A 12-year-old New York boy has died after just one day in the care of a controversial “wilderness therapy” program, prompting an investigation into the North Carolina camp.
The Transylvania County Sheriff’s Department announced that the boy was found “not breathing” at Trails Carolina Camp in Lake Toxaway after being taken by two men from his home state with the consent of his parents.
Following his arrival at the treatment program for “troubled youth” last Friday, the child was assigned to a cabin with other minors and four adult staff members.
By the following Saturday morning, officials responded to a 911 call to find that the boy “appeared to be deceased for some time,” according to a press release.
The child’s body was transported to Winston Salem for an autopsy as “his death appeared suspicious,” the sheriff’s office wrote.
The autopsy, conducted on Tuesday, preliminarily decided that the death “appeared to not be natural,” though the manner and cause of death are still pending.
Investigators soon carried out two search warrants — one for the Lake Toxaway base camp where the boy died, and one for another camp location in Pisgah Forest.
“The reason for the second location at 618 Sundance Lake Rd was that Trails Carolina Camp had moved the other juvenile campers from the cabin where the incident occurred to that location,” Transylvania County officials said.
According to the sheriff’s office, “Trails Carolina Camp has not completely cooperated with the investigation.”
The camp has disputed this, claiming to Fox News that it is fully cooperating with law enforcement and planning to conduct their own internal review.
“We are shattered by the tragic loss of a young life and our deepest sympathies are with the student’s family and loved ones,” the camp said in a statement to the outlet. “Our priority is to acknowledge and respect the unfathomable impact on their lives and maintain the integrity of the investigation into the cause.”
“While we understand the need and value of keeping the public informed, protecting the family’s privacy and the privacy and well-being of our students and staff is our primary concern,” Trails Carolina Camp added.
The program also said that the staff members assigned to the deceased boy’s cabin have since been placed on leave.
“The investigation is continuing and the report generated by the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner may not be available for several months,” the sheriff’s office said.
Trails Carolina Camp, which costs about $715 per day depending on a child’s age, is part of the controversial “troubled teen industry,” which includes wilderness and residential treatment programs for minors with emotional or behavioral issues.
In 2014, another child died at the camp when 17-year-old Alec Lansing escaped from staff and succumbed to hypothermia.
Authorities believe that after Lansing slipped away from a “group expedition” through the wilderness, he suffered a broken hip and froze to death in a shallow stream he appeared to have fallen into, reported the Transylvania Times.
Trails Carolina was fined $12,000 for the incident, but continued their operations.
Other teens who experienced the camp have detailed their horrors over the years, with Kathleen Reilly telling WBTV Chicago that she was woken up in the middle of the night to a uniformed man and woman forcing her out of her home.
Reilly, who was 16 at the time, said in the 2021 interview that she and other minors would go weeks without access to showers or basic hygiene while being forced to live in the wilderness.
“I remember laying there every night praying to a god I don’t even believe in saying ‘If you get me out of here, I promise I will do whatever I can to help whatever child so they don’t have to go through this,’” she recalled.
Dozens of other programs in the troubled teen industry have also come under fire in recent years, with media personality Paris Hilton meeting with Biden administration officials to combat such facilities in 2022.
Hilton has been a longtime advocate against such programs after claiming that she and others suffered abuse at Provo Canyon School in Utah.
The socialite was sent away to Provo for 11 months when she was 17, and says she was mentally and physically tortured, claiming staff would beat her, force her to take unknown pills, watch her shower, and send her to solitary confinement without clothes.