This is part 2 of a WyoFile and Casper Star-Tribune investigation. Read part 1 here —Ed.
Michelle McCawley, then a dorm supervisor at the Wyoming Boys’ School, was uneasy about the facility’s 2016 purchase of a restraint chair. Rather than focusing on ways to reduce the need for restraints, McCawley saw the chair as a sign the state-run facility for delinquent boys was doubling down on its ability to do so.
These high-back chairs — with shoulder, lap, wrist and ankle straps — made international news at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, where they were used in the torture and force-feeding of detainees.
At the Boys’ School the restraint chair “is only used after the resident is restrained for violent behaviors and demonstrates the inability to de-escalate after being put in a prone position. This is to avoid the possibility of respiratory distress due to being in the prone position for long durations,” Clint Hanes, public information officer for the Department of Family Services, which oversees the Boys’ School, wrote in an email.
At first the chair didn’t get much use, with zero instances in 2016 and 2017. But its use climbed from once in 2018 to 23 times in 2021, according to figures from DFS.
“That shouldn’t be happening. It should be the opposite … less and less physical contact,” McCawley said, adding that the facility’s acquisition of the chair reflected a broader shift to a “prison-like mentality.”
Steve Corsi, DFS director at the time, was surprised to learn the chair was purchased during his tenure, he said.
“I was unaware that a restraint chair was purchased in 2016, because I wouldn’t have agreed with that,” he said.
The Boys’ School is a juvenile-detention facility near Worland for boys ages 12 to 21 who’ve been sent there by a district judge court for offenses that can range from drug possession to sexual abuse. Placements are “for an indefinite period of time,” said Dale Weber, the Boys’ School superintendent, and the average length of stay is eight months. Boys are released depending on their progression through what Weber described as “cognitive behavioral restructuring.”
DFS Director Korin Schmidt describes the Boys’ School’s mission as reformatory, and McCawley said there had been times over her nearly 25 years at the facility when that had been the case, but not when she left in 2020. When she learned there was an uptick in law enforcement calls to respond to violence at the Boys’ School in 2021, she was dismayed but not surprised.
DFS has suggested that COVID-19 and its aftermath are in part to blame, but McCawley says the increased use of restraints and seclusions starting back in 2018 was emblematic of the Boys’ School heading in the wrong direction.
Experts, staff and former residents agree that while COVID-19 didn’t help, the pandemic is not solely to blame for the spike in violence. A lack of oversight and transparency shrouded signs that the Boys’ School was struggling to fulfill its mission to provide boys with “supportive services focusing on psychological/emotional stability” and “opportunities to make changes in their lives.”
At the same time, budget cuts chiseled away at resources and trauma-based training diminished. Former residents and staff described deteriorating conditions to WyoFile and the Casper Star-Tribune during a period when reporters found that state oversight and monitoring was lacking.
When across-the-board budget cuts hit state agencies in 2020, DFS closed one of four dorms at the facility’s 40-acre campus to save money. DFS Director Korin Schmidt described the closure as right-sizing the facility in response to declining placements because community-based alternatives were working.
For decades Wyoming sent juveniles to detention facilities at some of the highest rates in the nation. Responding to research that indicates community-based programs produce better outcomes for kids and their families, Schmidt launched “WY Home Matters” to bolster the availability of early interventions at the local level.
McCawley was surprised to find out that Dorm 2 — where she worked — was the one to go. The dorm had a unique culture focused on positivity and respect, McCawley said. She took its closure as further evidence the Boys’ School was headed in the wrong direction. She said she was offered a position in another dorm, but in 2020 she quit.
“I feel I was forced into retirement,” McCawley said. “I loved my job. I love working with the students. And it was the hardest job I had to leave.”
Gretchen Ruoff, who worked at the school for 35 years before leaving in January 2021, said she still believes it’s “a good place” despite a rough last couple years.
Ruoff places the blame for recent incidents at the Boys’ School on state budget cuts resulting in a dearth of resources for troubled teens.
“I think I have a lot of sadness about how things turned out these last couple of years,” Ruoff said.
John Tuell, executive director of the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice, has visited juvenile facilities across the country and around the world, and from what he’s observed, facilities use restraints more and more when they aren’t investing in alternatives, making them a form of self-fulfilling prophecy.
“When they’re not equipped to produce evidence-based behavioral change and clinical interventions for these complex needs, then the staff is left with inadequate responses, harmful responses,” he said.
John Worrall, the Washakie County Attorney, says the boys do indeed have complex needs. He knows their stories because when law enforcement respond to the Boys’ School saying they can no longer handle a resident, it’s Worrall who decides whether to house him at the county jail.
“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.”
In 2013 the Legislature started cutting mental health spending. Those cuts went deeper in 2016 with the energy industry downturn and in 2020 with the pandemic. Because the Department of Family Services and the Department of Health make up roughly a third of the state budget, when the overall budget is cut, those two agencies are typically disproportionately affected, explained Rep. Tom Walters (R-Casper).
“And unfortunately, mental health type services tend to get hit the hardest,” he said.
