MEMPHIS, Tenn. — After another attempted breakout at the Wilder Youth Development Center last weekend, an advocacy group and a Memphis father are voicing concerns about problems at the state-run facility.
Disability Rights Tennessee, an advocacy agency for persons with disabilities, said the state is not following the law when it comes to operating the facility. The group goes so far as to say the Department of Children Services is not only failing to keep children in their care safe, but actively endangering their welfare.
Since September 2019, there have been multiple publicly reported escapes and attempted escapes by youth. The advocacy group has been monitoring what is happening there for the past 18 months.
In that time, Disability Rights Tennessee said they have investigated many instances of Wilder and DCS not doing what they should. They said that includes a significant number of assaults and resulting injuries sustained by youth at the hands of Wilder staff.
They said it also includes abuses such as the pervasive and unnecessary use of restraint and isolation, and incidents of neglect. According to Disability Rights Tennessee, their investigation found staff mistreating youth, unnecessary use of restraints and isolation, failure to treat medical conditions, depriving youth of hot food, extended lockdowns, and lack of providing the children the therapeutic and rehabilitative services they are legally required to provide.
"DCS is supposed to keep kids safe. DCS is supposed to provide evidence-based rehabilitative behavioral and mental health treatment. Instead DCS is actually subjecting youth to the kinds of abuses that they are mandated to protect them from," said Jasmine Miller, Youth Law Center Lawyer.
Miller called the conditions at Wilder horrific, and said that is one of the reasons there are frequent attempted breakouts and incidents at the facility.
In addition to those accusations, Disability Rights Tennessee said children are also being deprived of appropriate educational, therapeutic, and rehabilitative treatment services, despite DCS’s statutory obligation to provide them.
"The Department of Children Services is not following Tennessee law or best practices when it comes to youth in the juvenile justice system, especially those young folks who are placed at Wilder," said Miller.
"I just want everyone to know kids are going to a facility where it’s extremely dangerous, and there is nothing they are doing about it but covering it up," said Raymond Taylor.
Taylor’s son Brian was housed at Wilder. Taylor said Brian refused to join a gang, he was beaten so badly his son hip was broken. Taylor said it was more than a day before his son was taken to Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.
“That’s not a place for no child," said Taylor.
"There was staff officer standing at the door of that room where that beating was occurring. The staff officer was aware that beating was happening and did nothing to stop it," said Jack Derryberry, Disability Rights Tennessee Lawyer. "The youth feel unsafe and feel hopeless. They don’t feel there is any chance of them feeling safe or getting the services they need."
Derryberry points out almost all the children at the facility have diagnosed psychiatric conditions, and he said the children are not getting all the services the state is required to provide.
"Wilder is not being run correctly. It is not a good use of state funds. It is not evidence-based. It is not meeting the treatment and rehabilitation needs," said Derryberry.
Derryberry said DCS is failing to meet its moral obligation to provide safe living conditions to youth. He added, DCS is fully aware of the grievances filed by youth, as well as its failure to adequately hire, supervise, and train staff in order to maintain a safe environment.
Disability Rights Tennessee and the Youth Law Center are developing a report based on the findings from the 18-month investigation. Youth Law Center is a non-profit law firm advocating to transform foster care and the juvenile justice system.
As for Taylor, he is not only concerned about how his son has been treated, but the others in state custody.
"Open your eyes. It’s happening. I just want to stand up and raise my hands and say we can’t go for this. We’ve got stand up because it’s only going to get worse," said Taylor.
The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services sent the following statement: “We are aware of the concerns of certain disability advocates for youth who have been adjudicated delinquent by the juvenile courts of Tennessee and placed at Wilder. We have thoughtfully considered their feedback when evaluating the treatment, counseling and educational services we continue to provide to the youth. Due to confidentiality laws, we are unable to provide any child or family specific information about youth who receive services from the department.”