Losing Erica: Cynthia Clark Harvey Doesn't Want Anyone Else's Child to Die in a Wilderness-Therapy Program

Cynthia Clark Harvey climbs the stairs to the second floor of her north Phoenix home, pausing in a small bedroom. It's the kind of room empty-nesters tend to keep, and this one is packed with artifacts from her daughters' childhoods. Briana's Beanie Babies hang on the wall in an organizer with her name on it; there's a needlepoint of a panda and some balloons, marking Erica's birth.

In that same room there's a framed self-portrait of Erica. Drawn in 2001, just after her 15th birthday, it looks like it took days to complete. Cynthia doesn't recall whether the drawing was done in pencil or soft charcoal, but she does remember that Erica finished it for a school assignment in just a couple of hours. She turned it in so she wouldn't fail her art class, but Erica didn't like the portrait, Cynthia recalls, adding, "She said she looked like she was scared shitless."


Amy Silverman feature

THE LOST KIDS: Part 2 of an Ongoing Series

Part 1 told the story of Alex Varlotta, a boy who has struggled with mental illness. When he was 12, his mother called the police as a last-ditch attempt to get him help and keep her family safe. It worked � but at a price. Because their insurance wouldn�t pay for care, the Varlottas had to give up custody of their son to Child Protective Services. Now the state pays about a quarter-million dollars a year for Alex�s care. Today, the Varlottas play a tiny role in the caregiving process.

Part 2 explores another family�s struggle � and the tragic outcome. In both the Varlotta and this case, it�s painfully apparent that adequate services for mentally ill teenagers are tough to come by in our community.

The image is haunting. Erica's eyes are enormous, framed by two braids, and the pain on her face is so exquisite it's hard to look at it for long. It's the portrait of a young girl losing her mind.

What happened to Erica Harvey and her family is the stuff of young adult novels and after-school specials — except this story is true. Cynthia Clark Harvey and Michael Harvey's sweet, straight-A, firstborn child hit puberty and fell into a downward spiral of mental illness, suicidal thoughts, and self-destructive behavior.

She was dead before her 16th birthday.

But Erica didn't take her own life. On Memorial Day weekend in 2002, she flew to Nevada with her parents and sister. Erica thought she was going on a family vacation to Lake Tahoe. The truth was that Michael and Cynthia had signed her up for a wilderness-therapy program — their last-ditch attempt to get Erica off street drugs, which formed a dangerous combination with the anti-depression and anti-psychotic medications she was on. The three-week camp was supposed to be a more palatable alternative to a hospital. An adventure. Something fun.

The camp officials had told her parents to lie to Erica. She was angry. She hugged her sister goodbye, but not her mother.

"I told Erica, 'I love you,'" Cynthia recalls, standing in tears at her kitchen island on a recent fall afternoon, replaying the scene in her head as she has so many times over the past seven years. "And she said, 'Well, I hate you. Don't touch me.'

"And that was the last thing I heard from her."

What happened next has been documented in hundreds of pages of police and medical reports; Cynthia has testified about it before Congress.

On her first full day at camp, Erica and other kids were taken on a wilderness hike. At first, the reports indicate, she did well — taking off ahead of the others, even though she'd refused most food and drink since arriving at the camp. But by 6 that evening, according to eyewitness accounts, Erica was acting oddly, talking gibberish. Then her eyes rolled back in her head, and she fell off the trail, into a deep ravine. She didn't get up. She had no pulse.

At first, the staff thought she was faking, then began CPR. It was 45 minutes before someone called for a helicopter, and it took hours for the help to arrive; the staff was confused, giving the wrong coordinates to a search-and-rescue team. As it turned out, that staff also didn't have experience dealing with a kid on psychotropic drugs, like Erica. The EMT on the trip was on his very first trek.

Erica had been down for five hours when hospital staff noted her temperature was still 101.7 degrees. The official cause of death was heatstroke and dehydration.

Erica Harvey is not the only kid who's died in a wilderness-therapy program.

It took a while for her to get the gumption to go online, but once she did, Cynthia Clark Harvey found others in similar circumstances — middle and upper-middle class families who had paid a lot of money to scare their kids straight with a tough-love adventure, only to see them return abused. Or not at all.

