FAYETTE COUNTY, Tenn. — WREG Investigators uncovered a long list of problems at Wilder Youth Development Center in Fayette County, where juveniles from Shelby County and across the state go when they’re found guilty of violent crimes.
The problems include escapes, riots, and assaults.
Raymond Taylor said his son Brian went to Wilder when he was 15 years old for aggravated robbery and carjacking.
“Maybe that will slow him down and give him some kind of stability,” he said. “I worked too much and [Brian’s] mom was sick at the time.”
But the rough time didn’t get better.
“It was almost like a week after he started calling. I started calling and talking to him, and he was saying conditions were really, extremely bad,” Taylor said.
Taylor said his son wasn’t receiving proper mental health services. He said he got into fights with other kids and was badly beaten. He went to the hospital.
“His head was bleeding. His nose was bleeding. His mouth was bleeding. They fractured his hip,” Taylor said.
After that, his son was transferred to a youth facility in East Tennessee. It was too far for his family to visit.
Taylor said they never gave him an explanation.
The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services runs Wilder. Teenage boys from across the state are sent there when they’re found guilty of a violent crime and pose a significant risk to their community.
The website says it offers “quality treatment” and “education” to help the teen “become a productive member of society” while creating a “culture where staff and youth feel safe.”
That’s different than what Fayette County Chief Deputy Ray Garcia describes.
“We started getting more and more calls of disturbances occurring there on the property,” Garcia said.
Data we uncovered from the sheriff’s office shows between 2019 and 2022, deputies responded to at least two dozen assault calls. There were four reports of sexual assaults, multiple disturbance calls including juveniles refusing to get off the roof, and riots that lasted hours and several escapes. One escape was reported just last month.
“The three boys were running around in the backyard where I live,” said a woman who asked us to hide her identity.
She said she called Wilder when her cameras caught the three escapees, but staff told her no one was missing.
“I called back about 15 minutes later. She told us they turned the lights on, did a count, and realized three students were gone at that time,” she said.
Deputies spent days looking for them.
“We are a small agency and are limited in our resources, so when these large disturbances occur or when a escape occurred, it would often take all manpower we have on a shift to assist out there,” Garcia said.
In the last couple of years, Garcia said the Tennessee Highway Patrol started responding to calls at Wilder instead of them. WREG Investigators asked THP for more information on the incidents they’ve responded to see if the improvements DCS mentioned are helping.
A state legislative committee tasked with examining youth crime called on DCS Commissioner Margie Quin in November to address Wilder.
“We know we can’t put any more youth there until we hire staff,” she said.
She and her team explained they don’t have the staff, because they can’t pay them. It was only recently that starting salaries increased from $27,000 to $37,000.
DCS said it brought in private security to help since they’re short 36 security positions as of mid-April. It also reduced the amount of youth at the facility to 44.
“If you are properly organized, properly supervised, and properly trained, you can deal with these issues,” said Jack Derryberry.
He’s with Disability Rights Tennessee which along with the Youth Law Center, released a report on Wilder last year noting problems like severe physical, sexual, and mental abuse and little access to legally mandated education and religious programs.
“We remain concerned about staffing. We remained concerned about the appropriate mental health treatment is being given,” Derryberry said among other concerns.
DCS didn’t agree to an interview, but officials say “several improvements are already underway” like new education opportunities, better pay for staff, and hiring a full-time chaplain.
The Memphis Shelby County Crime Commission and lawmakers want a new facility built while others argue the money would be better spent on stronger community supervision and better intervention programs.
“I was looking at my kids to raise them to be good. You know what I’m saying? It didn’t happen like that,” said Taylor.
Taylor said he never found the right mental health services for his son. He wonders if his son’s story would’ve ended differently if there had been better programs in school or in places like Wilder.
Last month, police were called to a suspicious car in Frayser. They found Brian inside shot to death a month after getting out of lockup. Police say his death remains under investigation.
He was only 18 years old.