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Wilderness camp where boy recently died is accused of ignoring sexual assault in new lawsuit

A former student of a North Carolina wilderness camp where a 12-year-old boy recently died is suing the program, alleging staff members dismissed her claims of sexual assault by another camper and denied her basic necessities when she attended in 2016.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina over the weekend, accuses Trails Carolina of creating “an environment where troubled children have and do sexually assault other children” and of failing “to provide adequate medical care, food, and shelter for the children in its custody.” 

The suit comes a week after a child died the morning after he arrived at Trails Carolina, a camp for troubled youths in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina. Authorities have said the boy’s death “appeared to not be natural.” 

A public relations firm for Trails Carolina said Monday afternoon that it had not yet been served the lawsuit and did not yet have a comment. Trails Carolina’s owner, Wilderness Training & Consulting, which is also named as a defendant, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

In statements issued in the days after the boy’s death on Feb. 3, the camp cautioned against speculation and said through the PR firm that its priority “has been to acknowledge and respect the unfathomable impact on this family’s life and maintain the integrity of the investigation.”

Saturday’s suit was filed on behalf of Gertie, a 20-year-old woman from New England who attended Trails Carolina for three months at age 12, and who asked NBC News to identify her by her first name only for her safety. NBC News does not typically identify survivors of sexual abuse without their consent.

The lawsuit says Gertie was assigned to live with a group of girls at Trails Carolina in which one student sexually assaulted another a week after Gertie arrived. The student who was assaulted told staff members and the rest of the group about the attack, but staff members did not remove the alleged abuser from the group, and she became “fixated” on Gertie, the suit says. 

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The girl, who is identified as Jane Doe in the lawsuit, began making sexual comments to Gertie, the suit says. Gertie expressed her discomfort to staff members, who, instead of protecting her, placed her bed next to the alleged abuser’s, according to the lawsuit. The suit says that the girl then sexually assaulted Gertie and that when Gertie told her therapist at Trails Carolina, her therapist “did not disclose the sexual assault to the authorities.” 

“Rather,” the suit says, “she made Gertie promise not to tell anyone else about the assault and told Gertie she was equally at fault.”

The therapist, Derry O’Kane, who is also named as a defendant, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Gertie, whose parents had sent her to Trails Carolina to help her with her depression, said she told other staff members about being assaulted, as well. 

“It felt like they didn’t care about what was happening to me or that they didn’t believe me,” she said in a phone interview. 

The lawsuit describes other alarming events that allegedly occurred during the rest of Gertie’s time. It says that when the group was camping, water filters the group used to drink water from a nearby stream broke and the group members were forced to filter water through a dirty bandanna while they waited about three weeks for Trails Carolina to get new filters. Some students allegedly developed pinworms. 

Gertie had other medical issues during her stay, including symptoms of a urinary tract infection “for weeks before eventually being given a UTI test by staff,” the suit says. She was given antibiotics but was not taken to a doctor, and her symptoms did not fully resolve, it adds. She also lost a significant amount of weight from hiking all day without being given adequate food, the suit says. 

The legal complaint seeks monetary damages and a jury trial, and it says Gertie has been left with emotional pain and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“My experience at Trails was pretty traumatic,” Gertie said. “It has caused a lot of damage.” 

A controversial history

Trails Carolina’s wilderness program, which serves children with behavioral and emotional difficulties, has a controversial history beyond the recent death of the 12-year-old boy in its care. 

In November 2014, Alec, 17, Lansing walked away from the camp. His body was found in a stream, where investigators believe he tumbled after he climbed a tree and broke his hip, leaving him unable to move. Reports from the time said he died of hypothermia.

A 2021 investigation by WBTV-TV of Charlotte reported that a North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services report showed Trails Carolina waited five hours before it called for help to find Alec. The camp was cited for failing to supervise a student and fined $12,000, but it was allowed to continue operating, according to the station.

Trails Carolina told WBTV at the time that it was proud of the work it had done serving children and that it had “helped make a difference in the lives” of thousands of adolescents. 

In a similar lawsuit to Gertie’s, a former student alleges that she was molested in 2019 at age 14 by a female student in her group and that staff members denied her request to be in housing separate from her alleged abuser. Trails Carolina has denied those allegations in court documents, and the case is ongoing.

Few details have been released about the 12-year-old who died this month. On Monday afternoon, the state Department of Health and Human Services sent a letter to Trails Carolina that it shared with NBC News in which it ordered the camp to cease new admissions until the agency had completed its investigation of the child’s death and required that at least one staff member remain awake when children are asleep.

Gertie said she felt “heartbroken” for the boy who died and said she hoped her lawsuit would help other children.

“My biggest hope is to spread awareness and to inspire anyone else who has experienced trauma in a wilderness program or a residential treatment center or anything like that,” she said. “Because we deserve to be believed, and we deserve to get justice for what happened to us.”

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