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‘It’s beyond cruel’: Inside an N.C. wilderness therapy program for teens

Updated: May. 24, 2021 at 11:04 PM EDT
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CHICAGO, Ill. (WBTV) – Kathleen Reilly woke up in the middle of the night in late July 2012 to hear her dad say he loved her and that these people would take care of her now.

She was 16 at the time and had no clue what was going on. The first thing she did, she recalled, was reach for her phone on her nightstand. It was gone.

A second later, a man and woman came into her room dressed in a uniform.

“The man said get the f*** up, you’re going to camp,” she recalled in a recent interview.

“Then he said we can do this the easy way or the hard way and he had restraints and he said the police have been notified that you’re a danger to yourself and others. If you run, I will tackle you. Your flight leaves in two hours.”

That was Reilly’s introduction to a wilderness therapy program.

She was whisked to the airport and flown to North Carolina, where she would become a participant at Trails Carolina, in Lake Toxaway, N.C.

The facility advertises itself as a therapeutic wilderness program that aims to improve the lives of children and teenagers.

Kathleen Reilly at Trails Carolina
Kathleen Reilly at Trails Carolina(Kathleen Reilly)

Trails Carolina is licensed by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services as a residential therapeutic camp.

Generally, therapeutic wilderness programs cost big money, upwards of $30,000 or more for a child’s three-month stay.

But Reilly and others described an experience that left them worse than when they arrived: weeks in the wilderness without access to showers or other basic hygiene, what they described as emotional and psychological trauma and little time with a trained therapist.

‘Therapy’

For Reilly, most of their time was spent with their group of eight to 12 students, living in tents in the woods.

The participants are accompanied by three staff members, who are not trained as therapists and work for minimum wage, who are responsible for their day-to-day activities.

“We went once 17 days without showering,” Reilly recalled.

“We were denied basic hygiene all the time. It’s just, that was, again… ‘it’s just part of the process, yeah, I’m in the woods.’”

Another former participant, who attended for three months in 2017 and spoke with WBTV on the condition his name not be used, shared an experience similar to Reilly’s.

During weeks in the woods, the participant said, staff limited access to the bathroom.

As a result, he recalled, he defecated in his pants. He was forced to wear that same pair of pants for two weeks, he said.

In addition to the weeks in the woods, the former participant said staff at Trails Carolina, including the therapists, often sought to change behaviors through negative reinforcement and ridicule.

“There was a lot of shaming,” he said.

“Quote, unquote ‘therapy’ revolves around building resilience through, you know, physical hardship, sort of like a military, uh, boot camp or like seal training or something. But the problem was, you know, there are still safety measures in those sorts of environments. Not here.”

Reilly said she felt traumatized by her time at Trails Carolina.

“I use the term therapist still loosely, when I when I talked to my friends about it with the therapist I had, I say, loosely therapist because I don’t think that that was the title,” she said.

“It’s just it’s not normal. It’s not humane and it’s just not…. What it does to your brain, you still don’t even want to admit to it. It’s just like it’s still there and they have that power over you.”

Questions about staff qualifications, training

Jonathan Hyde went to work at Trails last summer after being laid off from several jobs during the pandemic.

His professional background is in outdoor guiding and he figured he was well-equipped to work with kids in the wilderness.

But he was not prepared for the level of care the teens he was with would require.

Jonathan Hyde, who worked at Trails Carolina during the summer 2020, talks with WBTV Chief...
Jonathan Hyde, who worked at Trails Carolina during the summer 2020, talks with WBTV Chief Investigative Reporter Nick Ochsner.(Corey Schmidt)

“I had kids that were vocally suicidal. I had kids that tried running away. I had kids that would try and fight you,” Hyde said.

“One of the issues of the place is that the people that spend the majority of the time with them are not trained therapists.”

Hyde was given three days of training before being sent to into the woods with participants.

That’s shorter than what an attorney for Trails Carolina recently told members of the N.C. Senate, who wrote a letter to the camp raising various questions about its program.

The letter said the facility follows a six-day training program and attached a schedule outlining which activities take place on specific days.

The program outlined in the letter to senators is not what Hyde experienced when he was hired last year.

“There was training but it was extremely minimal,” he said.

Both Hyde and the letter from Trails Carolina to the senators acknowledged turnover his high; staff members supervising participants in the woods make minimum wage.

A dead teen, history of violations

Inspection reports from N.C. DHHS show Trails Carolina was cited for fifty deficiencies between 2010 and 2019, the last time an inspection was conducted.

Among the violations were ten citations for improper medication handling and administration. Trails Carolina was cited four times for violating regulations surrounding seclusion, physical restraint and isolation.

And on three different occasions, Trails Carolina was cited for failing to protect participants from harm, abuse, neglect or exploitation.

The last time came in 2015, months after 17-year-old Alec Lansing ran away from his group on an excursion with Trails Carolina in November 2014.

A death investigation report released by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner shows Lansing ran away from his campsite, climbed up a tree and fell. He landed in a stream and broke his femur, where he was unable to move.

Lansing was found 12 days later, still laying in the creek.

The DHHS report investigating his death shows a deputy with the local sheriff’s office said staff at Trails Carolina waited five hours before calling for help.

Had they called sooner, the deputy told a DHHS investigator, they would have had a better chance of finding Lansing alive.

Trails Carolina was fined $12,000 but was allowed to continue operating.

WBTV’s requested an interview with a DHHS leader to ask questions about Trails Carolina’s history of deficiencies and the 2014 death but DHHS refused to answer questions.

Instead, a spokeswoman sent a statement defending the agency’s regulation of Trails Carolina.

“There was no evidence of a systemic lack of supervision of the other clients served by Trails Carolina,” the spokeswoman said of Trails Carolina following the 2014 death.

The statement also pointed to the string of annual inspections of Trails Carolina.

State regulations require an inspection every 12 to 15 months. But inspection reports show that annual inspections sometimes took place at longer intervals.

The last three inspections took place in 2016, 2018 and 2019.

A spokeswoman said inspections were suspended in 2020 during the pandemic, even though Trails Carolina continued to operate.

Trails Carolina also declined to make anyone available for an interview but provided the following statement through a spokeswoman:

“Trails Carolina was founded in 2008 to help families and children who are struggling with significant mental health challenges. Our typical family has exhausted all local resources with school counselors, outpatient therapists, and other mental health professionals. Since its founding, Trails has helped make a difference in the lives of more than 2,800 adolescents. Today, we are proud of all that our 200 employee workforce does to help others. Their work is proven in the 5-year outcome study that shows decreases in students’ anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and substance use. Seven years have passed since the tragic event in 2014 and we continue to pray for healing and peace for everyone involved.”

A tough one to live with

Heidi Reilly and her husband made the decision to send their daughter, Kathleen, to Trails Carolina.

Today, nearly a decade later, it’s one she regrets.

“That’s a tough one to live with. Definitely,” Heidi Reilly said.

Look back on the decision, she would not send her daughter to Trails Carolina.

“No, definitely not. I’d seek different help. Something with professionals that are—that we would be involved in more,” she said.

“I think they used lies and manipulation and shaming and some very, you know, abusive tactics.”

Kathleen Reilly said she is speaking out now in hopes it stops other parents from sending their children to Trails Carolina or a similar program.

“I remember laying there every night praying to a god I don’t even believe in saying ‘if you get me out of here, I promise I will do whatever I can to help whatever child so they don’t have to go through this,’” she said.

“I have severe sleep issues. I have a lot of abandonment issues, a lot of anxiety, panic disorder… It’s just not normal. It’s not humane.”

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