Safely Ministering to Youth in a Camp Setting
Youth counselors, in particular, may develop strong bonds with your camp’s young people. That trust and care opens ears to hear your ministry’s message and opens hearts to feel the love of Christ. The downside is that those same beneficial bonds may also contribute to forming unhealthy relationships. The issue can be complex.
- Minimal age difference may lead to infatuation and boundary-pushing relationships. Camp activities revolve around having fun, but they can also be intense and involve personal sharing.
- The superhero complex. Minors may see a counselor as someone who “understands” them. A counselor may feel compelled to fix a teen’s problems. This can lead to offering misguided counseling advice, undermining a parent’s authority, and meeting apart from proper supervision.
- Youth ministry of any kind attracts predators. Predators look for easy access to minors—situations where they can mask their intent with a persona of caring for children. An enthusiastic, charismatic leader may convince a camp to take a hands-off approach with his or her “unorthodox” methods of building relationships. Beware if a counselor claims he or she can build a better relationship with a the teen without oversight from staff.
- Ample grooming opportunities. The key to successful grooming is to separate a child from other adults and peers. One-on-one opportunities are more likely to arise in situations that are naturally a part of camp life, like hikes, leadership training, or spiritual growth sessions.
Striking a Balance
It’s possible to strike a successful balance between ministering to youth and minimizing the risk of liability for your organization and its staff.
Well-written policies that include oversight can help prevent harmful relationships from forming. They help shield campers from abuse and protect staff and counselors from false allegations of abuse. In addition to other best practices when crafting a child protection plan, consider the following accountability and training guidelines for your counselors:
- Set expectations for biblical behavior. Include a morals clause in your counselor application.
- Caution against private texting or messaging apps. It is not uncommon for counselors and staff who work with youth to communicate electronically through text messaging or social media. However, it is important to outline expectations for staff, counselors, and campers to follow when using electronic communication for camp purposes. Part of your communication policy should prohibit counselors from electronically communicating with campers one-on-one. All communications should be to the group as a whole.
- Arrange regular meetings between camp leadership and counselors to review procedures, legal risk management practices, and ethical issues. Ensure that your counselors are supported with proper guidance. Provide a venue to discuss concerns, successes, or potential issues.
- Train counselors about your state’s mandatory reporting laws. A camp counselor may be the first to learn of abuse or neglect that a youth has experienced, self-harming behavior, or suicidal thoughts. There should be no expectation that this information will be kept between the counselor and the youth, and mandatory reporting should be followed.
Early Warning Signs
The following can be early-warning signs that a camp counselor is involved in an inappropriate relationship with a youth:
- Refusing to follow child-protection policies.
- Privately communicating with a camper.
- Conducting late-evening meetings or meetings apart from other campers and staff.
- Exhibiting signs of stress, or drug or alcohol use.
- Rationalizing “extra” time with a child or insisting on one-on-one meetings.
- Focusing an unusual amount of attention on a youth or giving gifts.
Legal and emotional fallout can severely damage an organization. Litigation resulting from allegations of abuse is often costly, even if the allegations are withdrawn or proven untrue. Additionally, the damage to a camp’s reputation can have far-reaching negative consequences.
Your camp should create an environment that makes it clear sexual abuse is not tolerated. By establishing boundaries and enforcing screening and behavioral guidelines, you send a message to your staff, counselors, parents, and volunteers that the care of your organization’s most vulnerable is of primary importance.