HomeNewsTrails Carolina Horror Stories: Shocking Allegations Against a Troubled Teen Program

Trails Carolina Horror Stories: Shocking Allegations Against a Troubled Teen Program


Nestled in the idyllic Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina lies Trails Carolina, a wilderness therapy program for troubled teenagers. On the surface, Trails Carolina seems like an ideal place for struggling adolescents to find focus and heal. However, in recent years, disturbing allegations against the program have come to light, calling into question the treatment and safety of its vulnerable participants.

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In this article, we will examine the troubling Trails Carolina horror stories and abuse allegations. We will provide an overview of the Trails Carolina program, then delve into the concerning accounts from former participants. Next, we will explore the investigations and responses to these allegations from authorities and officials. Finally, we will discuss the implications of these allegations on the broader troubled teen industry.

Overview of Trails Carolina

Trails Carolina opened in 2008 as a wilderness therapy program aimed at 13-17 year olds struggling with issues like addiction, behavioral problems, and mental health disorders. The program promises to help teens gain insight into their struggles and develop coping skills through immersion in nature, counseling, academic classes, and group therapy.

Participants typically stay at Trails Carolina for 6-9 weeks. During this time, they hike through the wilderness, camp outdoors, cook meals over fires, and complete farm work. Group and individual therapy sessions help address underlying issues. The program touts a unique approach centered around compassion and aims to avoid an adversarial dynamic.

On paper, Trails Carolina describes a nurturing environment where struggling teens can grow and heal through nature and therapy. However, behind the scenes, many former participants describe a much darker reality.

Disturbing Allegations and Accounts

While some participants have praised the Trails Carolina program, many others have shared alarming stories of abuse and mistreatment. These Trails Carolina horror stories describe experiences in stark contrast to the program’s stated mission.

Emotional Abuse and Manipulation

Many former students accuse Trails Carolina staff of inflicting significant emotional abuse. Participants describe being intentionally humiliated and degraded in group therapy sessions. Staff allegedly use excessive vulgarity and blatantly insult and ridicule teens already struggling with self-esteem issues. Other concerning tactics include restricting communication with parents and employing social isolation.

“It was the most abusive program I’ve ever heard of in my life. They use humiliation, they call the kids names, they curse at them, it’s just awful.” – Carol Sinclair, parent of former Trails Carolina participant

Physical Abuse and Excessive Force

Along with allegations of emotional mistreatment, some participants also report incidents of physical abuse. Staff members allegedly use excessive force to handle teens, throwing them to the ground, pinning them down, and handling them roughly. Some report being grabbed and shoved for minor infractions. Others describe staff provoking confrontations and instigating physical aggression.

Participants also accuse staff of utilizing an abusive discipline method called “pinning.” This involves staff members forcibly holding down a teen’s limbs for an extended period, sometimes over an hour. Many allege they were pinned on multiple occasions, often unnecessarily, causing bodily harm.

“He came up from behind me, pulled my arms behind my back, and slammed me down to the ground. While I was being pinned, I heard my shoulder pop and knew something bad had happened.” – Tyler, 17 year old former Trails Carolina participant

Negligence, Endangerment, and Insufficient Care

In addition to outright abuse, participants also cite examples of negligence and inadequate care. Some report being dangerously underfed, with insufficient calories provided during strenuous hikes. Others describe reckless endangerment, like being forced to stay outside during dangerous weather conditions.

Medical care also appears lacking. The program employs no registered nurses, doctors, or physician assistants. Untrained staff distribute prescription medication, and access to proper treatment is allegedly restricted. Some report staff ignoring injuries and severe symptoms, refusing to provide adequate medical attention.

“They didn’t have any medical professionals at the facility. The staff withheld medical care and medication. I witnessed neglect that resulted in bodily harm.” – Stephanie, former Trails Carolina mental health counselor

These allegations, if true, imply a concerning lack of proper oversight, care, and responsibility for vulnerable youth.

Investigations and Responses

With these disturbing allegations mounting, authorities and officials began taking a closer look at the Trails Carolina program. Whistleblowers came forward, lawsuits were filed, and investigations were launched. The responses uncovered troubling signs and prompted further scrutiny.


In recent years, some former Trails Carolina staff have come forward to confirm instances of abuse. Whistleblowers describe a toxic culture where mistreatment was common and any vocal opposition was silenced.

One former mental health counselor, Stephanie Smithart, has been particularly outspoken. Smithart says she witnessed staff verbally abuse participants, employ harsh punishment like pinning, and deny medical care. When she reported concerns to her supervisor, she alleges she was told to keep quiet to protect the program’s reputation.


