According to an African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” In modern American times, this proverb remains true, and the “village” takes on many different forms.
Children spend much of their time at school, sports, religious institutions, camps and numerous extracurricular activities.
And just as child abuse can occur in the home, it can occur in any of the above settings.
As far as camp is considered, directors can do their best to ensure that children are in good hands when spending time out of the home. While many organizations serving children require background checks and sometimes even extensive training for staff, professionals often are not trained in how to identify, prevent, and report child abuse–especially child sexual abuse.
Child-abuse prevention involves three areas:
• Recognizing the signs that a child may be abused
• Preventing abuse while children are in their care
• Learning the laws and process of reporting child abuse.
The training module caters to the strengths of the individuals receiving the information, and the presentation is anecdotal, didactic and interactive. Following the presentation, staff members are given hard copies of all relevant information and then invited to participate in a question-and-answer forum. The principal, director or president of the organization should be present to ensure that policies discussed will, in fact, be appropriate for the setting.
Normality Vs. Warning Signs
The first part of training entails a complete overview of behaviors children normally exhibit. This includes a discussion of how kids can be challenging and defiant, and vary greatly in their mood swings.
This also includes a discussion of normal sexual behaviors for children or adolescents, covering the age-span served by the agency. Once these behaviors are identified, the presentation covers behaviors that may be considered “yellow flags” or potential warning signs, and then those that are “red flags” or certain warning signs.
It is important to recognize that some abused children will always display normal behavior, and some children who have not been abused will exhibit warning signs.
Much of the expected sexual behavior of children or adolescents also depends on the setting, and can often be interpreted in different ways. Staff members need to be aware of children’s tendencies to be impulsive and to become over-stimulated, as the members’ actions can lead to a loss of self-control on the part of a child.
Camp staff should know behavioral warning signs as well as physical ones, as they will be required to monitor the physical and psychological well-being of a child with each contact.
Child Abuse = Poor Care-Giving
Once common behaviors and warning signs are identified, the definitions for child abuse and the noting situations that can lead to abuse as well as allegations of abuse should be discussed.
Most institutional child abuse is seen as an extension of poor care-giving, often a result of poor impulse control and stress management. A caring, well-trained individual can be accused of being a child abuser through impulsive, irresponsible behavior. Discuss discipline practices in the setting:
• How are children punished?
• When is the most difficult time to be with children?
Some policies must be agreed to and enforced by the director or principal, as well as the staff:
• Forbidding an adult to hit a child
• Forbidding abusive language toward a child
• Leaving an open door for staff to ask for help with any situation involving a child.
Discuss discipline policies and use role-playing to demonstrate negative and positive ways to use discipline to limit the target behaviors.
Policies On Adult-Child Contact
Similarly, policies for adult-child contact should be established, focusing more on the prevention of sexual abuse or sexual-abuse allegations. Some examples are:
• Touch a child only on the hand, shoulder or upper back
• Never touch a child against his or her will, unless the child is in physical danger
• Only touch a child when in the presence of other adults
• Never be alone with a child when changing clothes or going to the bathroom
• Never touch a child for personal gratification.
These rules, if followed, make it very difficult for children to be sexually abused on-site, or for an accusation to be credible.
However, a small number of individuals may intend to sexually abuse children in their care. This training accounts for this possibility and teaches how staff can recognize and respond to signs that an individual has the potential to abuse. This list has a sub-set of indicators of potential sexual abusers, such as:
• Standing apart from children and watching or interacting on a rather immature level with children
• Relating poorly to adults and preferring the company of children
• Seeking out time to be alone with a particular child
• Showing no respect for a child’s privacy or personal space.
These policies do not prohibit all touching and affection directed towards children in our care. The policies do limit the chances that a staff member will be accused and provide some defense to prove that no abuse occurred.
Employees must be informed of their role as mandated reporters, meaning any suspected abuse must be reported, whether it may have occurred at camp or in another setting. It is essential that the director/principal has a clear understanding of what to do when such a situation arises.
These policies must be clear and follow the chain of command. The front-line staff member must have a direct, accessible supervisor to report to, and then that person should know where the information is to be directed.
Any administrator in this setting must be aware of local reporting laws and agencies. Make it clear that a reporter does not need hard evidence that abuse has occurred, and that reasonable suspicion is reportable.
Additionally, stress that, merely because a report is made, the local child-welfare agency will not necessarily take the children away from the family immediately, and that such reports are essential in case other suspicions are identified elsewhere.
Effective training not only teaches staff members how to identify potentially abused children as well as potential abusers, but helps members to identify their own concerns and vulnerabilities in dealing with children.
Addressing these issues through training discussions and clear guidelines builds confidence that camp officials are prepared and support is available to help staff members care for the children–and do their job–the best they can.
Ditter, Bob. Tips for Talking with Staff about Child Abuse. Boston, 2002.
Caflun, Ephram. Child-Abuse Prevention Workshop for Camps. 2010.
Missouri Division of Family Services. “Understanding and Responding to the Sexual
Behaviors of Children and Adolescents.” 2000.
Sandfort, T. and Rademakers, J. Childhood Sexuality. New York: Haworth Press, 2000.
Van Dam, Carla. Identifying Child Molesters. New York: Haworth Press, 2001.
Ephram A. Caflun is the owner and director of Camp Wekeela in Hartford, Maine. Caflun, his wife Lori, and their children have been at Wekeela since 1997. He has been working professionally with children since 1992. During the camp “off-season,” he is a coach for each of his boys’ sports teams. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
There are behaviors and attitudes that serve as “yellow flags” indicating an adult may be more likely to abuse a child:
• Yelling, screaming, grabbing, or punching at campers is a definite sign that the counselor should be removed from the situation.
• Overly controlling adults, such as those who speak over campers and who show satisfaction when winning a power struggle, are likely to display abusive behavior.
• Counselors who infringe on the campers’ rights to privacy, especially at times of changing clothes or showering, may also exhibit abusive tendencies.
• Staff members should not initiate discussions of sexuality with or around campers, unless it is camp-sanctioned and addresses particular concerns.
Two good rules to follow:
1. No child should be touched in an area normally covered by a bathing suit.
2. No adult should ever touch a child for his/her own gratification.