Dear camp professionals,
This week, Don Johnson at Lutheran Outdoor Ministries brought this disturbing news report to our attention. “Hundreds of sexual abuse cases reported at children’s camps across US,” the headline screams. That’s scary! A closer read shows that CBS reporters found 21 cases this year, and as is always the case with sexual abuse and assault, the actual incidence is likely higher than what is reported. Considering, however, that more than 14 million children and adults attend camp annually, this is a very small percentage (https://www.acacamps.org/press-room/aca-facts-trends, 12/12/18). But even one incidence is too many. We know from the Effective Camp Project work that we’ve done at Sacred Playgrounds that a sense of safety at camp is absolutely foundational to the camp model, leading to growth in faith measures. No sense of safety, no growth. We also know that the majority of summer campers evaluate the camp experience as safer than their environments at home or school, in terms of feeling picked on, left out, or having to hide their true selves. It is not a secondary matter to spend time reviewing safety practices and to be intentional about clearly communicating them. Safety is a piece that we have to get right if all our efforts in other areas are going to be worthwhile. We also know from our research that participant safety is the number one priority of summer camp directors. In light of the CBS news article, now is a great time to remind your constituents about safety at your camp.
I want to talk about this from my perspective as a camper mom. Yes, you know that you take safety very seriously. But do your nervous prospective camper parents know about your work? All your hard work won’t matter if the people who pay the camp fees don’t know about it. Here’s an idea – highlight safety policies and procedures with a page on your website and a section in your brochure. How about a poster at check-in with the same? Your goal is to clearly communicate that you understand the risks of the world we live in and you’ve taken every possible action to be proactive about the safety of their children. Tell nervous parents:
- The training your year-round staff receives
- The training the summer staff receives
- Policies that are in place to protect campers
- Highlight the background checks you do
- Highlight the rigorous ACA guidelines and your accreditation
- Tell them that all staff are mandated reporters and what that means
- If you have a quote from a camper about how safe they felt at camp, USE IT HERE!
Questions for reflection from my perspective as a pastor who does risk mitigation in a congregation and as a camp professional:
- How much time and resources do you spend on risk mitigation training in staff orientation? It is never a bad investment to bring in a professional to teach about boundaries and appropriate behavior. Many organizations, businesses, and school districts in your area have trainers.
- Does your camper orientation make it explicit that touching others or unwanted flirting is not tolerated by campers or staff?
- Do you have signs in bathrooms and changing rooms with information about no tolerance policies and whom to talk to if they have a report?
- Do you have staff policies ensure that no camper is ever alone with one staff? This protects campers, it also protects staff from accusation. For example, every camp I worked at had outhouses or a bathhouse at a distance from the cabin. If a camper woke in the middle of the night and asked the counselor to take them to the bathroom, the counselor needed to wake another camper and the three would walk together.
- Do your policies and procedures recognize that campers can also act inappropriately against other campers or staff?
- Do you have a professional (counselor, trained clergy, abuse specialist) to call on if one of your staff makes a report of past abuse or assault?
- Have you recently reviewed your insurance company guidelines for their suggested best practices, and are you in compliance with their requirements?
You can read more about how safety fits in to the ecology of an effective camp environment here.
As always, I appreciate the work that you do! It is important and it makes a difference in the lives of those with whom you work. We know that – Jake has measured it!