There are no comprehensive statistics because there is almost no regulation of the industry, but in 2007, the United States Government Accountability Office documented reports of thousands of cases of abuse and neglect at "therapeutic" programs all over the country — including 10 deaths that the GAO studied in depth. The GAO investigated at the behest of Congressman George Miller, a California Democrat who introduced legislation in 2007 to regulate the largely unmonitored "troubled-teen industry" and held hearings on the subject.

Before that, the spotlight on wilderness-therapy camps had been dim. Maia Szalavitz, author of the 2006 book Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids, explains that these programs are really off the radar in a lot of ways.

Child advocates tend to fight for poor kids. Human rights activists champion political causes. But who, Szalavitz asks, fights for middle-class teenagers? After years of research, she's concluded that many of the tactics employed by wilderness-therapy programs are no different from those used at Guantanamo Bay. No, Szalavitz concedes, there's no waterboarding at a therapy camp. But she's documented cases of emotional attacks, intense group pressure, physical abuse, and the withholding of food, water and sleep.

Complain, and you'll just be accused of faking it.

"It's all the stuff that people use to break people when they have to break people without leaving marks," Szalavitz says.

The programs are huge moneymakers, she says, because the overhead is so low. Some don't even require a high school degree for so-called "therapists." Because much of the program involves camping, there are no facilities to pay for. The food served isn't great.

There is no research to show any of what goes on at these camps works, according to Szalavitz. No peer-reviewed journal articles, no controlled studies. Just anecdotal testimony from parents and kids — some of which has been paid for, she says.

That's why Cynthia Clark Harvey and other families of kids who've died are so important to the cause, Szalavitz adds.

When she started her Internet research shortly after Erica died, Clark Harvey found Bob and Sally Bacon. They were also living in Phoenix. In 1994, their son, Aaron, had suffered an excruciating death in a wilderness-therapy camp in Utah.

Cynthia Clark Harvey, Bob Bacon, and others testified before George Miller's committee in 2007. The GAO reported its findings as well.

Calling abuses in such programs an "open secret," Miller opened his first hearing before the House Education and Labor Committee by saying, "We have heard stories where program staff members forced children to remain in seclusion for days at a time; to remain in so-called 'stress' positions for hours at a time; or to undergo extreme physical exertion without sufficient food and water.

"Today, we will hear even more horrifying stories. Of children denied access to bathrooms and forced to defecate on themselves. Of children forced to eat dirt or their own vomit. Of children paired with older children — so-called "buddies" — whose job it is, essentially, to abuse them.

"There is only one word for these behaviors: inhuman."

Apparently, when it's not monitored correctly, the "tough love" approach can pretty easily go awry. Particularly when it's applied to a volatile group, like teenagers with mental-health and substance-abuse problems.

The GAO investigated many deaths in "therapy" programs, including:

• A 16-year-old girl from Virginia who died of a massive head trauma at a camp in Utah. She fell while hiking on Christmas Day. The staff had reportedly not scouted the dangerous area and didn't have medical equipment. It took paramedics an hour to arrive.

• A 14-year-old boy from Texas who died of hyperthermia (overheating) at a Utah camp. He had difficulty hiking and sat down, then fainted and lay motionless. A staff member hid behind a tree for 10 minutes to see if the boy was faking before discovering he had no pulse. The boy died soon afterward.

• A 15-year-old boy from California who died at a Missouri boot camp/boarding school, probably as a result of complications from a spider bite. Despite showing signs of medical distress for days, the program's medical staff said the boy was faking — and because he was weak and couldn't exercise, he was forced to wear a 20-pound sandbag around his neck.

Szalavitz has also documented cases of girls forced to give lap dances as part of their therapy, and another girl told to cover herself in dirt to symbolize the fact that as a rape victim, she was dirty. How is that going to make them better? she asks.

The truth is that no one really knows what to do with mentally ill kids. Most insurance plans will pay for expensive care for only so long. Then, parents are on their own. Community-based treatment, while widely touted as the best option, is tricky to apply and all but unavailable, particularly in a place like Arizona, which has a rich history of under-funded behavioral-health services.

The largely private, often unregulated "troubled-teen industry" fills a void — as long as parents can afford to pay out of pocket, since insurance rarely covers the bills. In 2002, Erica Harvey's wilderness therapy program cost $8,040 for a 21-day session. Today, a 21-day session at a Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy Program costs $11,185.

