Notes from Susan: A Child Cries “I Can’t Breathe”

By Susan MacLaury

Several months ago, I joined the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN), hoping to better understand the American juvenile justice system as a producer of Shine’s documentary, “Virtually Free,” about three male teens in detention in Richmond, VA. I’m glad I did. Their newsletters and notifications provide a valuable perspective on the scope of juvenile detention in the United States, its contributors, and its consequences.

Were it not for NJJN I would never have learned that on May 29th, four days after the murder of George Floyd on May 25th in Minneapolis, another, much younger Black male, died in Kalamazoo, Michigan while being forcibly restrained by 4 staff members at Lakeside Academy for Children. His name was Cornelius Frederick. He, too, cried out: “I can’t breathe,” also to no avail. He was taken to a local hospital, unresponsive, and died the next day of cardiac arrest due to asphyxiation. His initial offense which prompted this collective restraint? He threw a sandwich at another student at lunch.

Cornelius was 10 when his mother died, and he and his four siblings were put into the care of their stepfather, according to his aunt, Tenia Goshay. Several months later his stepfather was incarcerated and Cornelius became a ward of the state, housed first at Wolverine Human Services in Detroit for two years. Diagnosed with behavioral problems and PTSD, he was moved from Wolverine to the Lakeside Academy and had been there for approximately 2 years at the time of his death.

Lakeside is one of several facilities privately owned and operated by Sequel Youth and Family Services “that develops and operates programs for people with behavioral, emotional or physical challenges” in more than a dozen states. In a sad irony, due to the impact of COVID-19 on the Lakeside facility that infected 39 residents, including Cornelius, and 9 staff, efforts were being made to relocate the residents, but there was no place for him to go.

One has to wonder not only about the circumstances of Cornelius’ death but also his last day alive. Where was he eating? With whom? Was he quarantined as he should have been? Who called for help to restrain him and why? These questions may never be answered but what is clear is that Cornelius’ life was too painful, and too brief. During this very important movement toward real justice reform let us remember Cornelius and the countless other children and teens who are NOT disposable. Their lives are precious. Their lives matter. They are all our children.