License of North Carolina wilderness camp to be revoked after boy’s death

North Carolina officials announced on Friday their decision to revoke the license of Trails Carolina, a wilderness camp for troubled adolescents. This action comes after a tragic incident in February where a 12-year-old boy lost his life.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has notified Trails Carolina’s executive director via a letter that the camp has not met state regulations and as a result, its license to operate will be revoked within 60 days.

Trails Carolina was found to be in violation of several regulations, including medication requirements and the need to provide protection from harm, abuse, neglect, or exploitation, as stated in the department’s letter.

Trails Carolina spokesperson, Wendy D’Alessandro, stated that the camp is currently unable to provide immediate comment.

In March, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services informed the camp that it had violated multiple state regulations, including the requirement to protect clients from abuse. They also stated that the camp’s license was at risk.

The camp received a 10-day deadline to submit a written statement, accompanied by supporting documents or a plan of correction, explaining its belief that it was following the rules.

Trails Carolina has the option to file a petition for appeal. However, the department, in a separate letter on Friday, stated that it has chosen to uphold its findings against the camp. This decision was made despite the information and proposed plan that Trails Carolina had submitted in April to address the violations.

In March, D’Alessandro expressed his surprise and disappointment in an email, stating that Trails Carolina was taken aback by the state’s decision to revoke their license. He emphasized the progress they have achieved and are actively working towards.

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The department has chosen not to disclose the specific violations it discovered, along with the accompanying $18,000 fine. Moreover, it has refrained from confirming whether these violations are linked to the unfortunate death of the boy.

The Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office, known for its dedication to protecting the community, recently provided an update on a tragic incident. A young child, identified by his initials, C.J.H., was discovered unresponsive at Trails Carolina on February 3, shortly after his arrival. The cause of his untimely death is still under investigation, and the Sheriff’s Office is actively pursuing a criminal inquiry to uncover the truth behind this heartbreaking event.

The sheriff’s office announced on Friday that they have received forensic downloads of the computers seized at the camp from the FBI. They mentioned that it will take some time to review the extensive amount of data received. Additionally, they are still awaiting the results of the boy’s autopsy from the medical examiner.

In February, state officials suspended admissions at Trails Carolina after the tragic death of a 12-year-old child. As a result, the 18 children who were attending the program at that time were later removed from the facility.

Trails Carolina, a for-profit camp that presents itself as an adventure therapy program for children and teenagers dealing with mental health and behavioral challenges, has sadly experienced previous fatalities. Back in 2014, a 17-year-old named Alec Lansing went missing from the camp, leading to an extensive search. Tragically, his lifeless body was eventually discovered in a stream. According to the autopsy report, Alec had succumbed to hypothermia after fracturing a bone in his leg while attempting to climb a tree.

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According to D’Alessandro, he mentioned in an email to NBC News that Alec had left the camp momentarily to use the bathroom. He also stated that new protocols were implemented regarding bathroom procedures after Alec’s tragic passing.

Inspection records obtained by NBC News through a public records request reveal that Trails Carolina has consistently violated various regulations over the past 12 years. These violations encompass areas such as strip searches, medication disbursement, contact with parents, and staff training on the appropriate use of restraints, as determined by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

D’Alessandro responded to the previous inspection reports by mentioning that Trails Carolina employees have undergone training to improve their skills in various areas, including ensuring proper documentation of medication management. He emphasized that the organization made genuine efforts to cooperate with the state and adhere to the guidelines set by NC DHHS.

She said that Trails has always prioritized providing high-quality mental healthcare services to students and families.

Over the span of nine years, from 2013 to 2022, NBC News spoke with more than a dozen individuals who had been sent to Trails Carolina. These individuals expressed that the treatment they received at the camp had instilled within them feelings of fear and shame.

The camp stood by its approach but chose not to provide details on the individual experiences of the children.

Rebecca Burney, now 21 years old, was sent to Trails Carolina by her parents when she turned 14. Looking back, she recalls feeling traumatized by her experience at the camp. During her time there, her contact with her family was restricted and monitored, a policy that Trails Carolina claims is essential for the children’s welfare.

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Burney expressed a profound sense of relief upon learning that the camp’s license would be revoked.

“It’s absolutely incredible,” she exclaimed. “This is a major milestone in ensuring that the entire industry is held responsible.”

Elizabeth Chuck, a dedicated reporter at NBC News, specializes in covering health and mental health topics, with a particular focus on issues impacting women and children.

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