James McDougall sees families struggle a lot with what to do with a difficult teenager. It happens a lot. A former Maricopa County juvenile court judge, he now practices mental-health law, trying to get help for families like Erica Harvey's.

It's not easy, he says.

"You're dealing with the mind here. I don't really know that anyone knows the answer, or holds the key, to solving these problems."

There simply aren't adequate services in the Phoenix area, McDougall says, adding that a wilderness-therapy camp was not an appropriate solution for Erica, from what he was told about her case.

"If it's an underlying psychotic disorder — for example, bipolar — those kinds of programs are not going to turn someone around. Medication will do that, and counseling will do that."

But by spring 2002, Erica was doing so poorly that both a counselor and a psychiatrist advised Cynthia and Michael to do more. And the couple was willing to do just about anything to make her better. Cynthia spent months researching options for Erica, but she didn't learn that kids had suffered and died in wilderness-therapy programs until it was too late. She and her husband sued Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy Programs; they settled for an undisclosed amount, but that didn't bring closure for the family. Nor did the news that authorities in Clark County, where Erica had died, refused to press charges against the camp.

So Cynthia Clark Harvey started speaking out. She testified before Miller's committee in October 2007, six days before what would have been Erica's 21st birthday. Clark Harvey has become one of the most vocal advocates in the country on this topic; she's a treasured member of a group called A START (Alliance for the Safe, Therapeutic, and Appropriate Use of Residential Treatment). Clark Harvey is, indeed, an eloquent speaker and writer, at turns witty and heartbreaking — and always painfully honest. (Disclosure: I have participated in writing groups with Clark Harvey for years, and read her poetry and prose about Erica both before and after her death.)

Clark Harvey's work as an advocate is far from over. While the U.S. House of Representatives has now passed Miller's bill twice, in two different sessions of Congress (despite not getting the vote of Clark Harvey's own congressman, John Shadegg), the legislation has yet to be introduced in the Senate, and that could take some time because the Senate Health Committee, which will consider the bill, is currently consumed with the task of overhauling the nation's healthcare system.

The Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act of 2009 would establish minimum standards designed to prevent child abuse and neglect at camps for troubled teens — including physical, mental, and sexual abuse. It requires that adequate medical care, food, drink, and rest be given and establishes civil penalties for violations. States would be required within three years of passage to implement the law. Because the GAO had so much trouble documenting cases of abuse, the act would also establish a toll-free national hotline and a Web site listing documented cases.

So far, there's been no action in the U.S. Senate.

And even if there is, the sad truth is that a federal law might not do much. The U.S. House legislation is modeled largely after a state law in Oregon, the location of the most recent death at a wilderness-therapy camp, in August. Szalavitz says there have been several deaths at that camp.

"Oregon was supposed to be the state that did it well," Szalavitz says. "You tell me the regulation is working."

The good news is that federal oversight would mean parents could look online and see examples of abuses at programs. The downside, Szalavitz says: "The industry can then say we're federally regulated so we're safe, and that can become a fig leaf to hide what's really going on."

Clark Harvey is devoted to lifting that fig leaf. Even if a law is someday passed, she says, that won't be the end for her.

"The advocacy is painful at times," Clark Harvey says. "But in the last couple of years, it's moved somewhat beyond the personal pain of Erica's death. Now the sorrow is also about all the other families and individuals who've suffered because of these abusive practices.

"Telling our story used to be more cathartic, and I'm grateful to have been able to have had many opportunities to do so, though at times, I really wanted so much more to talk about Erica's life than her death."

Cynthia Clark and Michael Harvey met in 1977, working retail at Goldwater's department store in Albuquerque. They were married two years later. Michael wound up with a job in computer systems, which took them to Colorado, Massachusetts, and, finally, Arizona — just close enough to both of their families in New Mexico.

Erica and Briana were born in Denver, 25 months apart. Cynthia has an undergraduate degree in English and an MBA, but for the most part, she stayed home with her girls.

Cynthia still slips sometimes and speaks of Erica in the present tense.

"Erica's really artistic and she was athletic, in a different kind of way," she says, explaining that Briana was the one who liked team sports. And Briana was "always really the sunshine-y one. Not that Erica didn't have a great smile."

