Camps and other youth programs are fun, dynamic and fast-paced places, which is part of why young people thrive in these settings. But these and other characteristics of typical camps can also to be a recipe for disaster, despite our best risk management efforts. the American Camp Association Camp Crisis Hotline is a free, confidential, year-round service for professionals in camps and other youth programs to use when dealing with an emergency or crisis.
The hotline is staffed by ACA professionals who are trained to listen and facilitate dialogue with the caller about the nature of the emergency. We are not legal experts or licensed medical professionals, but we often advise callers to seek help from people trained to give legal or medical advice. Most often, camp professionals who call the crisis hotline have these resources available as part of their emergency plan or general policies and procedures; they just need a calm voice on the line to guide them through their own documentation. We often direct callers to resources on our Helpline web page, and in some situations recommend that they seek additional resources from their insurance provider.
Tracking phone calls helps ACA identify emerging trends and crisis-related topics where camp professionals might need resources, training and other support. We receive approximately 125 calls each year, mostly during the summer months, and track each call by topic. Here is the breakdown of calls from 2018, followed by some sample calls in the three main categories:
Health and medical emergencies
Just over a quarter of the calls we received were for health and medical emergencies. Historically, this includes issues such as contagious diseases, infestations such as bedbugs or lice, and accidents resulting in injury. This year there has been an increase in calls related to mental health emergencies among campers and staff, as well as calls related to medications and medication management.
Lessons learned about health and medical emergencies:
- Qualified healthcare personnel are essential to the health and well-being of your campers and staff. the Camp Nurses Association provides excellent resources and training for camp health staff, as well as the ACA webpage dedicated to health and wellness resources.
- Drug distribution can be tricky and is more important today than in the past. As more and more people bring prescription drugs to camp and more and more camps want to offer “off-camp” adventure experiences (such as overnight stays away from camp), the issues to distribution of drugs become complex.
- Campers and staff need mental health support. The number of hotline calls on this subject seems to reflect a societal trend. Camps should have a mental health support system and add mental health resources and experts to the team and health care plan.
- Create a communication plan before a crisis occurs. Crises and emergencies can mean heightened emotions and fuzzy thoughts, and control of information you share with campers, staff, parents and the media is essential.
Each year a percentage of our phone calls are about abuse, with a camper disclosing abuse that happened outside of camp, camper-to-camper abuse at camp, and sometimes abuse by a member of staff on site. These are tough calls to handle because, more often than not, camp providers have done everything they are supposed to do to prevent abuse from happening on site, but these emergencies still happen. What appears to be on the rise from previous years are incidents involving campers disclosing domestic violence and camper-to-camper situations.
Lessons learned about abuse-related emergencies:
- The law is clear. You MUST contact the authorities if there is an allegation of abuse. All camps fall into the category of mandated reporters. Although state laws vary, camp professionals generally serve in loco parentis (in place of the parent) and must call the proper authorities in their condition when allegations of abuse come to light. It doesn’t matter whether the allegation is that the abuse happened at camp by another camper, by a staff member, or at home.
- Don’t try to investigate. It is essential that you contact the authorities quickly so that experts trained in these matters can begin their processes immediately. Resist the temptation to launch your own “investigation” before contacting the authorities, even if you think the child may be “making it up”. The camp should rely on the judicial authorities to intervene and take charge of the case.
- Don’t be surprised when a child reveals an allegation of abuse at home. In our experience, children who are abused or neglected at home (or in another location outside of camp), once they have experienced the safe environment of camp, can sometimes – for the first time – reveal their situation of abuse to a caring person. adult at camp.
- See something, say something – teach your staff and campers to always be alert and question what they see. It only takes one person to step up and question themselves when they see something wrong with the way an adult interacts with a child. You may be the one who is able to free a child from serial abuse. Always keep the best interests of the child in mind!
- A staff member should never be alone (out of sight of others) with a camper. Period. If nursing/caring staff are concerned about a camper’s privacy when undergoing a medical examination, ensure that you have established procedures that always avoid a situation where a member of staff could abuse (or be accused of abuse) a child. Your staff training and supervision policies should support this principle.
- Establish clear policies on appropriate physical interactions between staff and campers. Be very clear where you draw the line. Does your camp allow hugs, back pats, sit knees, etc.? ? If so, make sure your staff understands what is appropriate and what is not. Use role play in staff training to crystallize your policies.
Staff and Personnel Emergencies
This is a broad category that includes health and medical issues related to staff and sometimes allegations of abuse if the allegation relates to staff. We have seen an increase in the number of personnel or personnel related phone calls this year, primarily in the category of staff mental health. Working in a camp or youth program can be stressful and exhausting and the frontline staff we hire may not know how to recognize the signs of fatigue and take care of themselves before an emergency occurs.
We also saw examples of the “me too” movement at camp when callers described situations where a staff member accused another staff member of sexual assault. While the procedures for responding to these charges are well established in most workplaces, what was challenging for the camps was how an accusation affected their close-knit community of camp staff. We have learned that controlling the dissemination of information is essential to responding to the accusation and protecting the privacy of those involved.
Lessons learned on personnel/personnel issues:
- Establish and enforce clear policies on acceptable staff relations at camp. Many callers wanted to discuss sexual relationships between staff, including consensual ones, as well as allegations of force. Understand that when dealing with adults, if an allegation of use of force is made, it is a police matter, and the alleged victim should contact the authorities. Do not hesitate to contact a labor lawyer whenever aggression issues arise.
- Apply your personnel policies. It’s not enough to just have personnel policies – you also need to share, review and enforce them. Establish a clear understanding of the consequences (reprimand, suspension, dismissal, etc.) of violating the policies. If you don’t enforce your own policies, you expose yourself to a variety of risks – including lawsuits – especially if you don’t apply them consistently (i.e., treat a staff member differently than another when they both ignored one of your policies).
- Have a contingency plan for personnel coverage in the event of an emergency or unexpected loss of personnel. Supervision ratios are essential to keep your campers safe. What will you do if you have an alcohol policy on property and you catch many employees drinking? Prior to the start of the season, identify short-term options you can turn to for emergency personnel coverage.
- Take any threat of suicide very seriously. suicide threats are a serious mental health problem. It is imperative to seek the help of mental health professionals and obtain the necessary help for the staff member.
It goes without saying that regular and thoughtful planning of emergency measures is essential to prevent crises and ensure maximum security should they occur. Many camps we work with are considering new scenarios that they haven’t considered in the past, such as active fire situations and extreme weather events or wildfires.
Thinking through even the most unlikely scenarios in advance will not only give you the tools you need in an emergency, but will give you, your staff and parents confidence in your program. Check out ACA’s Camp Crisis Helpline page for a full list of resources, call reviews and staff training scenarios, and the toll-free, confidential number to call anytime, day or night. night, if your program is facing a crisis or emergency situation.
Laurie Browne, Ph.D., is Director of Research at Association of American Camps, where his primary responsibilities include translating research into practice and engaging camps in meaningful evaluation. She is a former day camp director and currently lives in Salt Lake City with her family.