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

Feb 16, 2024, 10:04 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.

National News

Associated Press

Sweltering temperatures persist across the US, while floodwaters inundate the Midwest

Millions of Americans sweated through a scorching weekend as temperatures soared across the U.S., while residents were rescued from floodwaters that forced evacuations across the Midwest. One person was killed during flooding in South Dakota, the governor said. From the mid-Atlantic to Maine, across the Great Lakes region, and throughout the West to California, public […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

3 Columbia University administrators put on leave over alleged text exchange at antisemitism panel

NEW YORK (AP) — Columbia University said it has placed three administrators on leave while it investigates allegations that they exchanged unprofessional text messages while attending a panel discussion about antisemitism on campus. The university said the administrators work for its undergraduate Columbia College, which hosted the panel discussion “Jewish Life on Campus: Past, Present […]

9 hours ago

Associated Press

Man charged in shooting that critically wounded Philadelphia officer, police say

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A 36-year-old Philadelphia man was charged Sunday with attempted murder in connection with a shooting that critically wounded a police officer after a traffic stop, police said. Ramon Rodriguez Vazquez also faces charges that include aggravated assault and home invasion, police said. The 31-year-old officer and his partner stopped a car carrying […]

11 hours ago

Associated Press

California boy, 4, who disappeared from campground found safe after 22 hours alone in wilderness

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — A 4-year-old California boy who wandered away from a campground in the Sierra National Forest was found safe after spending 22 hours alone in the wilderness, authorities said. A search-and-rescue team of about 50 officers and volunteers set out around 11 a.m. Thursday after the child was reported missing from the […]

12 hours ago

Associated Press

One man died and five others were hospitalized in downtown St. Louis shooting

ST. LOUIS (AP) — One man is dead and five others have been wounded in a downtown St. Louis shooting, police said. Police believe women were fighting in a park when men stepped in and drew firearms, according to a statement from St. Louis police. The man who died likely was in his mid-twenties and […]

13 hours ago

Associated Press

Michigan sheriff’s deputy fatally shot pursuing a stolen vehicle in Detroit

DETROIT (AP) — A Michigan county sheriff’s deputy was fatally shot while pursing a suspected stolen vehicle in Detroit, the Oakland County sheriff’s office said Sunday. Bradley J. Reckling, who was on duty in an unmarked car, was following a 2022 Chevy Equinox Saturday evening after the vehicle was reported stolen earlier in the day […]

13 hours ago

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