MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A state-run youth facility, the Wilder Youth Development Center in Fayette County, is getting failing grades in a scathing report on conditions at the center.
Two groups, Disability Rights Tennessee and Youth Law Center, said their investigation and interviews of youth and staff at the facility, along with public data, found beatings and abuse at the state-run Wilder Youth Development Center.
They’re calling on the governor, state lawmakers and the Department of Children’s Services to make changes.
“The conditions at Wilder are really inexcusable. They’re deplorable,” said Jack Derryberry, with Disability Rights of Tennessee.
“The Wilder Youth Development is not what the name implies. It doesn’t help develop youth and instead it runs like a dangerous prison,” Derryberry said.
The 50-page report tracked what it calls the large and disproportionate number of children with disabilities and those who are Black.
“We reviewed severe cases of sexual, physical, and mental abuse and noted significant lack of program services and educational services,” Lisa Primm with the Disability Rights of Tennessee said.
They claim these violations are against the law.
“On so many levels the Department of Children’s Services is breaking the law and we really believe strongly no child should have to live in a place where they are suffering daily threats of abuse, harassment, and neglect,” Jennifer Rodriquez, Executive Director of the Youth Law Center said.
The state’s website says the center serves delinquent youth age 14-18. It is a 120-bed facility. In fiscal year 2018, the most recent period for which data is provided, it served 274.
WREG has reported on the facility several times in recent years. Escapes were reported in 2020 and 2021, and a fire broke out in January of this year.
The center is located about 35 miles from Memphis, the largest nearby population center.
“Being from Memphis and Shelby County, one of the major pipelines into the Wilder Center, we are even more concerned about the impact and what’s happening at Wilder Center,” said Cardell Orrin, Executive Director of Stand For Children.
They say the governor, state lawmakers and the Department of Children’s Services should do a better job of protecting children at Wilder.
“We need reform. We need to be sure these youth are immediately safe right now. We need to be sure that youth who should not be at these facilities in the first place are assessed and get out so that they’re returned to the community with appropriate support,” said Brian Blalock, a senior staff attorney for the Youth Law Center.
WREG reached out to the Department of Children’s Services, which oversees the Wilder Center about the report. A spokesperson with the department issued the following statement:
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. Current general population of the facility has been reduced to 32 individuals. Our preliminary review of the report also found findings which 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.