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Boys abused at Wyoming-run juvenile facility, suit claims

The three plaintiffs experienced extended periods of isolation, one was taunted for a physical impairment, another was repeatedly strapped to a restraint chair for up to 12 hours a day, the complaint against the Boys’ School alleges.

Wyoming Boys' School (Sletten Companies)

by Tennessee Watson, WyoFile

The Wyoming Boys’ School unlawfully subjected residents to psychological and emotional abuse, extended periods of solitary confinement and physical harm, a complaint filed Monday in the U.S. District Court of Wyoming alleges. 

The Wyoming Department of Family Services, which oversees the juvenile detention center near Worland, says the Boys’ School provides delinquent boys ages 12 to 21 with programming that focuses on psychological and emotional development, mental health therapies and “opportunities to make changes in their lives.” But, the complaint states, “nothing could be further from the truth.”

Three former Boys’ School residents — Blaise Chivers-King, Dylan Tolar and Charles “Rees” Karn — are suing the Department of Family Services, the Wyoming Boys’ School, the superintendent of the facility and nine current and former staff members for harm they claim to have suffered and violations of their civil rights. They are seeking “damages for emotional distress, humiliation, loss of enjoyment of life, and other pain and suffering on all claims allowed by law in an amount to be determined at trial.” 

The complaint

The state of Wyoming operates the Boys’ School at a 40-acre campus just south of Worland. Boys are court-ordered into the facility’s custody for a variety of criminal offenses ranging from drug use to sexual abuse. The facility can house up to 60 boys, who on average stay for eight months. The average age of a resident is 16 years old.

Placements are “for an indefinite period of time,” the Boys’ School Superintendent Dale Weber told WyoFile in 2022. Boys are released depending on their progression through what Weber described as “cognitive behavioral restructuring.” 

While residents do attend classes at the Boys’ School, there are aspects of the facility that feel like a correctional institution. Boys are required to wear uniforms, starting with an orange jumpsuit and graduating to different colored sweatsuits to indicate their progress through the program. They are also required to have their heads shaved. 

Chivers-King, Tolar and Karn allege they left the Boys’ School more damaged and traumatized than when they arrived. Below is a summary of the harm they experienced, according to their 53-page complaint

Chivers-King was at Wyoming Boys’ School between April 2020 and March 2021, when he was 15 years old, and from May 2021 to May 2022, when he was 16 years old. During his court-ordered stays, staff subjected Chivers-King to “improper and painful restraints, deprivation of meaningful human contact and association, excessive force, deprivation of medication, and ruthless psychological abuse,” the complaint claims. He was in solitary confinement approximately 20 times for periods ranging from days to weeks. Chivers-King “became so distraught during his time at the Boys’ School that he would hit his head against the brick walls, and he ripped out the metal braces on his teeth and used them to cut himself,” the complaint alleges. He regularly contemplated suicide.

Dylan Tolar was 17 and 18 during his time at the Boys’ School from June 2020 through February 2021. Staff discriminated against Tolar based on physical disabilities that restricted his movement, calling him a “slow zombie” and a “clown,” the complaint states. Because staff restricted Tolar’s use of a medically necessary brace, he allegedly suffered long-term damage to his leg. Staff unlawfully excluded Tolar from educational opportunities, because of his disabilities and mental health, locking him alone in his room for hours on end, according to the complaint. 

Rees Karn did two stints at the Boys’ School between 2017 and 2021, when he was 13 to 15 years old and from 15 to 17 years old. Staff subjected Karn to long periods of solitary confinement — one time for 30 days and another time for 45 days, according to the complaint. For approximately two weeks during his 30-day stint in isolation, Karn was strapped in a restraint chair by his wrists, ankles and mid-section for up to 12 hours a day, the complaint states. During his 45 days in isolation, Karn began breaking light bulbs accessible to him in the room where he was held. His complaint alleges that staff entered the room with riot gear and tackled Karn to the ground. Defendant John Schwalbe, a dorm staff member, shoved Karn’s face into the broken glass and told him, “you want to break shit at our facility, this is what you are going to get,” according to the complaint. Staffer Thad Shaffer is also named as a defendant for allegedly breaking Karn’s wrist during the incident. 

Following Karn’s release from the Boys’ School, when he was 19 years old, he strangled his girlfriend to death and was sentenced to life in prison.

At the sentencing hearing, Karn’s public defender Diane Lozano told the court about her client’s time at the Boys’ School, “which she said took a serious toll on his mental health and may have negatively impacted his ability to improve,” the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported.

Perfect storm 

The time Tolar, Chivers-King and Karn spent at the Boys’ School overlapped with a spike in violence, the use of physical and mechanical restraints, and solitary confinement at the facility between 2019 and 2021, according to a 2022 investigation by WyoFile and the Casper Star-Tribune. 

Eda Uzunlar/WyoFile

Their complaint sheds light on allegations of troubling conditions that have been difficult for the public to investigate. Citing juvenile privacy laws, the Wyoming Department of Family Services has refused to release reports of violent incidents between staff and residents. WyoFile and the Star-Tribune relied, instead, on external police reports.

Eda Uzunlar/WyoFile

Between June 2021 and January 2022, the Washakie County Sheriff’s Office received an unprecedented number of calls to the Boys’ School, according to the publicly available police records. Incidents ranged from students breaking glass and damaging property to physical altercations. When police arrived, staff told them they were seeing more teens with a level of mental illness that they felt ill-equipped to care for. 

“In 2021, we saw more calls for service out there,” Cpt. Richard Fernandez with the Washakie County Sheriff’s Office told the news organizations for the 2022 story. “What we started seeing was the Boys’ School was actually having problems with juveniles out there being violent … getting to the point where they were asking for our assistance.”

