Resources and Lessons Learned From the ACA Camp Crisis Hotline

  • While camp is in session, you're told that one of your special needs minor-aged campers is a "registered sex offender."
  • A parent calls demanding that you immediately medically examine a camper in her daughter's group. The daughter told her mother that the other camper said she "has bumps on her private parts."
  • It is reported to you that a staff member is making statements threatening suicide.
  • You arrive at the university where your camp leases space to discover that the university has rented the other half of the dorm floor you are using for teenage girls to a group of adult men.
  • You discover a working hidden camera in the shower house.

These issues and many other calls were placed to the ACA Camp Crisis Hotline (800-573-9019) this year. The Hotline is a year-round, twenty-four-hours-a-day service provided to any ACA camp or member who needs help in a crisis. Every year we analyze the issues and provide you with helpful case studies and resources to assist you in crisis management, staff training, and preparation for the unexpected at your camp. We encourage you to talk with your staff and learn from the experience of other camps. If you would like more information about any of the case studies or resources, please contact the ACA Hotline Team Leader, Susan E. Yoder, at syoder@ACAcamps.org.

Medical Concerns

For the second year in a row, the most common type of call to the Hotline (24 percent of the calls) was regarding medical issues. While ACA does not provide medical advice, we can provide you with resources and talk through options for next steps.

Lessons Learned

  • The single most important step a camp can take for preparation is to have a medical support system identified pre-season. This plan includes not just your on-site medical staff, but very importantly, the list of contacts you would phone in the event of the unexpected (e.g., mental health professionals, dentists, etc.).
  • Second, follow the trends—do your research before camp. Read up on what the latest medical hot topics are. Be prepared for what to do should a contagious disease strike at camp, and know who you would contact to find out about common afflictions such as head lice and scabies. The Centers for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov) is an excellent resource for these types of questions.
  • Set procedures in place that do not allow for your on-site staff to "override" the decisions of a camper's physician. (In one Hotline case, the camp director found out that the nursing staff had decreased a dosage of a camper's medication because she believed the child did not "need that much.") Not only is this decision inappropriate, it can be lifethreatening and illegal. Understand that unless otherwise specified, no prescribed medication is "optional."

Case Studies and Questions for Your Camp

  • If a day camper's parent called you and told you that his/ her child was just diagnosed with "molluscum contagiosum" —where would you go to find out what this diagnosis is and what you need to do?
  • If a parent called and said that their child returned home with "too much medication left over"—what would you say and do? What records do you require to be kept by those staff responsible for distributing medication?
  • What do you do when you discover a camper has lice? It's more common than you might think and not directly related to cleanliness.
  • A female camper aged fourteen approaches your camp nurse and reveals that she might be pregnant. She wants a pregnancy test and requests that the nurse not tell her parents. What do you do? What are the laws that govern this issue? Are there experts in your area that could help (e.g., medical clinics, etc.)?

Key Resources

Camper Behavior

Over the years, ACA has seen an increase in the variety of calls we receive related to the behavior of campers (this year—23 percent of the calls). This year calls included: bullying, sexual-based "daring" games, threats of suicide, vandalism, drinking, inappropriate language, and campers cutting themselves. As an industry, we continue to learn and prepare for all kinds of camper behavior situations.

Lessons Learned

  • Almost every case of campers being inappropriate with each other happen when there is little or no direct supervision from staff. Examine the times when campers are not directly supervised, such as, when using the restroom, changing for programs, resting, and when staff are sleeping, etc. Provide training and policies that do not allow campers to be alone without staff supervision—ever.
  • Harassment (both sexual and otherwise) is happening at younger and younger ages. What are your camp's policies and consequences for camper-to-camper harassment?
  • Policies for camper behavior without stated consequences are more tempting for campers to break. Provide your campers with a clear understanding of your rules and consequences.

