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Officials order all children removed from North Carolina wilderness camp where boy died

The 12-year-old was found dead earlier this month less than 24 hours after he arrived at Trails Carolina, a camp for troubled youths, according to authorities.
Lake Toxaway in North Carolina.
Lake Toxaway in North Carolina.Judy Graham / Alamy file

Officials have ordered that all children be removed from a North Carolina wilderness camp for troubled youths following the death of a 12-year-old in the camp’s care earlier this month.

The boy was found dead at Trails Carolina in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina, on the morning of Feb. 3, less than 24 hours after he arrived, according to authorities. The Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the boy’s death as a manslaughter case and has said that according to a forensic pathologist, the death “appeared to not be natural but the manner and cause of death is still pending.”

On Friday, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, which licenses Trails Carolina, said that the children at the camp were being moved elsewhere. The department also suspended new admissions to the camp. 

“While the investigation is ongoing and we cannot comment on specific details, it was determined that action needed to be taken to ensure the health and safety of the children,” the state Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement Friday, adding that parents have been notified and that the children will be temporarily cared for by the Transylvania County Department of Social Services.

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The statement called the boy’s death “tragic and concerning.”

In a page-long response to the children’s removal from the camp, Trails Carolina slammed the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services for taking students with complex mental health diagnoses from its care with such short notice for parents. It said the state forced “18 vulnerable children” to leave “a safe healing space against their parents’ wishes.”

“Parents believe the program is safe and do not want their children’s treatment disrupted by the State, which has continued to make reckless decisions based on false and misleading information from the Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office,” said the statement, which was issued through a public relations firm.

The statement also maintained that the boy’s death was accidental. 

“We grieve with the family of the student who tragically passed and have promised to do everything we can to determine what happened. Based upon preliminary findings by state agencies, internal investigation, information and conversations with officials, staff, and known experts, everything points to an accidental death,” it said.

The boy who died has not been publicly identified. Search warrants from the Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office obtained by NBC News say that he was found “cold to the touch” on the floor of his bunkhouse the morning after his arrival at Trails Carolina. They also say staff told investigators that the boy had refused to eat dinner and that he was “loud and irate” when he first arrived.

The for-profit camp, which describes itself as an adventure therapy program that helps children and teens with mental health issues and behavioral concerns, has a controversial history. In November 2014, 17-year-old Alec Lansing walked away from Trails Carolina, prompting a massive search. His body was later found in a stream, where reports said he died of hypothermia after climbing a tree and breaking a bone in his leg.

A 2021 investigation by WBTV in Charlotte, North Carolina, found that a state Department of Health and Human Services report showed Trails Carolina waited five hours before calling for help to find Lansing. The camp was cited for failing to supervise a student and fined $12,000 but was allowed to continue operating, WBTV said.

Trails Carolina told WBTV then that it was proud of the work it did to “make a difference” in the lives of the children it served.

“Seven years have passed since the tragic event in 2014 and we continue to pray for healing and peace for everyone involved,” it said in 2021.