From CPP: State report reveals more details about child’s death at Trails Carolina

Clara Mann is seen here attending Trails Carolina wilderness therapy camp in Transylvania County at age 14. Mann later sued the camp in 2023, reaching a settlement with Trails Carolina. Provided

The 12-year-old boy who died Feb. 3 at Trails Carolina, a residential therapeutic camp in Transylvania County, may have “suffocated,” indicated one camp staffer in an interview with law enforcement that was included in a recent state report.

The exact cause of death is still under investigation, according to the Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office, although an autopsy conducted Feb. 6 showed the death appeared not to be natural.

The North Carolina Division of Health Services Regulation’s full report of the camp’s violations was made public April 23, along with Trails Carolina’s plan of correction. DHSR is a part of the state Department of Health and Human Services.

DHHS also announced the agency intends to revoke Trails Carolina’s license, according to a letter sent March 28 to camp management, because the camp’s violations “endanger the health, safety and welfare of clients.”

Trails Carolina still has an opportunity to prove the camp is in compliance before the state goes ahead with the decision. Camp management attempted to outline its compliance in their plan of correction.

State surveyors found deficiencies during a visit to the facility near Lake Toxaway on March 21 and assessed administrative penalties of $18,000 for some of the violations, according to a separate letter from DHHS.

A 17-year-old boy also died a decade earlier after attempting to flee the camp, multiple news media reported at the time.

The program also faces a lawsuit from a former attendee who describes being sexually assaulted at the camp, claiming management failed to take action.

Details of the death

Clients who’ve just arrived are usually under heightened supervision, the report said, so the boy had to sleep in a bivy his first night.

A bivy is a one person shelter made of nylon-type material with an opening in the front, according to the report. The opening has a layer of mesh and an outer portion to protect the inhabitant from rain, the report said, and there’s an alarm attached.

One staff member slept beside the boy and another was supposed to check on him at 12 a.m., 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., the report said.

Both the inner and outer portions of the bivy were closed, according to the report. The staffer who did night checks said in an interview with state regulators that they couldn’t see the boy because the bivy was fully closed. The staffer also said they heard breathing from that area, but couldn’t verify if it was from the boy or the staffer next to him.

“My actions that night was to perform night checks … that was my responsibility, which I failed on,” the staffer said in an interview with law enforcement.

The staffer also said, “Suffocation is always possible if equipment is being used wrong.”

The next morning, the boy was found turned around in the bivy and pronounced deceased, the report said.

According to the report, another staffer nodded and answered “yes” to the question from law enforcement, “Do you think he suffocated?” The same staffer said he and the camp were responsible for the boy’s death.

Trails Carolina cited for violations

State regulators cited Trails Carolina for failing to provide services using the “least restrictive and most appropriate methods that promoted a safe environment,” as well as failing to protect the client from harm and neglecting him.

Regulators also found Trails Carolina violated medication administration requirements, failed to ensure clients could communicate with their parents or guardians and failed to comply with incident reporting requirements.

If Trails Carolina is allowed to keep its license and continue operating, the camp would no longer use bivy’s or the “burrito” method in which a student is wrapped in a tarp.

Former attendee Clara Mann filed a lawsuit against Trails Carolina in 2023 and settled. She said during her time there at age 14, she was put in a “burrito,” where she was inside a sleeping bag and then wrapped in a tarp to be “completely immobilized.”

“I’m very claustrophobic so that was very hard for me. I had nightmares, and panic attacks, because nobody wants to basically be tied up in their sleep,” she said.

Despite Trails Carolina’s plan of correction, Mann said the camp would just find a different form of restraint.

Addressing deficiencies

Trails Carolina’s plan of correction said, among other changes, clients would be able to send and receive mail to parents or guardians without camp staff reviewing it. The camp noted this could harm clients as therapists review the mail to make sure it’s appropriate for the client.

The camp would also update the family services handbook so state clients can have family therapy through video or phone, which the camp said was already in practice. If a therapist denies a student’s request to call parents, the therapist will document the reason why and revisit the request within the time allowed by state regulations, the plan said.

Mann said while she was at the camp, she asked to call her father but was not allowed.

Camp management pushed back against many of the state’s findings in the report, such as saying the state previously approved using bivy’s and “burritos” for the past 15 years.

Trails Carolina also claimed its documentation system for missing medications that the state said was inadequate was actually developed with and signed off on by state surveyors in 2019.

The camp management also took issue with the state pointing out incidents when students under heightened supervision were with staff of the opposite sex. The bivy policy doesn’t require the staff to be the same sex as the student, according to Trails Carolina.

“We believe the DHHS Report of Deficiencies is inaccurate and misleading in many respects, and we continue to work with State officials to clarify and correct where needed,” Trails Carolina said in an emailed statement May 7 to Carolina Public Press.

The camp met in person with DHHS staff April 23 and “walked them through the basic camping lexicon and systems, which, by their admission, they did not previously understand,” the statement said.

A DHHS spokesperson wrote in an email to CPP, “We disagree with Trails Carolina’s description and characterization of the Statement of Deficiencies and the informal conference held on April 23, 2024.”

Skepticism of changes at Trails Carolina

An online petition to shut down Trails Carolina reached over 1,100 signatures as of May 8. Max Rosenberg, who started the petition, wrote in the description about experiencing a similar program, “where I personally witnessed and was subjected to the same types of human-rights violations and unethical ‘therapeutic’ practices.”

Mann said she doesn’t think the plan of correction would have addressed what she faced at the camp, including alleged sexual assault from another camper, because the camp’s model is punishment-based.

“That entire model is too corrupt to be effective or therapeutic or in any way,” she said.

The camp is “a scam” that doesn’t help children, she said. If the state revokes the facility’s license, Mann said she worries the owners would just open up a new facility.

Meg Appelgate, founder of the nonprofit Unsilenced, raises awareness about issues in the teen therapy industry. She said the camps are set up for failure by coercing therapeutic relationships and not being rooted in evidence-based practices.

So even if Trails Carolina does comply with state regulations, she said it may not fix all the issues.

“Fixing these discrepancies, after a 12-year-old has been obviously neglected enough that he reached death, is like putting lipstick on a pig,” she said.

If the state is entertaining the idea of reinstating the camp’s license, Appelgate said regulators should be “very mindful” of how their decision will impact future children and their families.

In an emailed statement to CPP May 8, Trails Carolina said the camp continues to work with the state on a plan of correction and will not publicly discuss the plan while that process is underway.

“This ongoing process is contingent upon mutual trust and dedication by all parties involved to prioritize and meet the needs of children and families requiring therapeutic care and support,” Trails Carolina said.

In response to whether its practices are evidence-based, Trails Carolina said an independent research initiative found 98.9% of girls and boys aged 10-17 reported better mental health a year after completing Trails Carolina.

State regulators must give licensees an opportunity to show compliance before going forward with any changes to their license according to law, a DHHS spokesperson wrote over email.

The state continues to review the camp’s plan of correction, according to DHHS.

Trails Carolina also filed petitions on April 17 and 25 for contested case hearings in connection with the notice of suspension of admissions and administrative penalties issued by the state, the spokesperson wrote.

Correction: Meg Appelgate had experience with the teen therapy industry as a teenager, but not specifically with wilderness camps. An earlier version of the story described her experience inaccurately.

This article first appeared on Carolina Public Press and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.


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One thought on “From CPP: State report reveals more details about child’s death at Trails Carolina

  1. Voirdire

    I’m going with Clara Mann’s description of Carolina Trails . .”it’s a scam”. A lethal one too. Not only just shut it down permanently… make very sure those who staffed and ran this “camp” never do so again.

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