Disability Rights Tennessee’s eighteen month investigation of Wilder Youth Development Center Reveals DCS Failure of Care and Active Endangerment

January 21, 2022

En Español

Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) has been monitoring Wilder Youth Development Center (Wilder), a Department of Children’s Services (DCS) facility in Fayette County, Tennessee, for eighteen months. Media has been reporting on escape attempts and other disturbances at Wilder since September of 2019, but no one has stopped to ask, “Why?” Our investigations reveal abuses of youth in custody at Wilder to be at the root of these issues.

Wilder serves youth ages 14 through 18 who have been committed to DCS custody. A disproportionately high number of the youth served at Wilder are African American, have experienced significant trauma from early childhood, and have mental health diagnoses and other disabilities. These youth have a long history of failed DCS services and interventions, even prior to entering the juvenile justice system; a number of them were in DCS custody as foster children. Now, they are being deprived of appropriate educational, therapeutic, and rehabilitative treatment services, despite DCS’s statutory obligation to provide them. Additionally, our investigations have revealed numerous and egregious cases of abuse and neglect of the youth in this facility.

Over the last eighteen months, DRT has investigated many instances of Wilder and DCS not only failing to keep the youth in their care safe, but actively endangering their welfare. We have investigated a significant number of assaults and resulting injuries sustained by youth at the hands of Wilder staff. DRT has also found numerous cases of staff mistreating youth. These include abuses such as the pervasive and unnecessary use of restraint and isolation; and incidents of neglect such as failure to treat medical conditions, depriving youth of hot food, frequent lockdowns confining youth to their rooms or dorms for extended periods of time, and the prevention of any large muscle or outdoor exercise. When youth have brought serious grievances to facility leadership, including reports of sexual and physical abuse, there has been no meaningful redress; instead of seeking to remedy the complaints, DCS often transfers these youth to other facilities.

It is no surprise that in these conditions numerous youth have attempted to escape since 2019. The most recent Wilder incident was just on January 9, 2022, and was preceded by several other escape attempts over the past several months. This illustrates just how traumatized the youth in the care of DCS and Wilder are as a result of their inhumane confinement conditions; that they are willing to risk their lives to escape them.

A father of a child who experienced the conditions of Wilder was interviewed on abc24 on January 14th. “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.” stated the father Raymond TaylorRead the full story.

DCS is failing to meet its moral obligation to provide safe living conditions to youth, let alone its legal obligation to the youth, families, and communities of Tennessee to provide evidence-based therapeutic and rehabilitative services to youth in the juvenile justice system. 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 or provide services to youth. Conditions at Wilder have deteriorated to such a degree that the facility went from complying with all standards in the 2018 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Audit to failing to comply with seven standards in the 2021 PREA Audit, which assesses a facility’s ability to keep youth safe from sexual assault. The facility’s failure to conform to PREA standards was also noted in the Comptroller’s December 2020 Performance Audit Report.

Despite all of this, DCS continues to place youth at Wilder. Placement of any youth, but especially those with disabilities, at such a dysfunctional facility is a misuse of public funds and more importantly a disservice to the youth placed there. Our investigation reveals a serious lack of concern for the welfare of these youth, in addition to a lack of investment in evidence-based services and other, research-backed placement options that would effectively serve these youth and their families. The environment created by DCS at Wilder represents an abdication of DCS’s responsibility to care for the youth in their custody.

DRT and the Youth Law Center (YLC) are developing a report based on DRT’s investigative findings to include the ways in which Wilder exemplifies DCS’s actions in this regard. YLC is a national non-profit law firm that advocates to transform foster care and juvenile justice systems so that every child and youth can thrive. This joint report on the conditions in Wilder is forthcoming.