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State cannot say how many teens escape wilderness camps

October 8, 2017 GMT

JONESVILLE — James Walden and his family were standing in his yard on a sunny spring afternoon in April last year when a teenager, a stranger, suddenly darted across the two-lane road outside his rural home and hid behind his truck.

A group of teens pursued the boy onto Walden’s property and assaulted the youth before dragging him back to the camp, Walden later told deputies. He had no idea what was going on but figured they were from a wilderness camp for juvenile offenders down a nearby dirt road hugged by thickets of woods.

Walden called the Union County Sheriff’s Office to let them know what happened, according to an incident report.

He was the only one.

The 15-year-old had indeed just escaped from AMIkids White Pines, a compound of squat, weather-worn buildings about 20 miles southeast of Spartanburg. However, officials from AMIkids, the private company that runs the camp, did not contact local law enforcement. They also failed to report the incident properly to the state Department of Juvenile Justice for two days, according to a Legislative Audit Council review of the agency.

Four White Pines staff members, including its then-executive director, now face charges. Two are charged with unlawful neglect of a child for allegedly roughing up the runway. Three also are accused of falsifying information about the incident. Several juveniles also were charged.

Sixteen-year-old LeKendryck, a former White Pines resident, said campers had just returned to their dorms after breakfast when suddenly, a boy from another dorm burst in saying a kid had run. The teens took off, leaving the campus in pursuit.

“Everyone just ran to go look for him,” LeKendryck recalled in a recent interview following his July release from the camp. The Post and Courier agreed not to use his last name because he is a minor.

While others scoured the surrounding woods, LeKendryck joined a staff member and a group of campers sprinting toward the main road. After crossing it, one grabbed the runaway as he struggled to catch his breath behind the truck.

As they walked the boy back to the camp, “he fell, and that’s when some of the kids was trying to jump on him,” LeKendryck said. The next day, the boy was gone.

Later, the state auditors sharply criticized DJJ and AMIkids staff for not following protocols for escapes — and at times not even knowing what they were.

LeKendryck recalled another escape attempt shortly after the boy took off through the woods. That time though, LeKendryck said, staff members notified the Sheriff’s Office.

How often young offenders flee the remote wilderness camps remains unclear. When the newspaper requested data about escapes and assaults from 2011 to present, DJJ produced a list of 12 escapes — none from White Pines.

And in their report, auditors wrote that DJJ couldn’t readily tell them how many youth had escaped from 2011 to 2016. DJJ later provided a list of 63 — five times as many as the agency had indicated to The Post and Courier — although the auditors couldn’t verify the data’s accuracy, the report said.

Roughly 200 boys pass through White Pines every year. Most get sent for truancy, incorrigibility, drug charges, and assault and battery. Some have seen the inside of DJJ’s detention center in Columbia, said Steven Crisp, who became White Pine’s executive director after his predecessor’s arrest.

Among the recent campers was a 17-year-old named Robert who arrived after getting into a high-speed chase and crashing the car. He’d since finished his GED and planned to enroll at USC Union after his release.

“On the outside, no one believed in me and helped me and encouraged me to do better,” Robert said.

Empowering the teens is key, said Crisp, a former special education teacher.

“A lot of these kids come from a cycle. ‘My dad was in jail, so I’m gonna do the same thing.’ Things of that nature. So we’re trying to help them to break that cycle,” Crisp said.

White Pines uses the same system as other AMIkids’ camps, rewarding good behavior with privileges through a military-style ranking system. Campers also take anger management classes and receive substance abuse counseling. To help them land jobs later, they can work on vocational tracks in food handling and IT fundamentals.

Union County Sheriff David Taylor applauded the camp today. Since the former director’s arrest, he’d seen White Pines improve markedly. Crisp called him weekly to chat, and deputies were working on a plan to mentor boys at the camp.

“They have turned it around 360 degrees,” Taylor said. “There is different management up there now, and it’s like a whole different world. The difference is like night and day.”