The epidemic of Black people dying at the hands of the white supremacist state extends beyond police and rogue citizens killing Black people for merely existing — for wearing a hoodie and eating Skittles like Trayvon Martin, holding a toy gun in a big box store like John Crawford, enduring a traffic stop like Sandra Bland and Alton Sterling, sleeping in their bed like Breonna Taylor. It also occurs in the institutions built to cage people, most of them Black and brown, who are at the mercy of those in charge and often forgotten about by society at-large. They are our most vulnerable, and sometimes, they are children, like Cornelius Fredericks.
Fredericks was a 16-year-old who lived at Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with 125 other children. According to its website, Lakeside is “a highly structured program for male youth who are in need of an out-of-home placement.” The New York Times describes it as offering “programs for children with behavioral problems and other challenges.”
On May 1, Fredericks went into cardiac arrest and died from “restraint asphyxia,” according to the Office of the Medical Examiner in Kalamazoo. Two days prior to his death, he had thrown a piece of a sandwich at another resident and was restrained by two staff members — Michael Mosley and Zachary Solis. They have been charged with involuntary manslaughter and two counts of child abuse; a third staff member, a nurse named Heather McLogan, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and one count of child abuse for failing to seek medical attention in a timely manner.
According to a lawsuit filed by Fredericks’ family, who is seeking $100 million in damages, “video from Lakeside Academy even shows a staff member placing his/her weight directly on Cornelius’s chest for nearly ten minutes as Cornelius lost consciousness.” Fredericks yells, “I can’t breathe” — like George Floyd and Eric Garner — but the staff members do not get off his body.
“We loved him very, very much,” Fredericks’ aunt, Tenia Goshay, told The Detroit News. Fredericks was a ward of the state, after his mother died when she was 32 years old and his father was unable to care for him.
The lawsuit names Lakeside Academy and Sequel Youth Services of Michigan, which owns the program. All its residents have been placed in other facilities and Lakeside has lost its license. But the lawsuit alleges that Lakeside had a history of using excessive force on residents and that something should have been done sooner.
Jon Marko, one of the lawyers for the Fredericks family estate, told The Detroit News that staff at the facility had used “wrongful and improper restraints” in the past and that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has “a laundry list of complaints” related to the way employees of the facility of handled residents.
In 2016, the lawsuit says, eight employees were fired by Lakeside and Sequel for improper use of restraints or “failure to use proper de-escalation techniques, and/or improper supervision of residents,” and at least seven more employees have been placed on leave since then for similar reasons. In fact, the lawsuit alleges that “within the six months prior to the death of Cornelius Fredericks” Lakeside and Sequel had “six separate incidents of violations pertaining to employees’ improper use of de-escalation techniques.”
In 2019, an extensive investigation by NBC News found physical and sexual abuse in another of Sequel’s facilities, Iowa’s Clarinda Academy. Residential homes are often sources of abuse and neglect. “The purpose of a high level group home is to help a youth deal with any trauma they’ve had before,” a 16-year-old named Mariah Corder told NBC Bay Area in 2017. “But I really believe that pretty much all of the group homes I was in gave me more trauma that I had to deal with.”
Black children and children of color tend to be overrepresented in the foster system, thanks to a child welfare system that disproportionately punishes Black and brown families. In 2000, Black children represented 36 percent of children in foster care, though they were only 15 percent of the child population. And even though there has been a focus on decreasing the number of kids in foster care since the early 2000s, in 2016, Black children were still nearly a quarter of the children in foster care. Many children in state custody are placed in group homes, especially as they reach their teenage years.
“One thing is for sure, what happened to Cornelius never should have happened,” Marko told The Detroit News. “It was preventable. This facility had been told. It had a prior history of problems, of violations of abusive restraints. And, the staff was not qualified.”
Refinery29 has reached out to Sequel, the owner of the former Lakeside Academy, for comment. We will update this story as we know more.
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