Integrating Duty of Care into Your Organizational Camp Culture

Katie Johnson and John Feasel
May 2018

These incidents are based on real-life events at real-world camps. And each of them raises an important question: Did the camps at which these tragedies happened fail in their duty of care?

It can be a natural response for victims and their families to look for someone to blame when something goes wrong. After all, camps are taking on primary responsibility for a camper’s well-being for the duration of their time away from home. Yet while it’s right and proper to ask why an accident occurred, it’s also important to remember that an accident or incident is not, in and of itself, a sign of negligence. Adventure, exploration, and growth are an inherent part of the camp experience, and without risk you can’t grow. It would be impossible, and perhaps even counterproductive, to eliminate all risk from programming.

That’s why it’s important for every camp — and all camp staff and volunteers — to understand exactly what their responsibilities are when it comes to the health, safety, and well-being of the people in their care.

Reasonable Duty of Care: The Legal Definition

While “duty of care” is often talked about in legal terms, few of us would ever frame our responsibilities to campers in legal terms alone. We look after those in our care because it’s what we believe in, not because it’s what the law tells us to do. Nevertheless, exploring those legal standards can help us to better understand what it means to act in the best interests of our campers.

Take the “Reasonable Person Standard,” for example, which is the legal standard of care most commonly applied to the camp context. A term used in civil — not criminal — law, it broadly means that a person’s or organization’s actions will be judged against what a reasonably prudent person or organization in a similar position would have done. As John Feasel, senior advocacy manager at The Redwoods Group, explains, the most important thing to understand about this standard is that it is entirely objective:

“When a court is considering a negligence case against a camp director, the beliefs, knowledge, experience, philosophy, or mental state of the defendant are entirely irrelevant. They can believe what they personally like about the relative place of safety in the camp experience or how supervision should be practiced, but their actions will be judged against how well they adhered to standards that are commonly or broadly used in the industry.”

In other words, as far as the legal system is concerned, there are specific, objective, and verifiable standards by which a camp’s duty of care can be measured. The good news is, this means there’s little room for ambiguity: We know exactly what we have to do to fulfill our duties.

In Loco Parentis” Does Not Mean “Parentis

When discussing safety in the camp environment, a term that is commonly used is “in loco parentis.” A Latin term meaning “in place of the parent,” it is commonly used in a legal environment to recognize that a teacher, camp counselor, or other professional caregiver will have to make decisions in place of a parent, and may require some flexibility to do so.

Aside from the strict legal definition, however, the phrase itself holds clues as to how and why camps and camp professionals need to adhere to specific standards. In a world where parenting blogs are consumed with debates about the relative merits and pitfalls of helicopter parenting versus free-range parenting, many of us will be familiar with discussions about the tensions between freedom and discipline, or autonomy and supervision. In examining the term “in loco parentis,” however, one can argue that such debates are largely irrelevant when it comes to establishing a camp professional’s duty of care. Again, Feasel explains:

“The ‘in loco’ part of ‘in loco parentis’ is important. Camp directors and counselors might be acting in place of the parent temporarily, but they are not the actual parent. And while individual families will have very different views on risk taking and safety, we — as institutions — do not have that luxury. We have to have consistent, objective standards so that every family can know what to expect when they drop their kids in our care.”

Given the diversity of camps and camp programming — not to mention the diversity in campers themselves, and the geographical locations and environments in which camps operate — establishing objective standards for reasonable care is no small task. Fortunately, as the largest camp industry association in the country, the American Camp Association (ACA) has been able to use the knowledge and experience of its membership base to develop standards of care that cover almost every conceivable angle of safety, well-being, and stewardship of children in a camp environment. 

These standards — developed by the ACA National Standards Commission — have evolved over the years based on the changing needs and capacity of the camping industry. The standards were most recently updated in 2016. Below is just a small sample of what they cover:

Camper Health History: Health history information must be gathered from parents/guardians that includes current health conditions, past medical treatment, immunizations, and allergies.

Emergency Transportation: Must be available at all times; may be provided by the camp, user groups, or prearranged with community services.

Transportation Supervisor: Vehicles transporting 15 or more campers must have a staff person, in addition to the driver, trained in safety responsibilities and group management.

Dish Drying and Storage: Dishes must be air dried and covered.

