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

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

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 have and sexually assault other children” and of not not “provide adequate medical care, food”. , and shelter for the children in its care.

The lawsuit comes a week after a child died the morning he arrived at Trails Carolina, a camp for troubled youth in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina. Authorities said the boy’s death “did not appear natural.”

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

In statements released days after the boy’s death on Feb. 3, the camp warned against speculation and said through the public relations firm that its priority “has been to recognize and respect the “unfathomable impact on the lives of this family and to maintain the integrity of the investigation.” .”

Saturday’s complaint was filed on behalf of Gertie, a 20-year-old New England woman who attended Trails Carolina for three months when she was 12 and who asked NBC News to identify her by her first name only for his safety. NBC News generally does not 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 attacker from the group and she became “obsessed” with Gertie, according to the pursuit.

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

“On the contrary,” the suit says, “she made Gertie promise not to tell anyone about the assault and told Gertie that she was also at fault.”

Therapist Derry O’Kane, also named as a defendant, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Gertie, whose parents sent her to Trails Carolina to help with her depression, said she also told other staff members about her assault.

“I felt like they didn’t care what was happening to me or didn’t believe me,” she said in a telephone interview.

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

Gertie had other medical problems during her stay, including symptoms of a urinary tract infection “for weeks before finally being tested for a urinary tract infection by staff,” the suit states. She received antibiotics but was not taken to a doctor and her symptoms did not completely disappear, it added. She also lost a lot of weight from hiking all day without receiving adequate nutrition, the suit states.

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

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

A controversial story

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, of Lansing, left the camp. His body was found in a creek, where investigators believe he fell after climbing a tree and broke his hip, leaving him unable to move. Reports at the time said he died of hypothermia.

A 2021 investigation by WBTV-TV in Charlotte reported that a report from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services showed 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 was allowed to continue operating, according to the station.

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

In a lawsuit similar to Gertie’s, a former student alleges that she was assaulted in 2019 at the age of 14 by a student in her group and that staff members rejected her request to be in accommodation separated from his alleged attacker. Trails Carolina has denied the 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 has completed its investigation into the child’s death and requires that at least one staff member remain awake when children are sleeping.

Gertie said she was heartbroken for the boy who died and said she hoped his trial would help other children.

“My biggest hope is to raise awareness and inspire anyone else 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. »

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