A former student at a wilderness camp in North Carolina where a 12-year-old boy recently died is suing the program, alleging that staff members dismissed her claims of sexual assault by another camper and denied her basic needs when she attended in 2016 used to be.
The lawsuit, filed this weekend in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, accuses Trails Carolina of “creating an environment in which troubled children can and do sexually abuse other children” and of failing to ” to provide adequate medical care, food and nutrition’. and shelter for the children in her care.”
The lawsuit comes a week after a child died the morning after arriving at Trails Carolina, a camp for troubled youth in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina. Authorities say the boy’s death “did not appear natural.”
A public relations firm for Trails Carolina said Monday afternoon that the lawsuit had not yet been served and had no comment yet. 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 February 3, the camp warned against speculation and said through its PR agency that its priority was “to recognize and respect the unfathomable impact on the lives of this family and the maintaining the integrity of the investigation. .”
Saturday’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of Gertie, a 20-year-old New England woman 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 generally identify sexual assault survivors without their consent.
The lawsuit says Gertie was assigned to live with a group of girls at Trails Carolina, where a student sexually assaulted another student 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 lawsuit said.
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The girl, identified in the lawsuit as Jane Doe, began making sexual comments to Gertie, the complaint said. Gertie expressed her discomfort to staff members, who, instead of protecting her, placed her bed next to the alleged abuser’s, the lawsuit said. The lawsuit states that the girl then sexually assaulted Gertie and that when Gertie told her therapist at Trails Carolina, her therapist “did not disclose the assault to authorities.”
“Instead,” the complaint says, “she made Gertie promise not to tell anyone else about the attack and told Gertie that she was also to blame.”
The therapist, Derry O’Kane, who is also named as a defendant, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Gertie, whose parents sent her to Trails Carolina to help her with her depression, said she also told other staff members she had been attacked.
“It felt like they didn’t care what happened to me or that they didn’t believe me,” she said in a telephone interview.
The lawsuit details other alarming events that allegedly occurred during the remainder of Gertie’s time. It says that while the group was camping, the water filters the group was using to drink water from a nearby stream broke and the group members were forced to filter water through a dirty bandana while they waited about three weeks for Trails Carolina to install new got filters. Some students are said to have developed pinworms.
Gertie had other medical problems during her stay, including symptoms of a urinary tract infection “for weeks before she was finally given a urinary tract infection test by staff,” according to the complaint. She was given antibiotics but was not taken to a doctor, and her symptoms did not completely resolve, it added. She also lost significant weight by walking all day without getting enough food, the suit said.
The legal complaint seeks monetary damages and a jury trial, and says Gertie has emotional distress and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“My experience at Trails was quite traumatic,” Gertie said. “It has caused a lot of damage.”
A controversial history
Trails Carolina’s wilderness program, which helps children with behavioral and emotional problems, has had a controversial history following the recent death of the 12-year-old boy in its care.
In November 2014, Alec, 17, Lansing walked away from camp. His body was found in a stream, where investigators believe he tumbled after climbing a tree and breaking his hip, leaving him unable to move. According to reports at the time, he died of hypothermia.
A 2021 investigation by WBTV-TV into Charlotte reported that a report from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services found that Trails Carolina waited five hours before calling for help to find Alec. The camp was cited for failing to supervise a student and fined $12,000, but allowed to continue operating, the station said.
Trails Carolina told WBTV at the time that it was proud of the work it had done serving children and that it had “made a difference in the lives” of thousands of adolescents.
In a lawsuit similar to Gertie’s, a former student claims she was abused in 2019 at the age of 14 by a female student in her group and that staff members denied her request to live in a residential space separate from her alleged abuser. Trails Carolina has denied these 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 Department of Health and Human Services sent a letter to Trails Carolina, which it shared with NBC News, ordering the camp to halt new admissions until the agency completes its investigation into the child’s death and demanding that it at least one employee stays awake when the children are asleep.
Gertie said she felt “heartbroken” for the boy who died and said she hoped her lawsuit would help other children.
“My greatest hope is to spread awareness and inspire anyone who has experienced trauma in a wilderness program or a residential treatment center or something like that,” she said. “Because we deserve to be believed, and we deserve to get justice for what happened to us.”