North Carolina will revoke license of wilderness camp where boy died

North Carolina officials on Friday said that they will revoke the license of Trails Carolina, a wilderness camp for troubled adolescents where a 12-year-old boy died in February.

In a letter to the camp's executive director, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services wrote that Trails Carolina had failed to comply with state regulations and said its license to operate would be revoked in 60 days.

The department's letter cited medication requirements and "protection from harm, abuse, neglect or exploitation" as some of the regulations that Trails Carolina had failed to follow.

Wendy D’Alessandro, a spokesperson for Trails Carolina, said the camp could not immediately comment.

The move comes after the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services notified the camp in March that it had violated several state regulations, including one requiring mental health facilities to protect clients from abuse, and informed it that its license was in jeopardy.

The camp was given 10 days to provide a written statement explaining why it believed it was in compliance with the rules, along with supporting documents or a plan of correction.

Trails Carolina has the right to file a petition to appeal, but the department wrote in a separate letter Friday that it decided to uphold its findings against the camp despite information and a proposed plan to address the violations that the program had provided in April.

D’Alessandro said in an email in March that Trails Carolina was “surprised and disappointed to learn of the state’s intent to revoke the program’s license, given the progress we’ve made and continue to make.”

The department has not provided details about the violations it found, which were accompanied by an $18,000 fine, and the department has declined to say whether the violations are connected to the boy’s death.

The Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office, which has identified the child only by his initials, C.J.H., said he was found unresponsive at Trails Carolina on Feb. 3 — less than 24 hours after his arrival. The boy’s cause of death has not yet been determined and a criminal investigation is ongoing.

The sheriff’s office said Friday that the FBI recently provided forensic downloads of the computers seized at the camp, which “will take a period of time to review the large amount of data received.” It said it is still waiting on the boy’s autopsy results from the medical examiner.

The 18 children attending Trails Carolina when the 12-year-old died were removed later in February, and state officials suspended admissions.

The boy’s death is not the first at the for-profit camp, which advertised itself as an adventure therapy program that helps children and teenagers with mental health issues and behavioral concerns. In 2014, a 17-year-old named Alec Lansing walked away from Trails Carolina, prompting a massive search. His body was later found in a stream, and an autopsy report said he had died of hypothermia after climbing a tree and breaking a bone in his leg.

D’Alessandro previously said in an email to NBC News that Alec had left the camp while stepping away to use the bathroom and that “new protocols were developed around bathroom procedures” following his death.

According to inspection records obtained by NBC News through a public records request, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services found that Trails Carolina had violated numerous regulations over the past 12 years, including rules governing strip searches, medication disbursement, contact with parents, and training staff on the proper use of restraints.

In response to the past inspection reports, D’Alessandro said Trails Carolina employees have since completed training in areas such as properly documenting medication management, and it attempted “in good faith to cooperate with the state in every way possible and follow guidelines set by NC DHHS.”

“Trails’ priority has always been to provide quality mental healthcare services to students and families,” she said.

But over a dozen people who were sent to Trails Carolina from 2013 to 2022 told NBC News that the treatment they received at the camp caused them fear and shame.

The camp defended its approach but declined to comment on specific children’s experiences.

Rebecca Burney, 21, whose parents sent her to Trails Carolina the day after her 14th birthday, said she felt traumatized by her time at the camp. Her contact with her family was limited and censored, she said, a practice Trails Carolina has described as necessary for the children’s wellbeing.

Burney said she was filled with "an overwhelming feeling of relief" when she heard the camp’s license was going to be revoked.

"It's such a huge win," she said. "It's a huge step toward really holding this entire industry accountable."

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