One year ago, a 16 year-old boy sat in a cafeteria at a group home for teens in Kalamazoo and tossed a piece of bread at another boy. The adults in the room told him to stop. Smiling, he tossed another piece. An adult pushed him to the floor, and eventually seven other grown men held the boy down for 12 minutes.
Cornelius Fredrick died two days later, his death ruled a homicide.
In the year since his death, there have been lawsuits, criminal charges, and promises of reform. The home where Fredrick lived, Lakeside Academy, has closed.
Much has changed. But much remains unresolved.
A normal day
The call came in at 1:11 p.m. one year ago this week. A 16-year-old boy was on the floor of the cafeteria at Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo, unconscious.
Bodycam footage released by the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety shows the aftermath, as police talked to staff, trying to get answers.
“He was being restrained for some reason, I don’t know why,” one officer says to another.
In an office, one officer watches the security camera footage, for the first time.
“So we’ve got one, two, three, four, five, six guys on him?” the officer asks.
“And that’s pretty normal for this youth,” a staff member responds.
As police officers questioned staff members about what happened, they heard the same story: This was just a normal day, a normal restraint.
At one point, an officer interviewed Heather McLogan, a nurse who witnessed part of the restraint. She watched Fredrick lay limp on the floor for 11 minutes before she called 911.
“How many people were with him, do you remember?” the officer asks.
“Five, maybe,” McLogan says at first. Then: “Several. He’s a difficult restraint. So that didn’t seem unusual.”
“This has happened hundreds if not thousands of times, not only in that institution, but in other institutions,” says attorney Jeffrey Fieger, who represents Fredrick’s family in an ongoing civil lawsuit over his death. “The only difference was Cornelius didn’t get up from this one.”
Repercussions and reform
State records show nearly 800 restraints happened at Lakeside in 2019, and staff who were there in the spring of 2020 say the situation was getting worse leading up to April 29. Boys were out of school because of COVID-19. Lakeside was short-staffed.
There were 124 other boys living at Lakeside at the time. The facility was licensed by the state of Michigan, but run by a for-profit company known as Sequel Youth and Family Services. Following Fredrick’s death, the state revoked Lakeside’s license and banned Sequel from doing business in Michigan again. One other facility, in Albion, also closed.
Michigan Radio spoke to the mother of one of the boys who witnessed Fredrick being restrained. She asked not to be identified in this story. But she said her son is “beyond messed up from what happened.”
“We’re having to deal with the repercussions of what they did to our kids,” she said.
In the aftermath of Fredrick’s death, many boys ran away from Lakeside. As of last September, eight were still missing. At least one of the residents who was there on April 29 is now dead. Daimar Bowden was killed in Columbus, Ohio, after being sent home when Lakeside closed.
The state of Michigan, which issues licenses for “Child Caring Institutions” such as Lakeside, embarked on a series of reforms.
One of them: to eliminate restraints altogether.
That’s a work in progress.
“In May of 2020, the month after Cornelius died, we had 600 restraints that month,” says Stacie Bladen, interim director for the state’s Children’s Services Agency. “We’re now down to an average of 270.”
In March, the state moved to revoke the license of a juvenile detention facility after an investigation found evidence that staff had punched and choked a resident.
Bladen says the state has been holding training sessions with staff at group homes to reduce them. And it’s working on new rules that will completely ban restraints except in cases where there’s a risk of life threatening injury.
The proposed rule is expected to be finalized this summer and take effect next year.
And then, there’s an even bigger reform needed, Bladen says. It’s also a work in progress, and could take much more effort. That goal - to better support kids and families early on, so that children like Cornelius Fredrick never get into the system in the first place.