Risky hold often used at kids' camp

State report exposes gap in policy, practice

Atlanta Journal-Constitution/July 29, 2005
By Craig Schneider

While Georgia child welfare officials say they do not allow facedown restraints of children, their own investigation into the death of a Douglas County boy shows the hold has been used for years at a camp for troubled youth.

Travis Parker, 13, died April 21 after being restrained for 1¸ hours, much of the time facedown, at the state-run Appalachian Wilderness Camp in Cleveland. Six camp counselors have been charged with murder in his death.

The counselors have said through their attorneys that they applied the restraint as they had been trained to do for the state camp, in the North Georgia mountains.

State officals have said repeatedly that the restraint is not permitted.

In May, Gwen Skinner, a Department of Human Resources director, said "face-down restraints are not allowed, period."

When asked about the report Thursday, DHR spokeswoman Dena Smith said, "Our policy and our training manuals do not support face-down technique. Facedown is not something we've supported or promoted."

The report was obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through the state Open Records Act. Attorneys for the accused camp counselors say it reveals a gap between what officials are saying and what is happening at their camps.

"We've known all along they were doing what they were trained," said Alton Hartley, attorney for counselor Ryan Chapman.

Camp's only full restraint

The final report on the boy's death, compiled by the state Department of Human Resources, says the "full basket hold" is the only full restraint used at the camp. One counselor said in the report that Travis had been restrained in that manner eight to 10 times in March and April.

In the report, camp director J. Timothy McMahon is quoted as saying the practice of restraining children facedown on the ground has been used for 30 years, and there was never any concern about its safety.

But the report said the use of prone restraint "has been well-documented as a dangerous technique."

A medical examiner ruled that Travis died as a result of the restraint.

The DHR investigation determined that the boy was abused and neglected during the incident, noting that the staff withheld food as punishment and failed to start resuscitation efforts for seven minutes after the boy became unresponsive.

Though other restraint methods were included in training manuals used at the camp, none was adopted for use, the report noted. The DHR board is considering adopting rules that would prohibit the use of face-down restraints at camps for troubled youth.

Marty James, a former lead counselor who retired in January, said that another restraint technique had been introduced that would place the camper on his side, rather than facedown, but counselors at the camp went back to using the prone position.

Other staff acts criticized

The counselors charged with felony murder last week are Chapman, Mathew Desing, Torbin Vining, Phillip Elliott, Paul Binford and Johnny Harris. They were also charged with child cruelty and involuntary manslaughter.

The report noted that five of the six had taken refresher training on the camp's restraint procedures.

The DHR investigation also detailed the events leading to the restraint and concludes that the behaviors of the campers were further "exacerbated" by the actions of the staff. For instance, at one point a counselor threw food and trash on the ground for the campers to pick up.

The report includes interviews with the camp counselors and nine camp children.

The counselors said in the report that during the April 20 restraint they regularly checked the boy's vital signs, and checked with their superiors to continue the hold. They also say the boy struggled, cursed and fought while he was held down.

Several of the campers said Travis complained during the restraint that he couldn't breathe. The response from a counselor, they said, was that if he could speak, he could breathe.

Campers criticized the restraints, with one calling them "over aggressive."

Another camper said, "You struggle in a restraint to get more air."

One boy said counselors made jokes while Travis was held down.

Another said he does not feel safe at the camp and no longer trusts the staff.

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