 

Parent Behavior — 3%

Calls regarding parent behavior can be some of the most difficult issues for camps. As camp professionals, we value partnering with parents, but sometimes parents are not so amenable to the partnership.

Emerging issues included: 

  • Managing custody situations
  • Parents demanding access to kids at camp
  • Parents requesting contact information for the parents of other campers

 

Miscellaneous — 4%

Emerging issues included:

  • Dealing with natural disasters such as flooding, wildfires, or tornadoes
  • Viral negative social media posts
  • Questions about standards
  • Hypothetical situation questions

 

ACA Camp Crisis Hotline Recommendations for Crisis Preparedness

While each case is unique, we find ourselves asking callers to the ACA Camp Crisis Hotline a similar set of questions. The following recommendations are based on these questions, and while they will not prevent a crisis, they are things you’ll want in your toolkit should you face an unexpected or crisis situation at camp.

  1. Develop a working relationship with your insurance company and representative. Review their resources so you know what they can and can’t do. Know and understand the limits and coverages afforded your camp by your various insurance policies.
  2. Ensure access to legal counsel. Consider it an investment. If finances are an issue for retaining legal counsel year-round, consider alternative means of accessing such counsel (e.g., compiling a list and reaching out to local law schools, members of camp or agency board of directors, camper parents/families, alumni, other nearby camps, community legal aid clinics, etc.).
  3. Ensure access to mental health professionals. Develop relationships with a network of mental health professionals such as social workers, counselors, therapists, family counselors, or other professionals who are available and willing to be both on site and on call to help with mental, emotional, spiritual, or relationship issues of campers and staff.
  4. Develop a thorough crisis communication plan. In the event of a serious accident, incident, injury, or infestation, an excellent communication plan is critical. The well-prepared camp has considered and prepared their key messages for a variety of audiences (parents, media, staff, board, etc.) for a variety of possible scenarios common to camp. When possible, camps should consider employing the expertise of a public relations professional or secure access to such a professional should the need arise. Resource: Crisis Communications Toolkit
  5. Review your supervision policies and procedures. Attentive, active, and involved staff supervision is the key to keeping campers from harming each other. Well-enforced and intentional supervision policies are critical in decreasing camper behavior issues. Camps need to ensure that their procedures and staff training are designed not only to protect the safety of campers, but also to identify situations where campers could be tempted to behave inappropriately.

 

Case Studies

As you might expect, the calls we receive rarely fit neatly into one category. Each crisis is unique, and it is in this uniqueness that we find the most opportunity for learning and preparedness. The crisis scenarios we share in this article represent what we consider emerging trends based on the number of calls with similar themes we received this past year, and, in some cases, the last several years. For each scenario we share questions you might ask during staff training and questions you might consider when reviewing your camp’s policies and risk management plans.

While each case is based on actual calls we received to the ACA Camp Crisis Hotline this year, most have been adjusted to maintain the confidentiality of the caller and their situation. You’ll also notice that we do not provide the after story. That is in part circumstantial — we do not often hear how the story ends — and in part intentional. Each case is meant to prompt critical examination of your own policies and practices rather than to suggest that every camp can follow the same steps and reach the same outcome.
 

Case #1: Do You Want to Know a Secret?

It’s a dismissal day, and a camper makes their way to the camp director because they have a secret they feel an adult should know about. The secret is about a female camper who has already left camp but shared some information with this friend and asked the friend not to tell anyone. The female camper confided that during her time at camp, not one but two different male counselors kissed her. The camper sharing this secret with the camp director is reluctant to give any more information about who the female camper is or the names of the male counselors but finally agrees. The camp director worries about taking action when the truth is difficult to determine.
 

What can we learn from this case?


Policies & Risk Management

  • Do you have clear policies to ensure campers are never alone with a staff member?
  • Do you have a staff code of conduct and clear steps for enforcement?
  • Do you have a process for investigating staff conduct and making decisions about consequences?
  • Do you have an action plan for reporting to relevant authorities, such as Child Protective Services or law enforcement?
  • Do you have access to legal counsel? In this case, a legal expert can advise in addressing employment issues, as well as support should the parents decide to take legal action.
  • Know your insurance provider and their recommendations for investigating and reporting

Staff Training

  • Consider scenarios where appropriate supervision might be challenging and what staff can do when they might be alone with a camper.
  • Discuss appropriate touch and boundaries with campers. Train staff to recognize signs of inappropriate interactions between campers and staff and what to do if they see or hear something.
  • Make sure staff are clear on their role as mandated reporters and what to do in situations that might require reporting.

Key Takeaway

Training staff in appropriate supervision and interactions with campers is key! Engage campers in establishing a culture of See Something, Say Something and have a ready-to-go action plan for legal counsel and communicating with authorities, parents, and staff if situations involving inappropriate staff-camper interactions happen at your camp.
 

