North Carolina removes children from a nature therapy program’s care amid a probe of a boy’s death

Feb 16, 2024, 11:04 AM

LAKE TOXAWAY, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina health officials said Friday that they are removing all children from the care of a nature-based therapy program nearly two weeks after the death of a 12-year-old New York boy.

The Department of Health and Human Services said in a news release that while it cannot comment on specific details of its investigation of Trails Carolina, this action “needed to be taken to ensure the health and safety of the children.” Health officials declined to say how many children were involved, citing confidentiality rules, but Trails Carolina said later Friday that 18 children were forced to leave.

In a letter notifying Trails Carolina of the suspension of admissions until April 14, Chief Deputy Secretary for Health Mark T. Benton wrote that the secretary determined that the “character and degree of conditions at Trails Carolina are detrimental to the health or safety of the children in your care.”

The move came days after health officials told the program to stop admissions and take other steps to ensure children’s safety while the boy’s death is being investigated.

“The death at Trails Carolina is tragic and concerning,” officials said in the news release. “We extend our deepest sympathies to the family and loved ones of the child who died, and commit to them that we are conducting a thorough investigation with our county partners and will take every appropriate step based on the outcome of our and other investigations.”

All parents have been notified and the children will be temporarily taken into the care of the Transylvania County Department of Social Services, health officials said. Trails Carolina, which is in Lake Toxaway, about 35 miles (56 kilometers) southwest of Asheville, describes itself as a nature-based therapy program that helps 10- to 17-year-olds “work through behavioral or emotional difficulties.”

The cause of the boy’s Feb. 3 death is still pending, but the Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release last week that the pathologist who conducted the autopsy told investigators the death appeared not to be natural. The autopsy was performed because his death appeared suspicious since it occurred less than 24 hours after the boy arrived, the sheriff’s office said.

In a news release late Friday, Trails Carolina said that based on preliminary findings by state agencies, an internal investigation and other input, “everything points to an accidental death.”

“We grieve with the family of the student who tragically passed and have promised to do everything we can to determine what happened,” the release said.

The boy who died was transported by two men from New York to Trails Carolina on Feb. 2 and assigned to a cabin with other minors and four adult staffers, the sheriff’s office said. The next morning, emergency workers responded to a 911 call reporting that the boy was not breathing.

In an affidavit filed with a search warrant, Detective Andrew Patterson stated that when investigators arrived on Feb. 3, the boy was cold to the touch and his body was in rigor mortis. A CPR mask covered the boy’s face and detectives noted possible bruising around his eye, Patterson stated.

A counselor told detectives that after his arrival, the boy refused to eat dinner and was “loud and irate,” but later calmed down and ate snacks, according to the affidavit. The boy would sleep on the bunkhouse floor in a sleeping bag inside a bivy that had an alarm on its zipper triggered when someone tries to exit. The counselor said the boy had a panic attack around midnight and he was checked on at 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., and was stiff and cold to the touch when he was found dead at 7:45 a.m.

The sheriff’s office said Trails Carolina hasn’t completely cooperated with the investigation, something the program has disputed. State officials said in their letter that local Department of Social Services staff were on site the day after the boy died, but they couldn’t access the camp’s children until two days later, state health officials said. Trails Carolina said in an earlier statement that it complied with parents’ preferences after seeking permission for children to speak with investigators.

On Friday, Trails Carolina criticized the sheriff’s office and the Department of Health and Human Services for their handling of the matter, citing in part what it called a demand by the health agency for parents to travel from all over the country to pick up their children, or the children would be taken into custody.

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North Carolina removes children from a nature therapy program’s care amid a probe of a boy’s death