Former staffer at North Carolina therapy camp says troubled kids, inexperienced staff is 'lethal combination'

At least 2 kids have died at Trails Carolina where ex-staffer says they 'couldn't wait to kill the new student,' 'treated it like a sick game'

The mysterious death of a 12-year-old enrolled at a North Carolina wilderness therapy camp for less than a day has exposed a lengthy history of lawsuits and allegations that stretch back more than a decade. 

Fox News Digital uncovered four separate lawsuits that have been filed against Trails Carolina dating to 2010. Two of the four suits were filed by the parents of a child at the camp who alleged sexual abuse against a minor; the other suits were filed by employees who said they witnessed physical abuse at the camp.

One of the lawsuits was filed by parents from South Carolina in 2022. The suit alleges the camp neglected their 14-year-old daughter when she tried to report being sexually assaulted by another camper.

The parents' lawsuit says the camp negligently and recklessly permitted their daughter’s sexual abuse in 2019 when an older camper "with a prior history of sexual assault" attacked her while she was unconscious.


Trails Carolina

A 12-year-old boy died at a North Carolina wilderness camp just one day after he checked in to the controversial facility. (Trails Carolina)

According to the lawsuit, the camp allegedly denied the 14-year-old’s request to move to another cabin, and she was sexually assaulted again several nights later.

The case was voluntarily dismissed by the parents months later, but their daughter filed the lawsuit again under her name in 2023.

The Department of Health and Human Services has a record of five "statements of deficiency" for Trails Carolina in the past five years – three times in 2019, once in 2021 and again in 2023. The statements of deficiency were followed up with plans of correction.

The preteen's death has renewed questions about wilderness therapy camps and how they operate.

In 2008, the U.S. Government Accountability Office published an extensive report examining allegations of abuse, death and deceptive marketing practices at residential programs nationwide. The report covered several deaths at wilderness therapy camps, revealing a history of deceptive marketing and risky practices.

A research study from Unsilenced, a California nonprofit, found that at least 25 teens have died at wilderness therapy camps, boot camps, religious boarding schools, reform schools and teen ranches since the 1980s.


Trails Camp counselors in North Carolina

Transylvania County Sheriff Chuck Owenby recently released more details about the death of a juvenile at a wilderness therapy camp in western North Carolina. (Trails Carolina)

Meg Applegate, CEO of Unsilenced, said that deaths in wilderness therapy programs are nothing new and have been happening since their very conception.

"Alec Landing dying back in 2014 was a perfect example of how wilderness therapy programs are not regulated enough to ensure safety, and considering yet another perfect example is popping up 10 years later, with little to show for any lessons learned in between, is extremely concerning," Applegate said.

Alec Lansing, a 17-year-old from Atlanta, died in 2014 from hypothermia after running away from the program. Trails Carolina was fined $12,000 but was allowed to continue operating, according to local TV station WYFF.

"So, how the loss of life has not yet led to stricter regulations is beyond me. I don't think things will be able to change until legislators figure out how many dead children it is going to take before we start to prioritize legislation that protects them from harm," Applegate said.

Former Trails Carolina student "DB" spoke with Fox News Digital about their experience, saying wilderness therapy camps can be helpful but do need improvement.

DB, who did not want to give their full name, was a student at Trails Carolina at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. DB was 16 years old at the time, dealing with anxiety and depression, and the only person at the camp who had enrolled willingly; the other students had all been sent there against their will. DB ran away from the camp on two separate occasions but did not witness any physical or sexual abuse.


Lake Toxaway in North Carolina

The forensic pathologist conducting the autopsy told investigators the 12-year-old's death appeared to not be natural, but the manner and cause of death are still pending. (Trails Carolina)

"I do feel like wilderness therapy can be effective, and it was for me, but it was never because of my therapist. There is a lack of accountability, negligence from management, neglect from the top. That's where a lot of the issues come from. The majority of the staff onsite truly care and want to help. Obviously, there are some bad seeds, but the root of the problems is from the higher-ups in management," DB said.

A former Trails Carolina staff member, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, told Fox News Digital what the camps promise for students online is not what they get when they arrive.

"When you go to the website, and it shows kids fishing, that's false advertisement. These kids aren't fishing because you're afraid they are going to use the pole as a weapon and kill someone. You see kids riding in canoes, that's false advertisement. Those kids aren't riding in canoes because they may go out on the lake and try to kill themselves. Those kids aren't repelling or going on mountain hikes because you're afraid they are going to push someone off the cliff," the former staff member said.

The former staffer, who worked at Trails Carolina for less than a year, was not at all surprised by this most recent death of a camper.

"There were some really troubled teens that would say they couldn't wait to kill the new student, and they treated it like a sick game. And when you mix certain students together and don't know how to deal with them, it's a lethal combination."

That staffer went on to explain that while there are trained and qualified clinical staff, the students mostly interact with the outdoor counselors, most of whom have little to no clinical mental health training.


Map of Lake Toxaway

A 12-year-old boy was found dead at a wellness therapy camp in North Carolina just one day after he was enrolled in the program, according to multiple reports. (Google Maps)

Trails Carolina has since removed all children from the camp following the 12-year-old's death, who was found dead on Feb. 3 in a cabin at Trails Carolina, according to the Transylvania County Sheriff's Office.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services announced the move on Friday.

"It was determined that action needed to be taken to ensure the health and safety of the children," the department said in a statement Friday morning. "Parents have been notified and children will be temporarily taken into care of Transylvania County DSS."

The letter noted that Trails Carolina is prohibited from admitting campers until April 14.

A spokesperson for Trails Carolina responded to the move from the state, saying the department "threatened and intimidated parents" of the 18 remaining children at the camp.

This negligent and reckless move by the state denied parents the opportunity to continue to care for their children in the appropriate manner," the statement said.

As of Friday, the Trails Carolina website was inaccessible and password protected.

DB said they were shocked by the camp's handling of the deadly incident.

"I think right now, if you're an organization that's supposedly caring for dozens of kids, your responsibility is to be open. There really needs to be transparency and communication," DB said.

No comments:

Powered by Blogger.