Resources

 

Case #2: Health Challenges with International Staff

An international staff person shares once they arrive on site that they have a diagnosed health condition that requires close monitoring and nutritional support. This was not disclosed prior to the start of camp. During the first few weeks of camp, the staff member struggles to manage their condition, leaving other staff members concerned. One evening, they find the international staff member unresponsive and seek emergency medical care. The staff member is treated and returns to camp, but the camp director is concerned about the person’s ability to manage their health in a camp setting that is far away from medical care and might not have the on-site medical or nutritional support this person needs. Is this the best camp situation for the health and safety of this individual, and, if not, what can the camp director do about it?
 

What can we learn from this case?


Policies & Risk Management

  • Do you have a way to appropriately collect health information from staff and a policy for health concerns that arise once on site?
  • If you employ international staff, do you have a plan for their medical care?
  • If you work with an international staffing agency, be sure you know their policies on health screening and supporting international staff who might struggle once on site.
  • As part of the hiring process, do you disclose and discuss the realities of managing any healthcare issues related to finding and paying for treatment that may

Staff Training

  • Engage staff in strategizing how they can manage their own health and well-being during camp.
  • Consider a separate session with international staff so they know how to support their own health-related needs and what to do if something comes up

Key Takeaway

Gather as much information as you can about staff members’ health and medical needs, and have a plan for medical care for international staff. Be sure you know exactly what you can expect from an international staffing agency should concerns about international
 

Resources

 

Case #3: Can’t Touch Me

A parent appears at the camp office to report that her child came home with bruises and marks on his arm caused by a counselor. Upon further discovery, the camp director learns that one of the most popular counselors grabbed the camper’s arm in a disciplinary action and was responsible for the marks. The parent was involved in talking with the counselor about the negative impact this had on her child. The counselor believes they were in the right on how they handled the matter. The camp director is worried that taking action to terminate this revered counselor will cause other campers to react adversely and lead additional staff to quit.
 

What can we learn from this case?


Policies & Risk Management

  • Do your policies describe clear steps for behavior management?
  • Do you have employment policies that have been reviewed by an HR expert and are detailed enough to implement with minimal gaps in difficult decision-making?
  • Do you have a communication plan for working with parents, and does that plan include responding on social media?

Staff Training

  • Make training staff in effective childcentered behavior strategies a priority. Consider engaging a child development expert to work with staff.
  • Ensure staff have a robust toolbox of ways to promote campers’ best behavior and deal with negative behavior safely and effectively.
  • Ensure staff are clear on your employment policies, performance evaluations, and disciplinary actions they could face in not meeting these expectations.

Key Takeaway

Consistency is key when addressing situations in which staff do something serious like inappropriately disciplining a camper. Most often the consequences of inaction are far greater than what might happen if you ask a staff member to leave.
 

Resources

  • Staff Training and Preparation
  • Handling abuse
  • Camp Insurance Trends

 

Case #4: Female Staff Supervision of Male Campers

A camp director calls because the camp is short on male staff and wants to know if they can have female staff persons supervise and stay in a cabin with their six- and seven-year-old boys. There would be a 2:8 ratio of staff to campers. He has already checked with his insurance carrier and knows that nothing is legally prohibiting the female staff from sleeping in the cabin with the boys. Similarly, he already knows that ACA standards do not dictate supervision by gender, only by ratio.
 

What can we learn from this case?


Policies & Risk Management

  • Do your cabin supervision policies specify that you always have supervisors who are the same gender as participants? Why or why not?
  • If you allow for supervision by a person of the opposite gender, are you able to accommodate and ensure the need for privacy for campers and staff related to changing, restrooms, and sleeping in the cabin?
  • If you allow for opposite gender supervision, as in this case, are you doing anything to ensure that these young campers have ample opportunities of quality time to interact with positive male role models?

Staff Training

  • How do you train your staff about camp policies related to never being alone with a camper and the power of three?
  • Are your staff trained regarding child abuse prevention and comfortable with “see something, say something” to keep everyone safe? Do you have an expert providing this training?
  • What will your communication to the camper parents about this situation look like? What role do the staff play in this (especially on drop-off and pickup days)? What are your key messages?

Key Takeaway

This case is first and foremost about supervision. If you consistently follow the rule of three, it should not be a problem to have staff supervise campers of the opposite gender. Be sure to communicate clearly with parents if this is a possibility and provide accessible ways for campers of all genders to change, bathe, and use the restroom privately.


Resource

 

Case #5: Vaping Comes to Camp!

A parent of a camper who went home from camp mid-session reports to the camp that her child told her some of his fellow campers were vaping while at camp. The director speaks with his staff and finds none were aware of any vaping activity. According to the parent, one of the vape pens contained tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The director calls needing assistance in determining whether the camp could search camper belongings and what should they do if they find e-cigarettes regardless of THC? Should the presence of THC change how they handle it?
 

What can we learn from this case?


Policies & Risk Management

  • What is your policy for searching a camper’s belongings? Do you make this policy clear to campers and parents?
  • What are the camp policies related to campers (or staff) having and using illegal substances, including e-cigarettes (in all its forms)?
  • What if there had been THC, the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects, in the e-cigarette? Would you also call the authorities?
  • What is your policy regarding refunds if you send a camper home because of using illegal substances like e-cigarettes?