The sheriff’s office had long served warrants to boys, helped with transports and issued burn permits for the school’s ground maintenance, but calls for assistance when things got out of hand were extremely rare, according to Fernandez and reporters’ analysis of Washakie County Sheriff’s Office records.

As to why the Boys’ School was struggling to create a safe environment, Fernandez wasn’t sure. 

“I don’t know if it’s the lack of [staff] training or if it’s the kids. I think it’s a mixture of things,” he said.  

“You’re seeing kids that can be more violent,” which Fernandez attributes to a statewide mental health crisis. “In Wyoming, there’s that lack of resources. I think that combines into a perfect storm for this kind of stuff to happen.” 

The plaintiffs attributed their abuse to inadequately trained staff. “The lack of training, in part, led to an unconstitutional policy, pattern, and practice of the punitive and inhumane use of isolation and restraints,” the complaint states.

“The Boys’ School fails to identify or recognize behavior as disability related and fails to provide reasonable accommodations, supports and services that these minors need,” the complaint alleges. “Instead, the Boys’ School responds by labeling their actions as misbehavior and sends minors, including Plaintiffs, to, or extends their time in, solitary confinement.”

After WyoFile reported on increased violence at the Boys’ School, Superintendent Weber said he required all staff to be trained on trauma-informed and trauma-responsive approaches to troubled kids. 

That training has helped, Weber said in a recent interview, but for him COVID-19 is to blame for Boys’ School’s recent struggles. Weber pointed to a decrease in the use of restraints and isolation in 2023 as evidence that pandemic restrictions were part of the problem.  

“One of the huge things was lifting the restrictions that we had placed because of COVID,” Weber said. “Getting kids out of the dorm, getting them active and getting them interacting with people.”

Without those positive outlets during the pandemic, residents acted out more, Weber explained, but for the most part, he attributed the spike in the use of restraints and seclusion to just a few kids. 

“When our numbers were the absolute worst, we had a handful of students that were not like any students we’ve ever seen before or after,” Weber said. “They were willing to become so violent and so aggressive.”

Chivers-King’s and Karn’s Boys School stays overlapped with the period of heightened violence evident in the police reports and attributed by Weber to a small number of students. 

Violence begets calls for reform 

In 1995, a Wyoming Boys’ School runaway shot and killed a sheriff’s deputy. Fremont County Sheriff’s Lt. Steve Crerar was transporting a 17-year-old from the Uinta County Jail to the Boys’ School when the boy got a hold of the officer’s gun. Crerar died from a gunshot to the head, the Casper Star-Tribune reported at the time. 

In the wake of the tragedy, then-Gov. Jim Geringer called on Wyoming to improve its response to troubled kids. “This tragedy indicates with a little more urgency the need to resolve the issues of juvenile policy and placement of juveniles,” Geringer said. 

Just months before the incident, the 1995 Legislature rejected a measure to create a permanent commission on juvenile justice that would have coordinated law enforcement, schools and social services “to assure early intervention in the lives of troubled youth,” the Casper Star-Tribune reported. 

“The state only steps in when there is a crisis situation,” Geringer said. “I would like to see the state helping communities to focus on juvenile delinquency prevention.” 

Geringer’s call for reform, which has been slow to come, was echoed in public officials’ responses to the spike in violence at the Boys’ School 25 years later. 

John Worrall, then-Washakie County Attorney, told WyoFile in 2022 that many of the residents at the Boys’ School have complex needs. He got to know their stories because when law enforcement responded to violence at the Boys’ School, Worrall also got involved. 

“Most of the young men at the Boys’ School have histories of abuse and trauma,” Worrall said. “There is the issue, because I don’t know that they’re getting everything they need. I don’t know if it’s possible — given budgetary constraints.” 

Worrall called on the state to decide that the youth are worth investing in.  

“The stakes are: We’re gonna have a whole bunch of our youth in this state totally fall between the cracks, and we may never get them back. It’s as simple as that,” he said.

In 2022, the Wyoming Legislature passed House Bill 37 – Juvenile justice data reporting requiring the Department of Family Services to standardize the collection of juvenile justice data to better inform where services are needed. The program, however, is not mandated to launch until July 2024. 

The attorneys

Tolar, who appears by and through his mother, Chivers-King and Karn are represented by ALM Law, LLC, a firm specializing in “children harmed while in the custody of child welfare systems,” as well as Rathod Mohamedbhai, LLC. 

In November 2021, attorneys with Rathod Mohamedbhai helped the family of 23-year-old Elijah McClain reach a $15 million settlement in a civil rights lawsuit brought against the city of Aurora, Colo. McClain, a Black man, died after police put him in a chokehold and paramedics injected him with ketamine. In Wyoming, the firm settled a lawsuit in 2019 against the city of Rawlins for $925,000 after two Rawlins Police officers shot and killed Colorado resident John Randall Veach in 2015.

“No human being should be subjected to solitary confinement,” Rathod Mohamedbhai-attorney Ciara Anderson said in a press release. “Blaise, Rees, and Dylan are forever changed because of the cruel treatment they endured while in Wyoming’s custody. It is astonishing that the abuses our clients suffered have been shielded from the public’s knowledge for so long. Wyoming must take a hard look at how children are being treated.” 

“The Wyoming Boys’ School was entrusted to care for these three vulnerable boys, but utterly failed to do so,” said Allison Mahoney, with ALM Law. “No child should ever endure the horrors of abuse that Rees, Blaise, and Dylan experienced, especially within a system meant to rehabilitate and support them.”

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.