The girls were definitely different from the start. Erica wasn't cuddly. She never took more than a 45-minute nap; Briana would nap for three hours straight.

Erica was always sensitive, her mother recalls. "She really always took things to heart."

When Erica was 3, the family cat was put to sleep. A year later, she'd still cry for the cat at night. And when she was 6, and the family flew to New Mexico to see Cynthia's brother, who was dying of AIDS, Erica fed her uncle ice cream and asked him if she could get him anything.

When she was 10, Erica learned about a no-kill animal shelter in town and persuaded her parents to take her there every Saturday to volunteer, which she did for many years. And that same year, Erica watched the Atlanta Olympics on TV and decided she wanted to dive. That November, she tried out for a diving team and made it — shivering through practices all winter at an outdoor pool.

"Ten was a big year for Erica," Cynthia recalls.

Erica was artistic, always surrounded by friends. "Tons," Cynthia says, laughing. "She was a collector." The Harvey house was the place the kids came to hang out and eat massive quantities of pizza rolls.

She was their "Halloween baby," and every year, Michael and Cynthia would carve Erica a pumpkin and throw her a big birthday party. Cynthia remembers slumber parties from the time Erica was 6.

"We always wanted to make a big deal out of them, because it's special," Michael says of the girls' birthdays. "We always need more things to celebrate."

He remembers that for Erica's 13th birthday, they splurged and rented a limousine to take her guests to a haunted house. Michael doesn't recall exactly how the limo idea came about, but he has fond memories of another detail.

"What I know is that she was particularly tickled about was that it was an all-girl birthday party," he says of Erica, "and she told me that if I wanted to come I'd have to dress up like a girl. So I did."

The party was a lot of fun. The next year was different.

Looking back, Cynthia can peg the changes in her older daughter to a single event: her 14th birthday party.

At the beginning of eighth grade, Erica was still competing on the diving team and playing clarinet in the school band, but she was clearly changing. Maturing physically, that's for sure. All her friends were. So when Cynthia and Michael planned Erica's 14th birthday party, they took care to establish some rules.

It was a big party, held at their house. Erica had a lot of friends; Cynthia capped the guest list at 50. No one was to leave once they'd arrived. It was karaoke and soft drinks, nothing more.

Michael recalls it being a tough night.

"The kids were more adult, and they also were more out of control," he says. "And I remember how difficult it was trying to be present there for her birthday as well as trying to be the parent who had to watch out for everybody."

On top of that, Erica just wasn't herself.

"She didn't seem like she enjoyed the party," Cynthia recalls. "She seemed really stressed. And, of course, we were really stressed."

Just a week or two after that, a couple of Erica's friends told the school counselor that Erica had been cutting herself. The counselor called Cynthia, who did some investigating at home and found a note a friend had written to Erica that said, "I wish you wouldn't hurt yourself that way."

Cynthia freaked out. Erica came home that day, and they talked; she showed Cynthia where she'd been cutting her forearms. She didn't have much of an explanation for why she was doing it, though she'd later tell a hospital nurse she did it because she was a bad person.

Cynthia and Michael were at a loss. They didn't know anyone who'd been in therapy or had issues like this with their kids. Michael called his company's behavioral healthcare insurance number, and the next day they were in a therapist's office.

From the beginning, it was a challenge. "Erica felt that she was at least as smart as the therapist," Cynthia recalls.

Then her grades started to drop. She got in trouble at school. By spring, she had a serious boyfriend and, as Cynthia puts it, "things were just a lot shakier." And moving at "turbo-speed."

Some of Erica's friends began backing away from her. She told a therapist she'd been depressed since she was 10, which surprised Cynthia because, to her, 10 had been such a wonderful year for Erica.

But Erica apparently recalled that year differently. She told two or three different therapists about an incident she remembered hearing about when she was 10. A little boy about her age was sexually assaulted in the bathroom at a mall near the Harveys' house. The boy was a stranger, but it made her "sad and scared," she told a therapist.

A psychiatrist prescribed Prozac at the end of eighth grade. The cutting still hadn't stopped. Cynthia wondered whether Erica had been sexually abused herself; Erica insisted she hadn't.

