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State threatens to revoke license for Trails Carolina wilderness therapy program after camper’s death

The Blue Ridge Parkway as seen from Fryingpan Mountain Lookout Tower.
Felicia Sonmez
The Blue Ridge Parkway as seen from Fryingpan Mountain Lookout Tower.

North Carolina health authorities plan to revoke the license of Trails Carolina, a wilderness therapy program that has come under scrutiny after the February death of a 12-year-old camper.

In a letter Thursday, the state Department of Health and Human Services said it is taking the action based on a March 21 inspection that found the site was in violation of state licensing rules for facilities that provide services to individuals with mental health, developmental or substance abuse issues.

“It has been determined that your facility’s violations of the above Statute endanger the health, safety, and welfare of clients in your facility. Therefore, the Department intends to revoke your license,” Robin Sulfridge, chief of the department’s Mental Health Licensure & Certification Section, said in the letter.

The Lake Toxaway facility has 10 days to submit a written statement and a formal blueprint for resolving the problems, known as a “Plan of Correction,” before a final decision is made, Sulfridge said.

In a separate letter, Sulfridge notified Trails Carolina that it must pay an $18,000 administrative penalty for violating state licensing rules related to medication requirements and protection from harm, abuse, neglect or exploitation. The specific circumstances of each violation were not detailed in the letters.

In a statement Friday, Trails Carolina said it was "surprised and disappointed" by the decision, "given the progress we’ve made and continue to make." The program also said that the DHHS decision "indicates policies it had approved, and in some cases helped create, are noncompliant."

"More than 2,500 children and families have benefited from Trails and we will continue cooperating with the state to satisfy their concerns so we can continue providing compassionate quality care to kids and families for whom every other treatment option has failed," the statement reads. "We understand the situation’s immense media pressure and the impact such pressure has on state agencies doing their best to serve the public and act in the best interest of children and their families."

On its website, Trails Carolina describes itself as a “multi-dimensional adventure therapy program” that aims to “help children and teens who struggle with various mental health issues and behavioral concerns.”

The daily cost of the program ranges from $675 to $715, with most campers staying 85 days, for a total average cost of $57,000 to $60,000.

Critics often refer to such programs as the “troubled teen industry.” They argue that insufficient oversight from federal and state authorities creates an environment where young people are vulnerable to abuse and neglect.

Trails Carolina had been ordered to temporarily shut down in February after news broke of the camper’s death. The boy was found dead less than 24 hours after arriving at the camp. The incident is currently under criminal investigation.

State regulators have accused Trails Carolina of blocking social workers from speaking with campers in the wake of the boy’s death; the Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office has also said staff did not fully cooperate with the investigation. The camp has denied those accusations.

The incident marked the second death of a camper at the program in less than a decade. In November 2014, a 17-year-old boy died of hypothermia after walking away from the site. The death of the camper, Alec Sanford Lansing, was ruled accidental and no charges were filed. But Trails Carolina came under criticism for not immediately contacting law enforcement once Lansing went missing, delaying the search and rescue effort.

Some former campers have also alleged that they were sexually assaulted by their peers and touched inappropriately by staff. Trails Carolina has denied those claims.

Felicia Sonmez is a reporter covering growth and development for Blue Ridge Public Radio.