Case Studies and Questions for Your Camp

  • A staff member reports that a camper has told her that another camper has been cutting herself on her arms each night. What do you do?
  • You hear reports of a new "game" that boys play call "Do It ‘til You're Uncomfortable" and hear rumors that it is happening in one of your cabins. What do you do?
  • Campers report that another camper in their bunk has been brandishing a knife when the counselor is not around. What do you do?
  • You suspect that a group of girls has smuggled alcohol into their bunk after a field trip off-property. What do you do?

Key Resources

Allegations of Abuse—Both at Home and at Camp

This year, 22 percent of the calls we received concerned allegations of abuse. Of those calls, the breakdown by allegation was:

  • Camper-to-camper abuse allegations: 42 percent
  • Revelations of abusive situations at home: 21 percent
  • Accusations that abuse happened at camp many years ago: 15 percent
  • Allegations of minor-aged staff engaged in mutual-consent sex acts: 11 percent
  • Allegations of staff-to-camper abuse: 11 percent

Lessons Learned

  • As with the section dedicated to camper behavior, the most vulnerable time when camper-to-camper abuse can happen is when staff are engaged elsewhere. Sleeping time, overnights in tents, trips to the bathroom, and times when campers are changing clothes for the pool are clearly the times when camps need to be ever more attuned for the possibilities of camper-to-camper inappropriate activities. Provide training and policies that do not allow campers to be alone without staff supervision—ever.
  • Mandated reporting laws continue to be unclear to many who phone the Hotline. Let's clarify . . . if you have reason to believe that abuse may have occurred—regardless of whether the abuse was alleged to have happened in your camp or not—then you must make the call. Generally, you should call the authorities in the state where the abuse is alleged to have happened. It is not your role to investigate allegations of abuse. Investigations are best made by trained professionals. If you are unsure of what agency to call to report an allegation of abuse, simply look in your phone book under the blue community pages—the listing should be something similar to "Child Abuse and Neglect." Look up the phone number now. Have it available now—instead of fumbling for it if something does happen. (You can also find the phone numbers online at: www.ACAcamps.org/publicpolicy/childabuse.php.)
  • It is not unusual for abused children to reveal at camp that they have been abused in another environment. Many children feel safe at camp because they feel that people there care—thus what they might not have revealed at home is sometimes more easily revealed at camp. In these situations, children often say "Please don't tell anyone." You cannot promise them that. Instead you need to assure them that you care and that you must tell the people who can help. You needn't say "the authorities" to the child—this can be intimidating—instead focus on saying "the people who can help."
  • Be absolutely clear in your personnel policies about what is acceptable staff-to-staff interaction. Remember staff— especially minor-aged staff—are still your responsibility, and your camp needs policies and procedures in place to keep them from harm as well.

Case Studies and Questions for your Camp

  • Your camp policy requires campers to get a buddy to go with them to the restroom. What policies/procedures do you have in place to protect those campers from each other?
  • Your lifeguard sees two boys in the pool touching each other's private areas. What procedures does your camp have in place to guide what the lifeguard should do?
  • You receive a call from an attorney. The attorney is representing a forty-three year-old who claims that through therapy he now has remembered that he was abused at your camp when he was ten. What do you do?

Resources

Personnel Issues and Staff Behavior

We saw an increase this year in the number of calls related to personnel matters and staff behavior (15 percent of the total calls). See the article, "Avoiding Staff Surprises" on page 4 for a detailed look at some of those issues and recommendations.

Lessons Learned

  • Nothing can replace excellent employment agreements and personnel handbooks. Be sure your manuals are as allinclusive and specific as possible in order to avoid confusion.
  • Staff screening is essential. Background checks are an important part of that screening. Know what checks are required and any others that are available to you.

Case Studies and Questions for Your Camp

  • You hear from a parent that one of your twenty-year-old staff has a Facebook page. On that page, the staff member is wearing a camp tee shirt and is holding a beer. What do you do?
  • A staff member who has been underperforming has had a hard week and in passing says to you—"…boy I sure know why that guy at Virginia Tech did what he did." What do you do?
  • See page 6 for other case studies.

