State probes boy's death at outdoor camp

Center's risky punishment cited

Atlanta Journal-Constitution/May 6, 2005
By Jill Young Miller with Craig Schneider

Counselors at a state-run camp for troubled youngsters held a 13-year-old Douglas County boy facedown on the ground for an hour and a half before he stopped breathing and later died, state records show.

The counselors subdued Travis Parker using a hold that has been banned by the state Department of Juvenile Justice because officials there consider it too dangerous.

Travis, who had asthma, died on April 21, the day after he was restrained by at least three counselors at the Appalachian Wilderness Camp, an outdoor therapeutic program in Cleveland, in the North Georgia mountains.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is looking into the matter, and the results of an autopsy are pending, said GBI spokesman John Bankhead.

The boy was "placed in a full basket restraint due to his acting out behavior," according to a Department of Juvenile Justice report obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution under the Open Records Law.

The Juvenile Justice Department doesn't allow its workers to use the hold. "We don't use any holds that could possibly restrict a child's ability to breathe," said Bill Reilly, the agency's chief of staff.

The camp is one of two operated by the state Department of Human Resources. Troubled children aged 6 to 17 are placed there from a variety of sources, including the juvenile justice system and mental health programs. On average, the children stay less than 12 months.

Reilly said that his department had been assured by DHR officials that the facedown restraint would no longer be used on children at the wilderness camp.

The DHR refused to discuss the case, but a department spokeswoman said it allowed its employees to use the "basket restraint."

"Yes, that restraint is continuing to be used," said DHR spokeswoman Dena Smith, who said the department was reviewing the "application of the restraint, as well as all policy and procedures."

While the details of what happened the night Travis was restrained are sketchy, the Juvenile Justice Department's incident report suggests that counselors were trying to place the boy under control after an outburst.

The report says that boys at the camp began misbehaving at about 3 p.m. on April 20 and continued "acting out" until 10 p.m.

By then, 11 campers had missed their evening meal because of their behavior, the report said. When two campers were rewarded with food for being good, Travis "became enraged," the report said. A counselor grabbed him by his jacket, Travis resisted, and the counselor "put him in a full basket restraint." The report did not identify the counselor.

One counselor held Travis from behind, crossing the boy's arms against his chest, the report said. The boy "was taken to the ground, where another counselor was holding his legs and another counselor holding the hip area," the report said. "The camper is face down during the entire time."

A counselor told authorities that the boy had to be restrained after about 10 p.m., according to an incident report filed with the White County Sheriff's Department. The boy started having trouble breathing, and camp officials called 911.

Before an ambulance arrived, the boy quit breathing and staffers started CPR, the sheriff's report said. He was taken to a hospital in Gainesville and transferred to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston. He died the next day.

Staff members at the wilderness camp have been put on administrative leave while the incident is investigated.

A Douglas County Juvenile Court judge committed Travis to juvenile justice custody after a community group recommended placing him in an outdoor therapeutic program, Reilly said. Being in the agency's custody expedites a child's placement in such a program.

Reilly was unsure why Travis was in court, but he said the boy had a history with juvenile justice authorities. He had his first brush with the law at about age 9, Reilly said.

Wilderness therapy programs take children who are addicted to drugs, in trouble with the law or out of control at home and school and put them in a primitive outdoor setting where they must learn to live and work together.

The Juvenile Justice Department has about 20 children at the camp, which has room for 50, Reilly said. Travis entered the camp in February, records show.

The boy lived in the small town of Winston with his grandmother. The boy's family members could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Peggy Walker, a Douglas County Juvenile Court judge who knew Travis and attended his funeral last week, was troubled by the circumstance that led to his death. "I'm very distressed that he would be restrained for an hour and a half."

"When we work with children, what we're trying to do is provide the assistance they need," the judge said. "Certainly the last thing that we want to do is to do harm."

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