“This is Natalie. She has no English. She will learn, yes?”
With that, her mom left the registration desk and drove off leaving her little 11-year old girl in our care for six nights.
But we didn’t know the registration story until three days in.
Natalie (not her real name, at least I don’t think so) turned out to be a handful, but not in any hyperactive or disciplinary sense. Simply put the girl appeared to be a young nymphomaniac. She was very affectionate to the male sports instructors. She was very touchy-feely with some of the male counselors. She seemed to have no limits in rubbing against male senior staff members like a cat.
Not having the vocabulary to verbalize even the most basic things, she communicated physically. In ways that were inappropriate. In ways that suggested there was lot more to this than just a language barrier.
Today, we have the internet. Simple searches can reveal patterns. We know that sometimes a child that young has probably had their sexuality button switched on by abuse of some type. We talk about those things more freely. The internet, in many respects, makes everyone an expert on subjects that formerly have been left to the professionals.
But flashback a few decades and those supports didn’t exist. In fact, it took several days for our assortment of instructors, counselors, kitchen crew, maintenance workers, and senior staff to combine their stories to form an overall picture of what had been happening at camp. People started comparing notes, and the anecdotal base grew rapidly.
Fortunately, this was an era where the staff, though very large, had a strong sense of morality and ethical integrity. These days, it seems that everywhere you turn there are stories of people in children’s ministry or youth ministry landing on the front pages of local newspapers. It would not surprise me to hear of camps hosting children like Natalie with totally different outcomes.
I got invited to the senior staff meeting. I mostly sat in silence except to say, “I’m not sure how she knows the difference between a 16-year old staff member and a 16-year old camper.” I went on to say, “I think we’re okay with our staff because they’ve been screened carefully, but don’t know that a camper might not take advantage of her.”
The meeting continued and eventually it was decided to quietly communicate the situation to the entire staff base — some 150 people — to make sure staff kept their eyes open; to make sure that any and all contact with male campers was being supervised.
Another half week later, Natalie got picked up and the staff breathed a collective sigh of relief as her mom’s car drove out the front entrance. In the ten minutes that followed I heard at least three people simply say, “It’s okay; she’s gone.”
I know this camp, and I know that in the intervening years there were probably a few more Natalies. I would wager to say that the number of kids who have been in abusive situations, even in seemingly-respectable upper-middle class homes is probably slowly increasing, and the number of adolescent and pre-adolescent kids acting out their sexuality is growing accordingly. But liability concerns dictate that camps, Christian and otherwise, make sure that staff at all levels are trained in negotiating various complex situations. For the most part, camp staff are doing the right thing.
For our camp staff, what was the issue here? Was the problem Natalie, or Natalie’s mom; the way she simply dropped her off and made a hasty exit off the property?
I went about 20 years and never thought about Natalie. But recently, as online reports about crises in youth ministry and children’s ministry seem to get darker and more frequent, she came back to mind, as my personal poster child for post-abuse. Sure, maybe some of it was hormonal, and I know that there are occurrences of kids acting out in this way simply because that’s how they’re wired, and I know that the lack of verbal communication messed up the dynamics that week; but despite that, I remain convinced that something in her past had triggered her precocious behavior, though our summer staff that year never knew what it was, and never will…
…On Saturday morning the kids leave and just hours later, you’re hosting a new batch of children, and dealing with different issues…