Every July for nearly forty years, Duke University offered children and teenagers with chronic illnesses—cancer, asthma, lupus, heart disease—a chance to do a normal-kid thing that, for them, had seemed out of reach.
They could go to summer camp.
Most sleep-away camps couldn’t accommodate them. Counselors didn’t have the right training. Facilities didn’t have the right equipment. So they were forced to miss out on formative experiences that their peers took for granted.
In 1979, three Duke employees—a physician, social worker, and play therapist—set out to change that. The university rented a Girl Scouts campground overlooking Kerr Lake in Henderson, about an hour’s drive northeast of Durham. Kids between the ages of seven and sixteen who were being treated at Duke University Children’s Hospital could spend a week there free of charge, their stays funded by donations. Camp Kaleidoscope lasted three weeks, each week dedicated to a different age group. Duke residents, students, social workers, child life specialists, and other employees served as counselors and staff.
More than a thousand children attended Camp K, as it was known, over the next thirty-eight years, many of them repeat campers. For some, it was their first time away from home. They played sports and learned to swim, did arts and crafts and were entertained by magicians. By all accounts, Camp K was beloved.
And then, suddenly, it closed.
On July 20, 2017, Duke Medicine Department of Pediatrics chairwoman Ann M. Reed and camp director Judy Panella disclosed the decision in an email to “Camp Kaleidoscope Families.”
“This very difficult decision,” they wrote, “was made following an encounter among several campers last week that required us to take a close look at our operations to ensure that we have appropriate policies and procedures in place that our families expect when they entrust their children to our care. … We look forward to returning next year and hope you will join us to again experience the transformative joy of Camp Kaleidoscope.”
But Camp K didn’t return in 2018. And, according to internet and database searches, Duke never publicly announced the camp’s closure, much less explained the “encounter” that prompted it to shutter or how its “policies and procedures” might have failed the children in its care.
Three lawsuits filed in Durham County against Duke University and several of its entities, as well as Reed and Panella—two in 2017 that have previously gone unreported and a third on Friday—aim to shine an unsettling light on that mystery.
According to the lawsuits, in the summer of 2017, five boys between the ages of seven and ten who were attending Camp Kaleidoscope were left alone in a cabin for at least an hour on multiple nights. One of them, the eight-year-old son of a Duke respiratory therapist, allegedly “repeatedly sexually assaulted” some of the others and led his bunkmates to perform sex acts on each other.
Duke, the lawsuits charge, “colluded and conspired to conceal what took place at Camp Kaleidoscope” and engaged in a “conspiracy to hide child sexual abuse that took place as a result of their negligence.”
In a statement on behalf of the university, Reed, and Panella, Duke Health spokesman Douglas Stokke declined to comment, citing Duke’s commitment “to protecting the privacy of minors and their families.”
But in their responses to the first two lawsuits, Duke’s lawyers rejected allegations that the university tried to hide anything. They also denied the sexual assault claims and maintained that the defendants “exercised reasonable care and diligence in their respective roles at the camp.”
The evidence is clear, however, that something disturbing happened at Camp K that summer.
Records included in court filings show that, on July 13, 2017, the five boys were “left unsupervised for an unknown amount of time in a cabin.” Four of them were then transported from the camp to Duke University Children’s Hospital’s emergency department for an evaluation. There, one of them told a psychiatry fellow they had been “sucking on each other [sic] penises.”
Then, a week later, Duke pulled the plug on the camp.
What that something was—whether it was sexual assault or something else, whether Duke tried to sweep a scandal caused by its own negligence under the rug or simply wanted to shield vulnerable children from psychological harm—will likely be the subject of a complex, confounding court battle that is only just beginning.
The lawyer representing the families of the three boys suing Duke, Robert Jessup, declined to comment or make his clients available for interviews. Their version of events is laid out in the three lawsuits, the most recent of which is the most detailed.
The boy at the center of that case is identified as John Doe, then a nine-year-old with brain cancer. His two bunkmates whose families sued Duke in 2017 are identified in their respective lawsuits as M.M., then seven, who has sickle cell anemia; and A.E., then eight, who has visual impairments and unspecified physical disabilities. Court documents indicate that another child who is not part of a lawsuit, referred to here as Boy 4, also engaged in sexual activity.
According to John Doe’s lawsuit, one of these children was HIV positive, and another had oral herpes, though the lawsuit doesn’t specify who had what.
The lawsuits identify the fifth bunkmate, who was then about a week shy of his ninth birthday, as “The Instigator,” and accuse him of sexually abusing the other boys. According to the Doe lawsuit, he did not have a medical condition. Instead, he was attending the camp because his father, the respiratory therapist, was a camp counselor that week.
Court records suggest the boy may have had a tumultuous home life.
The Doe lawsuit references a court case in Wake County involving the boy’s parents. In a court filing—attached to the Doe lawsuit—his mother describes his father as “aggressive,” says he has “serious mental instability that has required hospitalization on at least three occasions,” and claims that he’s “threatened suicide on multiple occasions.”
In 2013, according to court documents, the parents separated, and the father sought custody of their three boys, of whom “The Instigator” is the youngest. The parents reconciled, but the mother then sought a domestic violence protection order against the father, only to drop it a few days later. In December 2015, the father sued the mother’s alleged lover in Wake County under North Carolina’s alienation of affection statute. Finally, in February 2017—five months before the incident at Camp K—they divorced. (The INDY is not identifying the parents to protect the identity of the child.)
