TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The parents and siblings of Naomi Wood, a teenage girl who died at a faith-based boarding school in Lakeland, were among a group that visited Washington, D.C. this week to call for legislative action on youth facilities.
The Wood family joined several lawmakers and advocates – including socialite and businesswoman Paris Hilton – on Wednesday to raise awareness about what the group called “the troubled teen industry.” A non-profit organization called Unsilenced held a news conference with the group, calling for legislation to protect children who have been placed in youth institutions.
“No child should be dying in a facility that they go to for treatment,” Unsilenced co-CEO Caroline Cole said. “No parent seeks help for their child and in the back of their mind thinks, ‘maybe they’ll die from this treatment.’ That is not a reality we should have here in the U.S.”
Naomi Wood’s brother, Nehemiah, spoke during the news conference about his sister’s death. Naomi Wood was found unresponsive in May 2020 at the Lakeland Girls Academy, a faith-based residential boarding school that followed the Teen Challenge program. She was pronounced dead later that night.
“My parents sent Naomi to Teen Challenge because they were promised the school would help my sister with depression and complex post traumatic stress disorder,” Nehemiah Wood said.
A report from the Florida Department of Children and Families released after Naomi Wood’s death said the teen complained of stomach pains for weeks but never saw a doctor, despite her request. Instead, the report said staff at the academy gave her Pepto Bismol 20 times.
According to the report, the state found evidence of “inadequate supervision” and “medical neglect” by staff at the school.
“My parents trusted Teen Challenge to provide Naomi with, at least, basic medical care,” her brother said Wednesday. “Instead of helping Naomi, Teen Challenge staff would end up causing her death by ignoring her repeated requests for medical attention.”
The criminal case involving Naomi Wood’s death was closed late last year after an autopsy determined she died a natural death from a seizure disorder. The state attorney’s office said no charges would be filed against leadership at the academy, which permanently shut down earlier this year, but the Wood family maintained that their daughter was neglected.
Nehemiah Wood on Wednesday called his sister’s death an “avoidable tragedy” but said he hopes something good can come from what happened.
“Untrained staff, little to no oversight and a lack of accountability are all too common at the therapeutic boarding schools like Teen Challenge Lakeland Girls Academy,” he said. “We hope something good can come from Naomi’s death. And we hope that Congress will finally act to protect children in residential treatment facilities so other families don’t have to suffer the kind of unnecessary loss, pain and heartache my family experiences every day.”
Hilton, who has been in Washington, D.C. all week to raise awareness and call for regulation on youth facilities, spoke after Nehemiah Wood at Wednesday’s press conference and thanked him for sharing his sister’s story.
“Naomi’s death is a heartbreaking example of hundreds of preventable deaths due to neglect or physical abuse at the hands of the ‘troubled teen industry’ staff who claim to care for and provide mental health treatment to over 120,000 youth every year,” Hilton said. “And to add insult to injury, taxpayers are spending an estimated $23 billion a year to place children with disabilities, special education students, foster youth and other vulnerable kids in these often dangerous, traumatic and sometimes even deadly facilities.”
Hilton, who has opened up in recent years about her own experience in youth facilities, spoke Wednesday about some of what she experienced when she was younger.
“I was forced to take un-prescribed sedative medications that made me feel numb and helpless,” she recalled. “When I questioned the staff about why I had to take them, or refused, men much larger than me would grab me by the arms, drag me down the hall and physically push me into [a] four-by-four dirty cement room.”
Hilton said it’s still difficult to talk about what she went through. She added that she still struggles with trauma-induced insomnia and complex PTSD.
She said she and other survivors are working to educate lawmakers about, “just how badly children in the troubled teen industry are treated.”
“I’m hopeful that once you hear these stories you cannot unhear them,” Hilton said. “And I expect Congress to take long-awaited action. They know this problem exists. No more sweeping this human rights issue crisis under the rug.”
“We are not playing politics with children’s lives,” she added. “The next generation of America is counting on you. We will not give up.”