That summer, there was a lot of drama — friends spending the night, trouble with the boyfriend and other boys. She decided she wanted to go to an arts charter school instead of the International Baccalaureate program she'd been accepted to.

She resisted going back to the therapist, but when she finally did, she admitted she was still depressed. So that doctor increased her Prozac dosage. And then things got even worse.

School began, and then came 9/11, and it was hard to tell just what was causing Erica's increasing despair.

By the end of September, Cynthia was frantic. She had to wake up Erica two hours before it was time to leave for school; she moved that slowly.

"You'd hear her wailing in the night. Wailing. Sometimes I went in to her. Sometimes I didn't. I was helpless. I didn't know what to do."

Cynthia would drop Erica off at school, and she'd call almost immediately to say, come get me. She felt physically ill.

Throughout it all, Cynthia says, "We still always talked." She would rub Erica's feet at night, to help her sleep, and read to her. They read Harry Potter and John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany and a lot of fantasy. They were in the middle of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle when the family left for Nevada.

"Poor Briana," Cynthia says. "Erica was taking up all the oxygen in the house."

Cynthia recalls the day she took Erica to see a pediatrician who specialized in adolescents. Until then, she and Michael had figured that letting their girls dress how they liked was a "pretty benign form of self-expression," but that day, she recalls, Erica was wearing "quite the outfit" — fishnet stockings, a tiny plaid skirt, platform shoes. She felt like the doctors' offices they waited in needed a "well area," a "sick area" and an "Erica area."

"She was scaring the other parents."

Erica admitted to the pediatrician that she was smoking cigarettes and pot. That doctor and a counselor confirmed that Erica needed her Prozac dose adjusted. Cynthia got an appointment for the following Monday.

But on the day of the appointment, Cynthia and Erica got in a fight, and Erica took off for a friend's house, even though she'd been ordered to stay in the house.

She left her backpack open on her bed, and Cynthia looked inside. She found local bus tickets. (Erica's school would later confirm that even though Cynthia had been faithfully dropping Erica off at school each morning, the girl would take off for much of the day.) Worse, she found a sack of 75 white pills and a jewelry box with five or six straight-edge razors in it.

"At that point, I'm totally chillingly afraid," Cynthia recalls.

When Erica came home, she confronted her and told her it was time to go to the psychiatrist. Erica refused. Cynthia told her what she'd found.

"I said, 'I don't know what I'd do if you killed yourself,'" she says, welling up.

Erica still refused. The psychiatrist's office told Cynthia to get Erica to a hospital. Cynthia called the insurance company for advice, which was: Get her to go willingly or call the paramedics or the police. Cynthia, who was hiding in the bathroom during the call, took notes with an eyeliner.

Even if you do get her to the hospital, the woman on the phone warned, don't expect for them to have a place for Erica.

"I don't know if it's the full moon or what, or 9/11, but every adolescent bed is full from Arizona to California."

Cynthia got more advice: Try to make it through the night. Put your car keys under your pillow, check Erica every hour. Lock up anything she can use to hurt herself.

"We made it through the night," Cynthia remembers. The next day, after calling the police to the house, Cynthia and Michael persuaded Erica to let them take her to a hospital. The pills had been antihistamines she'd bought from someone at school.

Erica was in the hospital for six days, on suicide watch for four of them. That meant no thong underwear and no stuffed animals. The doctors lowered her Prozac dose and prescribed more medication, including an anti-psychotic. She was diagnosed with depression with suicidal ideation and possible borderline personality disorder — although the latter is difficult to diagnose in a teen because, as Cynthia explains, that pretty much describes adolescence.

She was better for a while, and the family celebrated her 15th birthday quietly with a couple friends and the gift of Frederick, a sugar glider (a small marsupial) the Harveys still have. But by Halloween, things were bad again. Erica, who as a young girl had never been one to want to draw attention to herself (for example, she broke her heel in second or third grade and refused to use crutches) was wearing dramatic makeup and dressing even more provocatively. Some days, Cynthia recalls, she'd come to breakfast with thick rings of black makeup ringing her eyes; other days, she'd be "fresh as a milkmaid."

Cynthia and Michael kept trying new therapists, new methods. They wrote "behavior contracts." They drug-tested. They tried.

"We are triers," Cynthia says. "Give us a plan, and we'll try to work it. We will."