According to the Doe lawsuit, these five boys were supervised by two camp counselors—a Duke psychiatric resident and a child life specialist. Each night, the lawsuit says, the counselors left the boys “alone and unattended for an hour or more. These counselors were leaving these young children alone in the cabin, without any adult supervision, while they attended meetings in the staff house at the direction” of the camp’s leaders. (The counselors are not defendants in any of the cases.)
While state law makes it a misdemeanor to leave a child under eight “locked or otherwise confined” in a building without an adult “so as to expose the child to danger by fire,” there isn’t a statute specifying “a presumptive age at which a child may be left unattended,” according to the UNC School of Government.
On July 13, 2017, the last night of the camp week, the lawsuit says one counselor returned from that staff meeting and found “John Doe’s bunkmates performing oral sex upon one another.”
The most complete account of this event comes from an email, included in court files, that Boy 4’s mother sent to Panella and another Duke employee on July 16, 2017. The mother tacitly acknowledges that young children aren’t always reliable narrators, but says, “I’m a good read of [her son], and I’m really confident he’s telling me the truth.”
According to the mother’s email, the counselor reported that she walked in and saw all five boys with their pants down. However, Boy 4 told his mother she was mistaken. The boys had scattered when she entered their cabin, and John Doe—who the lawsuit says was present but not participating—was wearing shorts that were two sizes too big, so they might have fallen down. At the time, Boy 4 told his mother, John Doe was present and holding the flashlight while the other boys “engaged in activities involving mouth-penis, penis-anus, hand-penis contact.”
This had also happened the previous night, she wrote. Her son told her that he’d “hung out with them both night [sic] because they had been up playing games previously and ‘what they were doing [with their pants down] was boring, and I was just wanting them to stop so we could start playing games again like before.’”
According to the Doe lawsuit and the mother’s email, the idea for all of this originated with “The Instigator.”
But Panella offered a different explanation to Lindsay Terrell, a pediatrician working at Duke’s children’s hospital the night of July 13, 2017. Four of the boys—all except John Doe—were taken there after the counselor discovered them.
According to a note—included in court records—that a Duke child abuse specialist later sent to Reed, Panella told Terrell that the words “suck my dick” had been written on the cabin’s wall “where children could read it and allegedly ‘got the idea.’”
Panella called M.M.’s parents that night and A.E.’s guardians the next morning to tell them their children had been sexually assaulted and potentially exposed to HIV, according to their lawsuits. In its responses, Duke admitted that she called but denied that she said they’d been assaulted or told them about the potential HIV exposure.
M.M., his family’s lawsuit says, began “undergoing a rigid prophylactic treatment for HIV/AIDS.”
But no one informed John Doe’s parents or guardians what had happened, his family’s lawsuit says, or that his bunkmates “had sexually communicable diseases and that there may be a potential risk of exposure to HIV/AIDS and herpes.”
Instead, it argues, Duke “conspired to conceal” what took place and “hoped that John Doe would not tell his parents what he had witnessed. To date, [Duke has] refused to offer any compensation whatsoever or in any way offer to make right what happened to John Doe at Camp Kaleidoscope.”
The claim of a cover-up appears to rest primarily on one sentence from the email Panella and Reed sent to “Camp Kaleidoscope Families” on July 20, 2017, and how you interpret it: “To respect our legal and ethical requirements to safeguard patient privacy, we ask that you refrain from posting any information about the Camp on social media or in communications to parents and other individuals or groups.”
In the Doe lawsuit, this line is presented as an indication that Duke had something to hide. Reed is said to have “cryptically requested that the parents of campers, camp counselors, and staff of Camp Kaleidoscope not post about or otherwise communicate about the above described events … in an effort to conceal the occurrence of the same. This email was in furtherance of [Duke’s] conspiracy to hide child sexual abuse.”
Duke dismisses that argument. In its responses to the first two lawsuits, the university says the email was intended for the camp’s staff, not campers’ parents, despite it being addressed to “Camp Kaleidoscope Families.” (The email also says that news of the camp’s closure “will be communicated to families shortly,” which seems to support that claim.)
And that supposedly damning line, Duke’s lawyers argue, doesn’t show an intent to conceal anything.
Indeed, it would make sense that Duke wouldn’t want staffers or even campers’ family members gossiping about what happened—not merely to protect the university’s reputation, but to protect the children involved, who the lawsuits allege had already suffered psychological distress.
As Duke’s lawyers put it: “The email speaks for itself.”
Exactly what transpired inside that cabin may never be known, at least with any certainty. The only witnesses, after all, are the children themselves.
But what is known, based on court documents, is unnerving: “Medically complex children” as young as seven were “left unsupervised for an unknown amount of time,” as Panella admitted when the kids were taken to the hospital. During that time, some of them had sexual contact with each other—what the lawsuits describe as sexual assault.
Something went wrong at a place that had done so much good for so long.
As Panella and Reed wrote in that email: “We are proud that Camp Kaleidoscope has been serving children with chronic medical conditions since 1979. In that time, we have safely and successfully cared for hundreds of children. The reevaluation of our policies and procedures will lead to an even better experience for all who attend Camp K in the future.”
But only if there is a Camp K in the future. And that’s not clear either.
After multiple inquiries about the camp’s status, Stokke, the Duke Health spokesman, responded Tuesday morning, “We don’t have anything further to provide.”
Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman by email at email@example.com, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @jeffreybillman. Additional reporting for this story by editorial assistant Cole Villena. Research assistance by intern Ahmed Mohamed.