MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A network of 57 federally mandated legal advocacy groups known as Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) have released a report claiming that Wilder Youth Development Center is dysfunctional and in disrepair—“harming youth, especially those with disabilities.”
This report, entitled, “Designed to Fail: A Report on Wilder Youth Development Center, a Department of Children’s Services Facility," documents what they describe as “destructive practices” upheld by the Wilder center.
It also alleges that parties responsible for investigations of physical and sexual assault did not follow up or perform in-depth reviews of center employees who were the subject of ten or more investigations.
According to this report, not only has the Department of Children's Services (DCS) essentially used Wilder as a "warehouse" for a disproportionate number of youth who have disabilities—they have also have done so with Black youth specifically. 97% of those incarcerated at Wilder are Black.
Almost 70% of the children in the center are from Shelby County, according to a media briefing held by DRT and YLC on Wednesday.
“Regardless of why these youth are placed there, it doesn't change the department's legal obligation to treat and rehabilitate the youth in its care,” Legal Director of DRT Jack Derryberry said. “If children services doesn't adhere, by itself, to the fundamental belief that all children deserve a second chance and rehabilitation, then this only confirms what we are saying in our report … There is a dumping ground for these youth, and the system is designed to fail. The department needs to believe in and adhere to its own standard and its own goals.”
The Tennessee State Comptroller found, during a 2020 performance audit, that DCS had failed in ensuring that Wilder had “corrected potentially harmful practices that risk the safety of the children who are in their custody.”
Even after the DCS Special Investigations Unit was made aware of three Wilder employees who were the subject of ten or more investigations, DRT’s report states that Tennessee’s Provider Quality Team Division did not follow up on or perform in-depth reviews for any of the three employees.
One claim was substantiated by the time the report was released.
It is alleged in the report, after corroborating reports from seven different youth, that a male staff member at Wilder regularly watched youth while they showered, commented on the size of their genitals, and promised gifts to convince youth to expose themselves to him.
This behavior was still unaddressed by DCS at the time of the youth interviews, according to the report, but DRT did make a child abuse report against this specific staff member.
Executive Director for Stand For Children Tennessee Cardell Orrin said the report has brought to life what he has feared.
"Being from Memphis and Shelby County, one of the major pipelines into the Wilder Center," Orrin said. "We are even more concerned about the impact that what's happening at the wilder center has on the young people who are coming from our community."
Children were also subjected to detrimental seclusion practices in Wilder’s “TRU Dorm” (Therapeutic Response Unit), according to DRT’s report.
These practices are still in effect at the center despite multiple reports that children feel that the practices “make them want to kill themselves.”
“We really believe strongly that no child should have to live in a place where they are suffering daily threats of abuse, harassment and neglect and where they lack access to programs to help them become successful adults,” Attorney for YLC Jennifer Rodriguez said.
Education requirements are also neglected by Wilder, according to the report.
Though the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was created to ensure special education and related services to children with disabilities on a national scale, these requirements have not been adhered to by Wilder, according to the report.
The report alleges that it costs $48,840 per day to operate Wilder. The report notes that this is almost enough to cover four years of tuition at the University of Tennessee.
In March of 2021, a survey by GBAO found that residents of Tennessee overwhelmingly favor a youth justice system focusing on prevention and rehabilitation (79 percent).
Only 21 percent favored a system focusing on punishment and incarceration.
Whether Democrat, independent, or Republican—the majority of those surveyed preferred focusing on prevention and rehabilitation with majorities of each party backing this position.
“We think Children Services needs a transformation to an entirely new approach where it recognizes, assesses, plans for, and actually treats [youth],” Derryberry said. “It does not need to label all challenged teens as dangerous and unable to change. We think that youth are better served with community-based alternatives that have a proven track record for both prevention and successful rehab rehabilitation programs.”
We also reached out to the Department of Children's Services for clarity. The statement reads:
"The Tennessee Department of Children's Services (DCS) received a report from DRT yesterday. The organization, supported by taxpayer dollars, monitors facilities, including juvenile justice facilities.
The DRT report focused on the Wilder Youth Development Center (Wilder) in West Tennessee. Wilder is a Level Three Juvenile Justice Facility with enhanced security measures. The facility is used to house individuals, up to the age of 19, who committed serious offenses as juveniles, but were not adjudicated to adult status in court.
Currently, there are fifteen 18-year-olds and twenty-one 14-to-17-year-olds at Wilder (32 in general population and 4 awaiting placement). They were found guilty of felony-level offenses ranging from murder, rape, rape of a child, attempted rape of a child, aggravated assault, aggravated robbery, carjacking, burglary, and domestic assault. In addition, 19 of the residents incurred firearm charges.
We have completed a preliminary review of the report and noted that several areas of concern, have already been identified and addressed by the department prior to the report. Employees who did not follow policy and procedure guidelines have been terminated. Renovations have started on the building to update outdated dorms, bathrooms, and common areas. The current general population of the facility has been reduced to 32 individuals. Our preliminary review of the report also found findings that we do not agree with and will address with DRT.
DCS understands the challenges of providing a secure environment while also providing rehabilitative services to violent teen offenders. We will complete a full review of the report. We are confident with the support of our providers, community partners, legislators, and staff, we can work towards a resolution to any concern that may exist."
A mom who didn't want to come on camera to protect her son said she has been struggling with the thought of what her son experiences.
She wakes up in the middle of the night just praying that he is okay, especially after learning that five guards jumped him by kicking and beating him.
She said he has been detained for seven months and she just wants it to end.