By late November, Erica was testing positive for cocaine and amphetamines, along with THC. She said it was Ecstasy she took on Halloween. She was grounded but continued to sneak away from school. Cynthia recalls the day she tracked Erica down to some shacks on 15th Avenue and Van Buren; Erica was hanging out with a boyfriend and had to be talked into going to the doctor for treatment of a rash.

The doctor said the rash was a side effect of the anti-psychotic. She took Erica off the drug but warned, "This could be tough."

It was. A couple of days later, the family drove to Albuquerque for Thanksgiving. Erica pulled it together for the trip, but when they returned home, she refused to get out of the car. Cynthia sat with her for hours.

After a talk with a new psychiatrist they liked, Cynthia and Michael decided on "house arrest." Erica was to stay home with Cynthia 24/7. She got her assignments from school, and the two studied Shakespeare and rested a lot.

"It actually was, in many ways, a really nice time," Cynthia recalls, wistfully.

In January, Erica returned to the charter arts school but was kicked out after 10 days for smoking pot (or for covering for a friend who was; to this day, Cynthia's not sure). They sent her to a stricter charter school, a K-12 with uniforms. Cynthia figured Erica would behave herself in front of little kids.

She was a little better, but by that point, Erica was "on an incredibly short leash." Her cell phone had been taken away. She was allowed an overnight just once every two weeks, and Cynthia stayed in touch with her friends' parents — or so she thought, she realized later.

Erica was still testing positive for drugs, still seeing a psychiatrist. Now she was talking about dropping out of school. Both the psychiatrist and a counselor suggested a drug-treatment program.

It didn't seem to be a bad idea. At that point, Erica had "such a small, small life," Cynthia says sadly. "We were looking for something that would be partly an adventure, like a watershed. And, quite frankly, for some time to regroup."

Cynthia started looking.

First, she called two Outward Bound programs. Neither would take a kid on prescription medication. Nor would Anasazi, an Arizona drug-treatment program.

Then she found Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy Expeditions in Nevada.

"'Therapy' is in the title of the program!" Cynthia recalls, more than a little ruefully. This wasn't a boot camp. They were fine with Erica's medication; they heard all about her drug use. They wanted to help.

The family flew to Nevada, the kids thinking it was a family trip. Cynthia was surprised that Erica never figured out what was waiting for her. The family woke up early on Sunday morning, and Cynthia and Michael announced to the girls that the day's activities would be a surprise, telling them only, "It's something none of us have ever done before," Cynthia recalls, adding, "We didn't like lying to our kids."

The orientation was in an office in an industrial park surrounded by tall, pretty trees and cool breezes — two hours away, as it turns out, from the hot wilderness Erica would be hiking in the following day.

"I was incredibly hopeful . . . Michael was much less convinced that this was a good thing," Cynthia says. (Michael confirms this.)

And then Erica wouldn't get out of the car. First Briana and Cynthia went in, leaving Michael and Erica outside. Then, a staff member asked Michael to come in.

"I don't know how they got her into the building, to tell you the truth," says Cynthia, who'd never been to a 12-step meeting; that's what the orientation was like.

"What a lot of pain was in that room. What a lot of sorrow," she says, recalling that she felt "sad and defeated, I'd say. I think we all felt pretty defeated at that point."

Sitting there, she realized Erica was perhaps the only kid who hadn't cut some sort of deal to get out of criminal charges. There were kids who'd forged checks, stolen cars. Erica was upset because she couldn't have her art supplies.

Cynthia tried to say goodbye.

They were the last ones to leave, staying even after the kids had been taken away. Cynthia and Michael kept asking questions. Finally, they drove away with Briana and found some hot springs. They tried to relax. The next day, the three of them took a paddleboat out on Lake Tahoe. Cynthia asked Briana if she wanted to get one of the souvenir photos someone was hawking.

"Briana said, 'No, because it's just the three of us.'"

They flew out late that afternoon and arrived home in Phoenix to a message to call the camp. Michael heard the message; Cynthia had gone to check on the sugar glider.

There'd been an accident, they were told. Someone was doing CPR; they were waiting for search-and-rescue.

Cynthia thought Erica had fallen off a cliff — or jumped off one. Cynthia was in the front of the house when Briana came to find her, saying, "Dad was on the phone with someone, and then he fell down in the backyard and I came to get you."