Staff Training

  • Make sure staff can identify e-cigarettes and other illegal substances and know the steps they should take if they suspect a camper (or another staff member) of using an illegal substance.
  • Discuss policies regarding staff use of e-cigarettes, medical marijuana, and recreational marijuana if you are in a state where marijuana is legalized. Emphasize the critical functions of their jobs and how they will be observed.
  • Are staff trained to be vigilant and proactive with supervision of campers so opportunities for vaping cannot occur?

Key Takeaway 

In the US, it is illegal for minors to be in possession of tobacco, to smoke in public, or to purchase tobacco products. It is illegal to sell or distribute tobacco to anyone under the age of 18 years. Additionally, federal vaping laws for minors forbid anyone younger than 18 years of age from purchasing and using any vaping device or product — including e-cigarettes, electronic vaporizers, and e-juices.
 

Resources

 

Case #6: Parental Rights Dispute Related to Camp Information

At a day camp, one parent enrolls a camper and fills out all the paperwork listing himself as the only parent/guardian. Additionally, he shows the director a legal document stating that the child’s second parent is not to transport the camper, nor is she to have any contact with the child. Two weeks into camp, the second parent, who has a letter from a lawyer stating she also has parenting privileges, asks for the registration documents the first parent provided the camp. In addition, she says the camper has a known medical condition and wants to know if the first parent provided that information. The camp is feeling caught in the middle of the parents’ dispute and calls looking for advice on next steps.
 

What can we learn from this case?

Policies & Risk Management

  • What is the camp’s policy regarding camper pickup and drop-off? How does camp verify who is eligible for pickup and drop-off of campers?
  • Does the camp have a policy about confidentiality of camper information? Does this policy extend to other members of the family? What are the expectations of a parent when they submit camper information to the camp?
  • Does the camp do any due diligence to verify whether any legal documentation provided to camp by parents is bona fide?
  • Questions to ask legal counsel:
    • Are there local laws or governance to help with what must be shared from one parent to the next?
    • Who has rights to the information provided?
    • What does the letter from the lawyer entitle the second parent to?
    • What should the camp do if the second parent comes to camp to pick up the camper?

Staff Training

  • Make sure staff are clear on dropoff and pickup procedures. Train for scenarios where a staff person might be in a situation involving a parent who is not a designated pickup showing up at camp.
  • Perhaps invest in legal counsel to help train administrative staff in how best to navigate custody situations.

Key Takeaway 

Custody situations are tricky, and camp professionals should do what they can to avoid getting involved. If possible, review enrollment paperwork and policies regarding pickup, drop-off, and sharing information with legal counsel.
 

Resources

 

Case #7: Racist Action on the Ropes Course

A ropes course staff member was setting up the course for the next group when a counselor who was helping noticed that one of the ropes hanging from the ropes course staff member was tied in a noose. When the counselor confronted the ropes course staff member about it being a racist action, the ropes course staff member said it didn’t mean anything. The camp director worked to address the ropes course staff member, but word spread around camp of the incident and the racist inference. Some counselors, upset that they didn’t feel like it was appropriately addressed, were considering involving the media and sharing details of the incident on social media.
 

What can we learn from this case?


Policies & Risk Management

  • Does the camp have a policy on matters related to discrimination?
  • Do you have a process for repairing harm or promoting healing in the community?
  • Is your communication plan inclusive of matters including staffing issues, discrimination, etc.?
  • Do your social media policies cover expectations of how the staff may or may not represent the camp publicly?

Staff Training

  • What is the climate of your camp? Evaluating this annually may help you design training that meets the needs of the current climate.
  • Training staff around matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion is essential to the positive relational development that happens in camp.
  • Are staff trained to be allies and promote allyship among campers?

Key Takeaway

Leading by example and how people will be treated in moments of disagreement or tension are critical to building a camp culture that encourages inclusion and promotes diversity. Create high expectations so everyone knows that hate, disrespect, and intimidation have no place at camp.
 

Resources

 

Wrapping Up: Preparing for Crisis at Your Camp

Camp is a place full of the unexpected, and, as we can see in these cases, the unexpected can include situations that are difficult and frightening. We hear hundreds of stories from camp professionals each year about the crises they face, and no crisis is too big or too small to justify a call to the ACA Camp Crisis Hotline. Some situations might be preventable through regular and systematic emergency action planning; others simply are not — but all are important opportunities for learning, both at your camp and as a community of camp professionals. We hope the cases and prompts covered here serve as a starting point for dialogue and critical examination of your policies, practices, and staff training.

A few things to remember about ACA Camp Crisis Hotline:

  • It is available to any camp professional experiencing what they feel is a crisis situation, regardless of ACA membership or accreditation status.
  • It is free and confidential, available around the clock, 365 days a year.
  • It is staffed by ACA staff members with experience working at camp but who are not legal or medical experts.
  • Our most shared resources are available online.


Call us: 800-573-9019