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Guards 'put bounties' on children's heads at DCS-run juvenile detention facility, according to report

Posted at 12:02 PM, Apr 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-28 21:38:13-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Taxpayers spend more than $48,000 a day to operate a facility that abuses children and makes us less safe.

That's the conclusion of a report about conditions inside a juvenile detention center run by the Department of Children's Services.

The Wilder Youth Detention Center is located in Fayette County in West Tennessee but can take youth from across the state.

The Department of Children's Services said it houses violent teens convicted of felony-level offenses.

But after monitoring the facility for more than a year, Disability Rights Tennessee and a national nonprofit law firm, the Youth Law Center, detailed cases of "physical and sexual abuse" by guards and even "staff orchestrating attacks on youth."

The report stated "it would seem the Department of Children's Services has simply given up" on trying to rehabilitate the youth inside and is "wasting taxpayer dollars by warehousing youth" most of whom are Black and have learning disabilities.

Disability Rights Tennessee started monitoring conditions inside the facility through regular visits beginning in September 2020.

The taxpayer-funded organization advocates for individuals with disabilities in Tennessee and has authority to monitor state-run facilities like Wilder.

One mom spoke to NewsChannel 5 Investigates about what happened to her son.

"I'm speaking out because something needs to change. I could have lost my son that day, and I love my son," the mom said wiping away tears.

She will never forget a phone call she received late last year from other youth inside Wilder.

"They just jumped your son down here, these guards. They just beat on your son. They kicked him in his face and head," the teen caller said.

The teens told her five guards attacked her son.

"All you hear is the children in the background saying 'come check on your son,'" the caller said.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "How violent is that place?"

The mom responded, "Very, very violent. It's a parent's worst nightmare."

That nightmare is laid out in graphic detail in the 51-page report titled Designed to Fail.

"I don't think it goes too far to say some of the abuse really borders on torturing the most vulnerable children," said Jennifer Rodriguez, who is executive director of the Youth Law Center.

The Wilder Youth Development Center is the last of the state-run Youth detention centers.

Wilder's website claims "Staff at Wilder YDC provide quality treatment, education services and offer a comprehensive array of services."

Monitors in the report claim "nothing could be further from the truth."

"The violations of rights we see at Wilder are some of the worst we see in the entire country," Jennifer Rodrguez said.

Disability Rights Tennessee filled "child abuse" reports in 10 cases it discovered during its monitoring.

The Department of Children's Services did not say how those cases were resolved, but in a statement said, "employees who did not follow policy and procedure guidelines have been terminated."

DCS said, "several areas of concern have already been identified by the Department prior to the report."

The report detailed how guards "encourage youth to attack other youth."

"They'll give the children say 10 noodles and they will beat up this person and get the noodles," said one mom.

"What do you mean noodles?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.

"Ramen noodles, like the noodles you eat," the mom said.

The report found "youth are told by staff that another youth 'has ten noodles on his head,' which means a youth who assaults the identified youth will receive a reward of ten packages of ramen noodles."

The Department of Children's Services did not respond directly to questions about whether guards encouraged youth to attack other youth.

"We've heard that story too many times to think it's not credible," said attorney Jack Derryberry with Disability Rights Tennessee.

He said their monitoring found the facility was so short staffed that at one point nearly half its security positions were open.

"They were down 51 security staff out of over 100," Derryberry said.

Another mom spoke to us but hid her identity fearing retaliation against her son.

"I'm speaking out because a lot of people need to be aware of what is really going on there," the mom said.

She said her son sat in his room for days with his limbs swelling, but lack of security staff delayed his trip to the hospital.

When he finally got to the hospital, doctors said he was nearing kidney failure.

"If that was me, they would have arrested me. I'd be in jail for neglecting him," the mom said.

The report claims, "Youth at Wilder also do not have any access to religious services" and guards took away bible monitors given to one youth calling it "a potential weapon."

The Department of Children's Services did not respond directly to questions about that incident.

The report said despite a recently passed law banning the use of solitary confinement, it found youth were still spending 23 hours or a day in their cells.

"Our belief is the people of Tennessee don't know what's happening in this facility," Rodriguez said.

The authors of the report hope the governor and legislature will move quickly to ensure changes at the facility.

Here is the entire DCS statement about the report:

The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) received a report from DRT this afternoon. 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. 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. Current population of the facility has been reduced to 32 individuals. Our preliminary review of the report also found findings which we dispute 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.