For The Record

By Richard J. Duffy

How wonderful would it be for a summer camp program if there were few stormy days, no serious injuries and no severe equipment or facility breakdowns? How about counselors who showed up and got along with campers, parents and fellow counselors, few administrative headaches and a profit for the camp owner(s)? A great deal of effort and experience is needed for this to occur, and some of it is beyond our control.

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During my many years of working with summer-camp owners, I have developed successful conflict-reducing techniques with parents. This article will focus on a few of these techniques, with the expectation that some perplexing administrative headaches can be lessened or even avoided.

Parents want clarity in the operation of a camp--clarity as to what is expected of the camper and his or her parents, both before opening day and during the camp program, and clarity as to what responsive actions the camp may take when those expectations go unfulfilled.

Avoid Family Feuds
How do you handle a parent who demands that you prohibit the other parent from visiting or releasing the camper to the latter? Often one parent will provide divorce or separation papers, a court protective order, a custody agreement or other legal document, and insist that the camp is bound by it. There is no real benefit in devoting time to read the papers (or to pay your attorney to read them), and you probably are not qualified to fully interpret them. Besides, the papers may have subsequently been modified or canceled. Most likely, they are not binding on the camp. You certainly will end up arguing with the other parent about his or her right to visit or pick up the camper. This is a vexing problem that can lead to a volatile confrontation. Your concern is naturally for the welfare of the camper. But is this really a problem that you as a day-camp operator are responsible to solve for the parents, the camper or the court? Make it clear at enrollment time that you will not be put between feuding parents, you will permit visits by both parents, and you will release the camper to either parent unless a court order specifically directs otherwise. This will protect the camp, and the court will be protective of the welfare of the camper. You may also make it clear that you will have the right to dismiss the child from the camp if either parent becomes disruptive or adversely interferes with the functioning of the office staff or the camper’s counselors.

Right Of Refusal
What if you accept a camper, but before opening day learn that the he or she has health or behavior problems that were not fully disclosed, or that the parents gave you false information about their child, or that the camper’s parents are making unreasonable demands for their child, or that there are financial issues with the parents that may jeopardize the camp’s being paid all of its fees and charges? In your good business judgment, this may warrant cancellation of the acceptance. Likewise, what if a camper’s behavior became unacceptable during the season, and though you tried to resolve the issue, the parents wanted more than you believed was reasonable? Subject to the requirements of applicable state, local or federal laws (e.g., Americans With Disabilities Act), which are beyond the scope of this article, make it clear at enrollment time that you can refuse the camper before opening day and/or dismiss the camper during the season.

Sign Off On Smiling Faces
How about those precious (appropriate) photographs of a camper or group of campers participating in an activity or just beaming a smile? The camp owners or staff may want to share the photographs by posting them at the camp or publishing them in the camp’s newsletter or on its Web site. Suppose a parent asserts that the camp has no right to photograph his or her child? Subject to applicable state, local or federal laws (e.g., right to privacy), which again are beyond the scope of this article, you can make it clear at enrollment time that the camper (if of legal age) or the camper’s parents (if the camper is a minor) must consent to the taking of appropriate photographs and to the posting and publication of them.

Paid In Full
Then there is the challenge for the camp to collect its full fees and charges (or not have to refund money) when the camp takes any of these actions or the parents violate what is expected of them. Make it clear at enrollment time that there will be no refunds, and the camper can be refused before opening day or dismissed during the season if the camp’s fees and charges are not paid in full in a timely manner.

Contract Protection
All of the above questions can be answered clearly, and what is expected of the camper and the camper’s parents can be clearly stated in the enrollment contract. For the most part, this is merely a matter of contract law. The camp and the parents need to agree, in writing, before the camp accepts the camper. The wording needs to be clear and certain. The camp’s enrollment contract becomes its “standard form.” Although parents may question one or more of its provisions, they usually agree and sign it so that their child can attend camp. Hence, the enrollment contract can become the camp’s sword and shield rather than merely be used, as is often the case, for setting forth the camp’s fees, charges, the dates of the season and serving as the source for obtaining medical and other relevant information about the camper, emergency contacts, medical care provisions, etc. With a little skillful “lawyering,” the enrollment contract can become a powerful ally for the camp. Only a little verbiage is needed to achieve the desired clarity.

The enrollment contract should be reviewed annually and revised to take into account any new law, law changes or situations that the camp owners encountered the previous year that they may want covered for subsequent seasons.

Preferably, both parents will sign the enrollment contract so that they will be bound financially to the camp and will be “on notice” of the camp’s right to take certain actions, as well as to note what is expected of them. If only one parent signs the enrollment contract, at least that parent will be liable financially to the camp and will likewise be “on notice.”

Richard J. Duffy is a partner of the law firm WolfBlock LLP and practices in the New York office. He has regularly provided legal advice and representation to owners of private summer day camps for more than 20 years. He can be reached via e-mail at rduffy@wolfblock.com.