In other words, these standards have been formulated to provide camps with specific, actionable guidance. According to Katie Johnson, Redwoods consultant, the granular detail of the ACA standards means that camps no longer have to reinvent the wheel in terms of determining what is and what is not safe:

“Imagine if every camp had to research food safety requirements for a camp environment. Or formulate their own supervision protocols and research best practice abuse prevention methods. ACA standards take most of that legwork off the table, providing the specific action steps that each camp needs to take in almost every aspect of their programming or operations. That leaves camps to focus on what they do best: Creating unique, exciting, and enriching experiences for their campers.”

Much More Than a Checkbox

It’s important to understand, however, that while the standards themselves may be detailed, and while they provide a blueprint for specific action steps, they are by no means a checkbox exercise either. Rather, when applied consistently and comprehensively, they become a powerful tool for integrating the values of safety and care into the organizational culture of a camp.

Johnson explains why:

“I’ve visited camps that use the ACA standards, but are not applying them consistently. And then I’ve visited others who have really adopted them as a guiding principle in everything they do. It’s easy for me to tell the difference. When a camp really takes on the standards on a deep level, it makes a tangible difference to the overall culture of the camp.”

The secret to ensuring consistent adoption of standards, says Johnson, is to make sure that all staff are not just following a particular protocol or practice, but actually understand the reason behind it:

“It’s easy to tell staff and counselors that they should only give side hugs. Or that they shouldn’t be friends with campers on Facebook. But telling them what they should and shouldn’t do only gets you so far. When they understand that inappropriate touch can be a red flag for abuse, or that a culture of informality can give opportunities to predators, that’s when they start viewing the standards as the tool that they are, rather than as a rule book to follow. And that’s when they start holding each other accountable, too.”

A Culture of Accountability

It’s this shift from simple compliance to a more comprehensive culture of accountability that Johnson looks for and encourages when conducting on-site consulting visits. But building such a culture takes both a commitment from leadership and an organization-wide effort of implementation. The results, however, are very worthwhile. One camp which Johnson highlights as really integrating the ACA standards into its overall organizational culture is the YMCA Camp of Maine. Camp Director Jeff Gleason explains how they, as an organization, have moved beyond compliance and toward a proactive, integrated culture of safety:

“YMCA Camp of Maine is getting ready for its 103rd summer. We are able to focus on the heritage and traditions of camp because we know that the backbone of operations is strong. Partnering with ACA allows us to stay current with industry standards while introducing innovative and fun programming. Staff members know what their expectations of safety are, so creating and strengthening programs around our traditional atmosphere is easy.”

The Importance of Leadership

According to Johnson, successful implementation of a culture of accountability at camp almost always starts from the top down. When a camp’s board and a camp’s director are invested in implementation of the ACA Standards of Care, then integrating them into operations and programming becomes second nature to everyone at camp, even when there are expenses or sacrifices involved:

“There’s a big difference between distributing the ACA standards to your team and asking them to implement them, versus taking the time to communicate their importance, delegating tasks, dedicating resources, and then following up to make sure they were actually implemented as intended. Ultimately, the responsibility for doing so lies with leadership.” 

Duty of Care Is Everyone’s Responsibility

Of course, leadership alone cannot create a culture of accountability — rather, their role is to send a clear message about values and expectations, and then empower their staff members to implement them. And one of the most important ways that this culture is created is by hiring the right staff members in the first place.

That means ensuring a robust, secure, and consistent hiring process — including screening and criminal background checks, interviews, and references, as well as a solid program of training and onboarding. Indeed, the ACA Standards of Care themselves provide clear and detailed guidelines on hiring and onboarding. According to Johnson, not only does this weed out any inappropriate candidates, but it also sends a message to your new hires that safety and standards are an important part of their professional duties:

“If I’m a new counselor at camp, it sends a powerful message if I’m introduced to the camp’s protocols and practices before I even start my first day. When I worked in the camp industry, I would make sure that our own camp standards met the ACA standards, and I’d also incorporate specific footnotes or commentaries about which specific standard each element of the protocol helped us to meet. This would engage the staff and counselors to start thinking about how our performance was evaluated, and what values and standards we held ourselves accountable to.”

Implementation and Supervision Matter

Of course, just because a camp has standards and protocols does not mean that they’ll always be followed. That’s why it’s important to make sure that there’s a consistent, proactive culture of active coaching, discipline and staff feedback at camp. That means not just responding when things go badly wrong, but rather engaging in a constant process of encouragement, improvement and — where necessary — correction of staff and counselor behavior. Feasel explains why this matters, both from a legal and a practical perspective:

“If your standards stipulate how dishes should be dried, or how bunk beds ought to be arranged, and yet you’re not implementing those standards consistently, then that sends a message to your staff and counselors about how much the standards are valued. It’s true that some of these things may seem small, perhaps even trivial, but by identifying and correcting gaps between protocols and practice, you create a culture where there’s much less room for error. It’s also worth noting that the law pays particular attention to a camp’s own standards — so if you’ve adopted a standard, but aren’t following it, that’s a red flag in terms negligence as far as a court is concerned.”

