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New inspection finds more problems at wilderness therapy camp for kids, teens

N.C. DHHS cited Trails Carolina for three deficiencies after an inspection on June 21.
Published: Aug. 30, 2021 at 6:02 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 30, 2021 at 8:44 PM EDT
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LAKE TOXAWAY, N.C. (WBTV) – The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services cited a camp that offers wilderness therapy to children and teens for violating state regulations following an inspection in late June.

N.C. DHHS cited Trails Carolina for three deficiencies after an inspection on June 21.

The June inspection was the first time regulators had visited the facility since March 2019, despite a state law requiring N.C. DHHS regulators to inspect the facility once a year.

The June 21 inspection came weeks after a pair of WBTV investigations into Trails Carolina and the state’s lax regulation of the facility.

WBTV previously found regulators frequently went more than a year without visiting the facility, often taking between 13 and 18 months in between visits.

An agency spokeswoman previously said inspections were suspended in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, even as facilities like Trails Carolina took on an increased number of participants.

Previous: Top DHHS regulator defends agency’s oversight of N.C. wilderness therapy programs

The June 21 inspection found Trails Carolina failed to properly administer medications, did not allow participants to call their parents and had begun making physical improvements to the facility without permission from state regulators, which is required.

An inspection report detailing the violations found six of seven participants whose experience were revised for the inspection had been unable to contact their parents during their time at Trails Carolina. The facility had not yet filed a plan of correction in response to the deficiencies.

State law requires children be able to contact their parents, according to a statute cited in the inspection report.

A spokeswoman for Trails Carolina did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment for this story.

Previous state inspection reports show Trails Carolina has a history of violations cited as the result of inspections over the past ten years, including multiple citations for failure to properly administer medications.

The new report from state regulators is the latest scrutiny of the program, which WBTV began investigating in May.

Kathleen Reilly, who attended Trails Carolina in late 2012, recounted her experience in an interview in May.

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

“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.”

Watching Reilly describe her experience at Trails Carolina in 2012 struck a nerve with Rebecca Burney, who went to Trails Carolina right after her 14th birthday in 2016.

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

“I could recognize and think of instances of the same exact thing, like, in my own experience,” Burney said.

“I’ve kept up with a lot of my friends and none of them were really helped by it,” she said. “I’ve seen some of my peers go way downhill. I’ve seen people hit, like, rock bottom afterwards and I know that they haven’t come back.”

Reilly’s mom, Beth, said that if she had to make the decision over again, she would not send her daughter to Trails Carolina.

Rebecca Burney is seen here in a picture taken while she was at Trails Carolina.
Rebecca Burney is seen here in a picture taken while she was at Trails Carolina.(Beth Burney)

Beth Burney cited discussions with Rebecca and learning more details of her experience at Trails Carolina that left her daughter scarred.

“I am happy when I see some growth in her, and I do see that,” Beth Burney said. “I’m sad when she tells me how horrible it was.”

Rebecca Burney said she is still recovering from her experience at Trails Carolina.

“I’d say that everything they did has affected me, in both positive and negative ways,” Rebecca Burney said.

“But I will never forgive them for what they did to me.

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