The family of Cornelius Fredericks, a 16-year-old boy in foster care who died after being improperly restrained by youth facility staff, filed a lawsuit on Monday against the facility’s parent company.
Update: Wednesday, June 24 at 9:00 p.m.
On Wednesday, the county medical examiner ruled the death a homicide. Dr. Ted Brown, who performed the autopsy, said Fredericks had been restrained on the ground by several people, resulting in asphyxia. County Prosecutor Jeffrey Getting said he filed charges against three Lakeside Academy staffers allegedly involved in the incident: Michael Mosley, Zachary Solis and Heather McLogan. Mosley and Solis are facing homicide charges of involuntary manslaughter charges (felonies that carry up to 15 years) as well as two second degree child abuse charges, each carrying up to 10 years. McLogan is facing involuntary manslaughter and one charge of child abuse.
Original post: Monday, June 22, 2020 9:20 p.m.
According to a state investigation released this month, on April 29, staffers at a state-licensed youth facility in Kalamazoo pushed Fredericks out of his seat for throwing a piece of bread. Multiple staffers then restrained him for more than 12 minutes, putting their weight on his "chest, abdomen, and legs,” the investigation found. An attorney for his family says Fredericks repeatedly yelled, “I can’t breathe.”
Staffers at Lakeside for Children also didn't call for help or perform CPR after Fredericks became limp and unresponsive, investigators found, for another 12 minutes. He was eventually transported to the hospital and died a day later.
Now, Fredericks' aunt is suing Lakeside's parent company, Sequel Youth and Family Services, which operates numerous youth treatment and residential facilities in several states. Since Fredericks' death, Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services relocated the youth residents from Lakeside and has taken steps to remove the facility’s license. Sequel also operates a second Michigan child caring institution, Starr Commonwealth in Albion. Both facilities have been the subject of dozens of complaint investigations going back at least the last few years, with numerous findings of violations, including physical abuse and improper restraint by staff.
"What happened to Cornelius should have never happened,” Jonathan Marko, an attorney representing Fredericks’ family, said on Monday. “It was preventable. [Lakeside] had a prior history of problems, of violations, of abusive restraints.”
But it took Fredericks’ death for the state to take more action, Marko says. “This should have really never happened.”
Fredericks’ aunt, Tenia Goshay, says the family is still searching for answers about Fredericks’ death.
“I'm pretty sure it could have been avoided. I just need answers and some justice for my nephew. We loved him very, very much. And we just need to know what happened,” she says.
A spokesperson for Sequel didn’t return a request for comment on Monday.
Child welfare officials have conducted more than a dozen investigations into complaints at Lakeside since 2018, according to a search of the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs' online report database. Numerous violations were found, including a report in January that found “a resident was pushed and physically assaulted by staff, causing injury to the child.”
Other state investigations into Lakeside found feces backing up through a shower drain; staff failing to communicate with foster parents; failing to give youth residents their proper prescriptions, resulting in one resident being taken to urgent care with a yeast infection; hiring employees without proper background checks; understaffing and a lack of supervision of residents; and staff swearing at residents.
“When MDHHS was made aware of the previous complaints, it complied with its own processes of investigating and allowing the facility to correct deficiencies as identified,” MDHHS spokesperson Bob Wheaton said in an email on Monday. “Further internal review will take place in determining whether stronger action was warranted in those situations.
“MDHHS has also asked three national organizations with expertise in child welfare to conduct an independent assessment of the department’s licensing and contract oversight functions. The assessment is led by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in partnership with Casey Family Programs and the Building Bridges Initiative. Initial recommendations are expected by the end of this month. The department will make these recommendations and its response to them public.”
Meanwhile, Starr Commonwealth, the other facility Sequel operates in Michigan, has been subject to nearly 30 state investigations since 2017. Child welfare officials documented multiple violations at the Albion facility, including that a “male staff slammed a male youth on the ground and the youth lost consciousness,” and “staff completed an incident report which did not accurately reflect the restraint or youth injury” last year.
“We are exploring our legal authority to exclude Sequel from Michigan’s child caring institution continuum. Starr Commonwealth is managed by Sequel,” Wheaton said. “There is a recommendation for Starr Commonwealth to be placed under a provisional license, which means they are under heightened scrutiny and must create and implement a corrective action plan. Failure to secure appropriate administrative management that ensures child safety and well-being may be a reason to terminate MDHHS’s contract with Starr and revoke their license.”