More often than not, correcting any lapse in implementation is a case of raising concerns and making a plan to fix them. Usually, this can be done in a positive and friendly manner. Indeed, praising your staff for correct and proactive implementation is just as important as identifying lapses or deficiencies.

That said, there will be times that stronger measures are called for. And that means planning in advance for a consistent, forceful and progressive program of discipline — raising concerns about any particular behaviors or practices, documenting those concerns and clearly communicating the consequences of not following them — up to and including termination where appropriate.

Promoting a Positive Workplace Culture

Another factor that is too often overlooked when implementing a culture of accountability is that the ACA standards are a starting point, not an end in themselves.  Implementing these standards will be easier and more effective if it goes hand-in-hand with efforts to promote a positive, vibrant, and rewarding workplace culture where all staff and counselors feel valued, respected and taken care of. Whether that means creating channels for honest and open feedback, or making sure that everyone has opportunities for adequate rest, recuperation, and recreation, the steps you take to invest in your team most likely pay dividends not just in terms of retention, but in terms of how effectively and consistently they implement the policies of your camp.

At the beginning of this article, we referenced several incidents in which campers or volunteers were injured, and asked whether the camp in question had failed in its duty of care. The truth of the matter is that we’d need considerably more information to make that determination. Was the volunteer who was injured by a kicking horse properly trained in and qualified for equestrian activities? Was the camper who fell from his bunk being properly supervised at the time? Was the collision between the staff member and a camper unavoidable, or was that staff member too caught up in playing the game? Where was the child positioned when they were injured by a falling rock, and were they wearing a helmet?

At its most basic level, the question we are asking ourselves in all of the above situations is not “what happened?” but rather “how did it happen and how did the camp respond?” And, more importantly, we are also looking to determine whether all reasonable steps taken to minimize the risks of such incidents happening in the first place. By creating a deep, values-based and organization-wide focus on caring, safety, and accountability, you can create an environment where everyone — from leadership to camp counselors — is invested in and supportive of the mission of your camp. That not only reduces the likelihood of such tragedies occurring on your watch, but enhances the experience, well-being, and satisfaction of the campers in your care. That can only be a good thing.

Legal Terms

Negligence

At its simplest level, negligence is a failure to meet the standards of care. Within the camp environment, it is usually a case of civil rather than criminal negligence. (Exception would be an intentional cover up, etc.)

Standard of Care

Standard of care is a legal construct under which a court will look at a camp’s own standards — and the standards of the industry as a whole — and determine the level of care required.

In Loco Parentis

Literally meaning “in place of the parent,” this term is used to mean that the caregiver is acting as a child’s guardian during the child’s time at camp.

Example: Texting While Driving

Camp Counselor Emily, a senior counselor at Camp ABC, is driving a vehicle full of campers to an off-site activity. While driving the van, Emily is texting on her cell phone and not paying attention to the road. Emily loses control of the vehicle and drives into a tree, causing injury to several campers. Because Emily was fulfilling her duties (transporting campers to activities) as an employee of Camp ABC when she negligently crashed the vehicle, Camp ABC can be held liable for Emily’s negligence on the grounds that Emily was acting within the course and scope of her employment at the time. In this instance, Camp ABC would be considered vicariously liable.

However, if Camp ABC knew that Emily had a poor driving record and a history of accidents resulting from the use of a cell phone while driving and hired her anyway, or if they failed to check her driving records or train her adequately despite this being part of their hiring protocol, then Camp ABC would become directly liable to the campers on the grounds of negligent hiring.


Katie Johnson has spent 20+ years as a youth development professional working with both resident and day camp programs, including eight years with the American Camp Association. Most recently, Katie joined The Redwoods Group as a consultant, where she is sharing her professional experiences to help camps and youth serving organizations provide safe environments and programs for children and families.

John Feasel is a licensed attorney and the senior advocacy manager for The Redwoods Group. As a kid, he always looked forward to summer adventures at camp. John loves going to work each day to help camps and other community organizations scale their impact and create safer communities for all.

Photo courtesy of Rolling River Day Camp, New York, NY