Much of what happened next is fuzzy in Cynthia's mind. They flew to Reno the next morning and met with camp staff in a room at the airport. Erica's body had already been sent for an autopsy. The staff tried to explain. Erica had been okay, they said. She was out in front of the group. They were taking a water break, she seemed fine, and then she wasn't.

Erica went down at 5 p.m. When she died five hours later, her body temperature was still close to 102 degrees. It's true she was on medication that increased her sensitivity to heat. And there was meth in her blood, too, when she died. But the Harveys had warned the camp of this. (Amazingly, the camp didn't drug-test Erica before she left on that first hike.)

The program's response, through a spokeswoman, was that Erica had hiked only a couple of miles that day. They said she'd had 1.5 liters of water; Cynthia observes that the police reports and civil case depositions never established how much water she'd had, and adds that she was hiking at 8,000 feet after living in Phoenix at 1,000 feet.

The program also argues that the anti-psychotic medications Erica was taking were not established at the time as a threat vis a vis increased body temperature in children.

Maia Szalavitz, who interviewed Cynthia Clark Harvey for her book Help at Any Cost, strongly disagrees. "Anybody who knows anything about psychiatric medication or methamphetamines knows that overheating is what kills you in relation to those drugs," she says. "They should have known not to do it before they even started, and the fact that they didn't shows such a basic lack of information. It's Pharmacology 101."

Much was up for debate in this case. Charges were never filed, but the police report did recommend them — specifically, "felony child abuse leading to death."

Cynthia and Michael hold the camp responsible for what happened. And they hold themselves responsible, too.

"We violated Erica's trust," Cynthia says. "We had a lot of help. But we violated her trust."

On October 16, on what would have been Erica's 23rd birthday, her family went to see the movie Where the Wild Things Are.

Michael found it disappointing. Erica would have appreciated the fantasy aspect of the movie, he says, but it wasn't close enough to Maurice Sendak's book for Michael — or, he thinks, for Erica.

When she was very young, she memorized the book, he recalls, and would "read" it to him and Cynthia.

Of the movie, he says, "We wanted it to be more nostalgic."

Michael has a lot of memories. He recalls the time Erica asked Cynthia to "make her a mermaid." Cynthia sewed costumes for both girls, who were about 12 and 10 at the time. It wasn't Halloween; these were costumes to be worn in the pool.

"It was exactly what Erica had envisioned, and she got into the pool and transformed herself into a mermaid."

Then there was the time the girls begged to see the movie Jaws, and Michael obliged — then hid under the covers in a bed upstairs 'til the girls came looking for him, and got the scare you'd expect after a scary movie. There was lots of teasing and games, family traditions of hide-and-seek, Easter egg hunts.

It was a good life. Better than good. Not long after they met, Cynthia and Michael bought a poster from the Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life and hung it on the wall.

"We always felt that we were very blessed and that we had a wonderful life. And after Erica died, I took the poster down and put it in the garage," he says.

Now, life includes Cynthia's advocacy work. Michael admits he lets her take the lead. His job requires a lot of energy, he explains, quickly adding he knows that might just be an excuse. Still, he says, he and Briana completely support Cynthia.

"I hate the fact that, because of this, I now have a cause that I need to be out there with. But at the same time, that's what I've got and I will be out there with it if Cindy needs me to be," Michael says.

Cynthia is not done. Since George Miller introduced federal legislation in 2007, more children have died in suspicious circumstances at wilderness camps. The latest was Sergey Blashchishen, a 16-year-old boy from Portland, Oregon, who died in August at a camp in rural Oregon.

Details have emerged about Sergey's final hours. After reading an account, Cynthia sent an e-mail with a link to a newspaper story.

"I am sick, sad and angry," she wrote. "Sergey's last hours read like a re-enactment of Erica's, up to and including calling the program office before any emergency number, when the kid was, for all intents and purposes, already dead. WTF?????"

Like Erica, Sergey was on his first hike. He, too, took off ahead of the group, and like Erica, began talking gibberish shortly before he went down.

His death is under investigation.

Yeah, Cynthia says, in some ways, it might be easier to move on. But she can't. Her explanation is painfully simple.

"I can't go back and un-know what I know now," she says. "So that's why I keep at it."

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >