State orders NC wilderness camp to stop admitting kids after death of 12-year-old

Nine days after a 12-year-old camper at Trails Carolina was found dead, state regulators have ordered the North Carolina wilderness therapy program to stop taking new admissions — and to put immediate measures in place to keep children safe.

In a letter dated Monday to Trails Carolina Executive Director Jeremy Whitworth, two top officials with the state Department of Health and Human Services said the program must require that at least one staff member remain awake while children in the program are asleep.

The letter also states that staff who were in the cabin where the boy died can’t return to the cabin or campsite.

Four adults were assigned to the cabin where the boy’s body was found on Feb. 3, and all reportedly were placed on leave, the Transylvania County sheriff’s office said. Other minors were also assigned to the same cabin.

The state’s letter said that local Department of Social Services staff were onsite the day after the child’s death but “were prevented access to the camp’s children” until Feb. 6.

The state said the program must allow unlimited and unannounced access by local county DSS staff, law enforcement and state investigators to the camp, its staff and its clients.

“No person should ever experience harm while in the care of a health care facility, and we take seriously our role to ensure the life and safety of individuals at health care facilities,” said the letter from DHHS Chief Deputy Secretary Mark Benton and Deputy Secretary Susan Osborne.

On Feb. 3, a 12-year-old boy from New York was found dead at a camp cabin in Lake Toxaway, 140 miles west of Charlotte. The boy had arrived at the program less than 24 hours earlier.

How the boy died has not yet been determined, authorities say. But the death appeared “suspicious,” according to a news release issued by the Transylvania County sheriff’s office. A forensic pathologist told investigators that the death did not appear to be natural, the sheriff’s office said.

Trails Carolina has disputed that characterization, contending that there is no evidence of “criminal conduct or suspicious acts” and that preliminary reports indicate the boy’s death was “accidental.”

“Knowing the truth about what caused the loss of this young boy’s life is what matters, and we eagerly await the report by the chief medical examiner,” wrote Trails Carolina’s spokesperson Wendy D’Alessandro in a statement to The Charlotte Observer Monday evening.

On its website, Trails Carolina says it was founded in 2008, largely on the belief that a wilderness setting enhances the benefits of therapy.

Participants in the for-profit program typically enroll for 85 days, the program’s website says, and tuition is $675 to $715 per day.

Trails Carolina takes children ages 10 to 17 on wilderness expeditions, and its therapists meet with children on a weekly basis, the website says. The program helps minors with a variety of conditions, including depression, anxiety and anger management problems, it says.

Concerns about Trails Carolina have been voiced for years. In 2014, 17-year-old Alec Lansing died after running away from the program. DHHS, which regulates therapeutic programs, has cited the program with multiple deficiencies in recent years.

Staff Writer Julia Coin contributed.

This is a breaking news story and may be updated.