6 lose jobs in camp death

By JILL YOUNG MILLER

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 05/14/05

The state has fired five wilderness camp employees and a sixth has resigned in the aftermath of the death of a 13-year-old boy from Douglas County.

The staff members at the state-operated outdoor program for troubled children lost their jobs because of "various policy violations," Gwen Skinner, a top official at the Georgia Department of Human Resources, said Friday.


On the night of April 20, camp counselors held Travis Parker on the ground for about an hour and a half, much of the time face down, and denied the asthmatic boy his inhaler, documents from the state agency said.

The boy was restrained after he aggressively confronted one of his counselors after being denied food, according to accounts from counselors and children who witnessed the incident. He asked for his inhaler but was denied it by the counselors, witnesses said.

The restraint, which involved at least three counselors at a time, ended when the boy stopped breathing and went limp, the reports said. He was hospitalized and died the next day.

On Friday, Michael Tyler, the lawyer for Travis' family, called the firings "a first step."

"What is imperative is for the family to know ultimately the full details of what happened with Travis and, more importantly, for those responsible for his untimely death to be held accountable and brought to justice," Tyler said. "The family views this as a first step in the direction of achieving full accountability."

Efforts by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to reach the staff members involved in the incident have been unsuccessful.

At a news conference Friday, the DHR's Skinner did not name the employees who were fired or resigned. She did say that they were all at the campsite the night of the incident.

Skinner declined to say whether all the fired employees were involved in physically restraining the boy. "That's part of the ongoing investigation now," she said. The DHR is conducting an internal investigation.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is conducting its own investigation of Travis' death, GBI officials said. Autopsy results have not been made public because they are part of the investigation, the officials said Friday. The results of that investigation will be handed over to the White County district attorney, who will decide whether to pursue criminal charges.

The Appalachian Wilderness Camp, which accommodates about 50 children, is in Cleveland in the North Georgia mountains.

Skinner said camp employees violated department policy by denying Travis his inhaler when he asked for it. She also said some of the employees refused to take a polygraph test, which "is reason for termination."

Records the newspaper obtained through the Open Records Act showed that Travis was restrained at about 10 p.m. Dinner had been withheld from him and other boys in his group as punishment for misbehaving.

Withholding a regularly scheduled meal from the boys is also a violation of departmental policy, Skinner said.

Skinner refused to go into detail about the restraint that was used. "We can't go into more detail about the restraint now because it's still part of an ongoing investigation," she said.

When questioned by a reporter, Skinner did say that face-down restraints are not allowed at the state's camps. "Face-down restraints are not allowed, period," she said.

The agency is reviewing its policies and procedures involving children in therapeutic settings, said Skinner, who is director of the Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Addictive Diseases.

"We want to be very clear that because this is such a serious incident involving the loss of life of a child that we're reviewing the use of restraint across the state as it relates to all of our therapeutic programs that the agency uses," she said. "And we're taking a closer look at how and when we use restraint."

The DHR runs another outdoor therapeutic program for troubled children in Warm Springs. Skinner said the agency has "accomplished an initial retraining of all of our staff" at both camps.

"We are also bringing in a master trainer on restraint techniques for children in the week that's ahead of us," she said.