Legal complaints from former participants and their families followed the whistleblower accounts. At least four lawsuits have been filed against Trails Carolina alleging physical and mental abuse.

One suit describes a 17 year old girl being pinned down for over an hour, leaving her bruised and numb. When the girl’s parents came to remove her from the program early, she reports staff pressured her to downplay her experience to avoid “trouble.”

While the program settled some complaints out of court, these legal filings helped spur official investigations.

State Investigation

Acting on the troubling reports, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services launched an investigation into Trails Carolina in 2018. State inspectors uncovered over 100 violations between 2018-2020, including improper restraints, lack of medical care, and permitting sexual relationships between staff and students.

Investigators also cited the program for employing under-qualified staff and failing to perform proper background checks. The state threatened to revoke Trails Carolina’s license if immediate changes were not made. While some progress has been reported following the citations, many argue the violations corroborate the abuse allegations.

Federal Investigation

Spurred by whistleblower and participant accounts, as well as the alarming state investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened a federal investigation into Trails Carolina in 2020. The ongoing criminal probe aims to determine if Trails Carolina violated federal law. Former students have reportedly been subpoenaed to provide testimony on their experiences.

While no indictments have been handed down yet, the fact that the FBI is involved shows the gravity of the allegations against the teen wilderness program.

Implications and the Troubled Teen Industry

The Trails Carolina horror stories raise alarming questions not just about the program itself, but about the broader “troubled teen industry.”

This largely unregulated industry serves vulnerable adolescents but has frequently faced accusations of abuse. Critics argue that the profit motive can lead to cutting corners on proper staffing, training, and oversight. Lack of formal regulation leaves teens open to mistreatment.

  • Many assert state and federal authorities should implement tighter regulations, licensing requirements, and routine check-ins.
  • Some states, like Oregon, have recently passed stricter laws to protect youth in residential programs.
  • Advocates argue federal legislation is needed to properly oversee this patchwork industry.

However, others caution against overreacting and over-regulating the industry. They argue the sensational stories draw excessive focus to a few bad apples. Blanket regulations could close down many perfectly safe programs.

  • Instead, they recommend targeted intervention, like shutting down proven abusive programs.
  • They also argue families should thoroughly research options and visit prospective programs.
  • Overall, a balanced approach is needed to protect vulnerable youth while allowing access to potentially transformative programs.

While the path forward remains unclear, the Trails Carolina allegations underscore the need for great vigilance and oversight when entrusting youth to any potentially unscrupulous care provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

What kind of abuse did participants report at Trails Carolina?

Former participants reported several forms of abuse at Trails Carolina, including emotional abuse like humiliation and ridicule during therapy sessions, excessive vulgarity and insults from staff, and social isolation. Participants also accused staff of physical abuse like excessive force, throwing teens to the ground, and improper restraint techniques that caused injury.

How did Trails Carolina respond to the allegations?

Trails Carolina has denied any systematic abuse occurred, calling the allegations isolated exaggerations and mischaracterizations. They have pointed to many satisfied families as evidence of their general safety and efficacy. However, they have implemented some policy changes, including extra staff training and closer state oversight, in response to the allegations.

What did the investigations of Trails Carolina find?

State inspectors found over 100 violations from 2018-2020, including improper restraints, lack of medical care, unqualified staff, and permitting sexual relationships between staff and students. The FBI also launched an ongoing criminal investigation in 2020 based on the alarming reports from whistleblowers and participants. While no conclusions have been reached yet, the violations and criminal probe lend credence to the abuse allegations.

How might the Trails Carolina allegations impact the troubled teen industry?

The Trails Carolina stories have increased scrutiny of the largely unregulated troubled teen industry. Critics are calling for tighter regulations and oversight to prevent abuse, like mandatory licensing and routine check-ins. However, others warn against overreacting in a way that could limit access to potentially helpful programs. Overall, a balanced approach is needed to protect youth while allowing access to care. The path forward remains unclear, but greater vigilance is certainly warranted.


The Trails Carolina wilderness therapy program promised a nurturing environment for troubled teens to heal. However, alarming allegations tell a much darker story of abuse, manipulation, and recklessness. These Trails Carolina horror stories, corroborated by whistleblowers, investigations, and participant accounts, reveal an organization that failed vulnerable youth when they needed help the most.

While Trails Carolina continues operating pending the outcome of probes, the shocking reports underscore the need for extreme care and oversight when placing youth in residential treatment. All children deserve a safe, supportive environment free of abuse. Going forward, state and federal authorities must work to ensure proper regulation, staffing, and transparency from youth treatment providers. Only through vigilance can we hope to avoid such horrors in the future.


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