Resources

Parent Behavior

Seven percent of the calls this year concerned the behavior and/ or demands of camp parents. While the information about "helicopter" parents continues to flood the industry, we see the rise in a different type of parents who are "abdicating" their parental responsibilities.

Lessons Learned

  • You are in partnership with parents. Make sure they fully understand your camp's policies and consequences.
  • Your registration form should ask for information about both parents including asking for a narrative if there are any special circumstances of which you should be aware (e.g., "I am the custodial parent and there is a restraining order against the boy's father that precludes him from coming to camp to pick up the child.")
  • If your camp has a policy that does not allow for unscheduled visits from parents—make sure your parents understand why you have this policy.

Case Studies and Questions for Your Camp

  • What would you do if you determined that a camper needed to be sent home and a parent refused to come and pick up his/ her child? What if you offered to bring the child home and the parent still refused? If keeping the child at camp is not an option, then what do you do? What community resources are available to you?
  • A man arrives at your camp and demands to see a camper he claims is his son. You check the registration form and find that it was filled out by the mother and there is no mention of the father. You phone the mother and there is no answer. What do you do?

Resources

Death of a Staff Member or Camper

This year, we were made aware of six situations of the death of a camper or staff member. (Not all of these calls came through the Hotline—some were simply made known to us through other communications.) Four of the six situations involved the death of a staff member: two in boat accidents, one in an auto accident while on a day off, and the last by suicide. The camper deaths were an accidental drowning and a seizure of a camper with special needs.

Lessons Learned

  • Your risk management and crisis management plans are not just plans—they should be a fresh, dynamic assessments, and step-by-step processes that are taken with the utmost seriousness and are familiar to all staff.
  • Know the resources available to you. There are excellent grief professionals available virtually everywhere. These professionals can help you think about issues such as: should/ could we have a memorial service, how should the belongings of those who have died be respectfully returned to family, how do you share information about the accident with campers, staff, media, others? One excellent reference that is used frequently by the ACA Hotline Staff is a manual prepared by Grief Recovery, Inc. (www.griefrecovery.ws/index.htm).
  • Develop and follow a plan for the assessment and maintenance of your natural resources (including trees, water features, soil, etc.).

Case Studies and Questions for Your Camp

  • What are your aquatics policies? Are you doing everything you can to ensure safety at waterfronts and pools?
  • If a staff member were to commit suicide at camp while in session—what would you do? Is there anything you could have done to recognize the impending suicide?

Resources

Miscellaneous

The remainder of our calls were in the broad range of miscellany.

  • A leased dorm on a university campus where the camp discovered that the university had rented the other half of a floor where they housed fourteen-year-old girls to a group of adult men.
  • Help with what to do about a variety of unwelcome animal visitors: bats, mountain lions, bears.
  • Whether to accept a camper who is a seventeen-year-old with special needs who has a history of sexual abuse perpetration.

Case Studies and Questions for Your Camp

  • If your camp uses university dorms, what restrictions can you place on the university as to what other groups it can lease space to at the same time as your camp?
  • Under what circumstances would your camp accept a camper application from a child who has a documented history of sexual abuse perpetration? If you accepted this child, what procedures would you follow to ensure the safety of everyone?

Miscellaneous Resources

While the Hotline is mainly called upon during the summer months, it is available every day twenty-four hours a day. We encourage you to use this service when you need help in a crisis. Many who have used the Hotline have said that this service is the single most valuable benefit of being associated with the American Camp Association. We shall continue to develop these annual lessons learned and case studies to help all camp professionals learn from the crisis situations experienced in other camps. We encourage you to review the past fall issues of The CampLine to consider each year's overview. These issues can be accessed online at www.ACAcamps.org/campline; click on "Archived Issues." The Hotline phone number is 800-573-9019.

Originally published in the 2007 Fall issue of The CampLine.

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