Trails Carolina is a wilderness therapy program that claims to help troubled teens overcome their behavioral, emotional, and mental health issues. However, the program has faced several legal challenges in recent years, alleging that it has engaged in abusive, negligent, and fraudulent practices. In this blog post, we will explore the nature and outcomes of these lawsuits, and what they reveal about the controversial industry of wilderness therapy.
The Emergence of Legal Challenges
Trails Carolina was founded in 2008 by Graham Shannonhouse, a former wilderness instructor and program director. The program is based in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina, and operates on a 500-acre campus and a 10,000-acre wilderness area. According to its website, Trails Carolina offers a “unique blend of clinical sophistication, compassionate care, and exciting adventure” for teens aged 10 to 17 who struggle with various issues such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, trauma, defiance, and low self-esteem.
However, not everyone who has experienced Trails Carolina has a positive view of the program. In fact, several former students and their families have filed lawsuits against the program, accusing it of causing physical, emotional, and sexual harm to the participants. Some of the lawsuits also allege that Trails Carolina has misrepresented its services, credentials, and outcomes to lure unsuspecting customers.
Controversial Practices and Allegations
One of the most serious allegations against Trails Carolina is that it failed to protect a female student from being raped by multiple male students during a camping trip in South Carolina in 2011. The lawsuit, filed in 2019 by the victim’s mother, claims that Trails Carolina had a partnership with New Leaf Academy, a therapeutic boarding school in North Carolina, and that the two programs arranged for a co-ed group of students to go on a wilderness expedition without proper supervision or safety measures. The lawsuit also alleges that Trails Carolina staff ignored the victim’s complaints and tried to cover up the incident.
Another lawsuit, filed in 2018 by a former student and his parents, accuses Trails Carolina of abusing and neglecting the student during his enrollment in 2016. The lawsuit claims that the student was subjected to harsh and degrading treatment by the staff, such as being forced to sleep on the ground in freezing temperatures, being deprived of food and water, being isolated from his peers, and being verbally assaulted and threatened. The lawsuit also alleges that Trails Carolina staff failed to provide adequate medical care for the student’s injuries and illnesses.
A third lawsuit, filed in 2017 by another former student and his parents, alleges that Trails Carolina engaged in fraudulent and deceptive practices to induce them to enroll their son in the program in 2015. The lawsuit claims that Trails Carolina misrepresented its qualifications, accreditation, licensing, success rate, and refund policy to convince them that the program was suitable and effective for their son’s needs. The lawsuit also alleges that Trails Carolina breached its contract by failing to provide the promised services and results.
Legal Actions Taken
The plaintiffs in these lawsuits have sought various forms of relief from Trails Carolina, including compensatory damages, punitive damages, injunctive relief, declaratory relief, rescission of contract, restitution, and attorney fees. They have also asserted various causes of action against Trails Carolina, such as negligence, gross negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, fraud, breach of contract, unfair and deceptive trade practices, and violation of consumer protection laws.
Key Issues Highlighted in the Lawsuits
The lawsuits against Trails Carolina raise some important questions about the nature and regulation of wilderness therapy programs in general. Some of the key issues highlighted in the lawsuits are:
- How do wilderness therapy programs ensure the safety and well-being of their participants?
- How do wilderness therapy programs screen and train their staff?
- How do wilderness therapy programs monitor and evaluate their outcomes?
- How do wilderness therapy programs communicate and collaborate with parents and professionals?
- How do wilderness therapy programs comply with state and federal laws and standards?
Legal Defense and Responses
Trails Carolina has denied most of the allegations made against it in the lawsuits. It has also filed motions to dismiss some of the claims or to compel arbitration instead of litigation. In some cases, Trails Carolina has argued that it is not liable for the actions or omissions of its staff or affiliates, or that it is protected by waivers or releases signed by the plaintiffs. Trails Carolina has also maintained that it provides quality care and services to its clients, and that it follows ethical and professional guidelines.
Court Proceedings and Outcomes
As of April 2023, the lawsuits against Trails Carolina are still pending in various courts. Some of them have been transferred from state courts to federal courts, or from one district to another. Some of them have also been consolidated with other similar cases. The parties have engaged in discovery and pretrial motions, but no trials or settlements have been reported yet.
Reforms and Recommendations
The lawsuits against Trails Carolina have exposed some of the potential risks and pitfalls of wilderness therapy programs. They have also highlighted the need for more oversight and accountability in the industry. Some of the possible reforms and recommendations that could improve the quality and safety of wilderness therapy programs are:
- Establishing clear and consistent standards and regulations for wilderness therapy programs at the state and national levels.
- Requiring wilderness therapy programs to obtain proper licensing, accreditation, and certification from reputable agencies.
- Requiring wilderness therapy programs to employ qualified and experienced staff who have relevant education, training, and background checks.
- Requiring wilderness therapy programs to implement evidence-based and trauma-informed practices that respect the rights and dignity of the participants.
- Requiring wilderness therapy programs to conduct regular and independent audits and evaluations of their processes and outcomes.
- Requiring wilderness therapy programs to disclose accurate and complete information about their services, fees, policies, and results to prospective and current clients.
- Requiring wilderness therapy programs to provide adequate and timely communication and support to parents and professionals involved in the treatment of the participants.
- Encouraging parents and professionals to research and compare different wilderness therapy programs before making a decision, and to seek legal advice if they encounter any problems or disputes with the program.
Trails Carolina is one of the many wilderness therapy programs that have faced legal challenges in recent years. The lawsuits against Trails Carolina have revealed some of the serious allegations and issues that surround the industry of wilderness therapy. While these lawsuits are still ongoing, they have also sparked a discussion about the need for more transparency and accountability in the field. Hopefully, these lawsuits will lead to positive changes and improvements in the quality and safety of wilderness therapy programs for troubled teens.