In a tragic incident that has cast a shadow over wilderness therapy programs, a 12-year-old boy was discovered deceased at Trails Carolina, a youth wellness therapy camp located in North Carolina. The young boy, who had only recently begun his journey at the camp, hailed from New York and had been enrolled in the program for barely a day before his untimely demise.
Trails Carolina, which promotes itself as a “therapeutic wilderness program,” confirmed the incident, stating that their staff had encountered the boy in an unresponsive state and, despite efforts, were unable to revive him. The Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office, which is actively investigating the case, revealed that the boy had been assigned to a cabin with other campers and was under the supervision of four adult staff members.
An autopsy was promptly arranged to ascertain the cause of death, with initial findings suggesting that the circumstances surrounding the boy’s death were suspicious, especially given the short duration between his arrival at the camp and his death.
The forensic pathologist involved in the autopsy noted that the death did not seem natural, though a definitive cause and manner of death are still under investigation, with a comprehensive report from the chief medical examiner anticipated in the coming months. In response to the boy’s death, deputies executed search warrants at two Trails Carolina locations within Transylvania County, including the site where the boy was found and another location to which campers were moved after the incident.
The Sheriff’s Office indicated that cooperation from the camp officials had been less than satisfactory, noting that the staff members associated with the cabin where the boy was found had been placed on administrative leave. Trails Carolina, however, disputes the portrayal of events and the status of the investigation as depicted by the sheriff’s press release, insisting on their full cooperation with the investigation and suggesting that preliminary findings pointed towards the incident being an accidental death.
The camp also expressed concern over public speculation surrounding the incident, deeming it disrespectful and detrimental to the grieving family and the integrity of the ongoing investigations. Trails Carolina is no stranger to controversy, with its wilderness therapy program previously under scrutiny.
The program aims to assist children and teens facing mental health and behavioral challenges, yet past incidents have raised questions about its efficacy and safety. Notably, in 2014, 17-year-old camper Alec Lansing was found dead from hypothermia after escaping the program, highlighting potential gaps in the supervision and safety protocols of such wilderness therapy camps.
Further casting a shadow over the camp’s reputation are accounts from former staff and legal actions taken by parents. Jonathan Hyde, a former wilderness field instructor at Trails Carolina, shared his experiences with USA Today, revealing his feelings of unpreparedness in dealing with the complex needs of the campers. Additionally, a lawsuit filed by a South Carolina parent in 2022 accused the camp of neglecting their 14-year-old daughter’s reports of sexual assault by another camper, raising serious concerns about the camp’s ability to provide a safe and nurturing environment.
The ongoing investigation into the 12-year-old boy’s death, coupled with past incidents, underscores the critical need for rigorous oversight and evaluation of wilderness therapy programs to ensure they deliver the promised care and protection to their vulnerable participants.