Worrall, the local prosecutor, wants the state to understand the impact of those cuts. The Boys’ School relies on the local community mental health center — Cloud Peak Couseling Center — to provide therapy and sex offender treatment, instead of employing its own full-time clinical staff. Prior to 2021, there were four Cloud Peak therapists contracted to provide services at the Boys’ School, but a $300,000 cut to the facility’s mental health budget reduced that to two.
Weber confirmed the two counselors from Cloud Peak serve 50-60 boys at any given time with both individual and group therapy. The DFS budget proposal acknowledged the reduction would impact Boys’ School residents. “WBS residents will continue to be evaluated for mental health issues, and only those deemed to have more serious mental health illnesses will receive mental health therapy services, psychiatric services, and necessary psychological evaluations,” it read.
The mental health reductions were one piece of close to $2 million in cuts to the Boys’ School biennial budget that also resulted in the Dorm 2 closure, security staff reductions and cuts to food and utilities.
“If I’m going to be critical of anybody, it would be the state government in the way they’ve approached this,” Worrall said. “Multiple years of cuts to programs have taken their toll on the mental health of kids.”
Worrall would like 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.
Tuell spent over 15 years working in juvenile probation and detention, but since 1996 he’s devoted his career to reforming the juvenile justice system.
“Wyoming’s not alone in the challenge of having adequate mental health service … for the complex needs of so many of today’s youth,” said Tuell, who has done work in Nebraska.
But because issues like staffing clinicians are challenging, Tuell said, facilities like the Boys’ School need to articulate the needs of students to policymakers, rather than just “say that we can’t get the treatment for that, so we default to this approach, which clearly causes more harm.”
Speaking more generally, Schmidt said, “there certainly is room for evaluation and consideration, and that is ongoing.”
Part of the problem stems from a system that doesn’t have the capacity to meet state needs, Schmidt said. She’s been actively working with state lawmakers to expand the mental health resources for teens across the state, acknowledging that untreated mental illness leads to behaviors that get teens in trouble. She’s also been working with legislators to find ways to expand access to psychiatric residential treatment facilities, she said.
“At any given time we have 15 kids who are struggling to find an appropriate placement … and sometimes those kids have nowhere else to go,” because the state’s psychiatric facilities are at capacity, Schmidt said. “So what do we have as an option? We have the Boys’ School, and we don’t want to use that as an option, because we don’t think it’s appropriate, but a child has to be safe.”
Wyoming has two PRTFs — the Wyoming Behavioral Institute in Casper and the Torrington-based St. Joseph’s Children’s Home.
But WBI stopped admitting boys to its psychiatric residential treatment program in September 2021, according to a statement from the institute. That left St. Joseph’s as the only option for inpatient psychiatric care for adolescent boys, but that private facility is often at capacity.
When those higher-needs cases end up at the Boys’ School it can lead to challenging interactions, Schmidt said, and an uptick in calls to law enforcement like what the school experienced in 2021.
“We’re not talking about at any given time 45 kids that have these behaviors,” Schmidt said. “These are one, two or three kids at any given time, that can be highly disruptive.”
Eugene, who asked to go by his middle name to maintain the confidentiality of his juvenile record, said problems didn’t arise from just a couple of kids, but a culture.
In 2021 local law enforcement investigated an incident in which a staff member, Mark Nelson, punched a student twice in the face. Nelson said he was reacting to the boy biting his finger, according to a report produced by the officer who responded. The boy said the anger and frustration he unleashed was because staff refused to address the name calling and bullying he was experiencing.
Eugene says he experienced bullying three years earlier, in 2018.
Boys were forbidden from talking to their peers, he said. But in the quick moments when staff weren’t looking, students talked down to each other. “A lot of kids would talk a lot of, I guess, crap … So when you have to deal with that for five months, or however long you’re there, that’s what kind of changes a lot of people.”
Eugene, who is 18 now, turned 15 halfway through his five-month stay at the Boys’ School.
“You’re not really the same after you’ve been through something like that,” Eugene said. “I mean, it changed me in a good way and in a bad way.”
For Steena, who is going by her first name to protect her son’s identity, Eugene’s story resonates. She sees a similar double-edged sword for her son, who was recently released after 12 months and three days at the Boys’ School.
During that time her son earned the best grades he has ever gotten and the two worked through a lot of issues in family therapy, she explained, but she still feels like the school was “breaking him down.”
“My son tells me all the time, ‘Mom, I’m not worth it,’” she said.
For Eugene, the good thing is that he doesn’t want to get in trouble anymore. But three years later he still struggles with the behavioral health issues like impulse control that landed him in Worland in the first place.
He said therapy was limited to one-on-one visits every two weeks and group therapy once a week, and that was before funding was reduced for mental health.
Boys also participate in Tru Thought, a program to help the boys think through the consequences of their actions, according to Weber, the Boys’ School superintendent, who was careful to point out it is not therapy, but what he called cognitive behavioral restructuring.
The program advertises itself as being evidenced based, but Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) who studied juvenile justice as a Joint Judiciary Committee member and holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Wyoming, checked the paper provided as evidence of Tru Thought’s efficacy.
“It doesn’t pass the sniff test,” Provenza said. “It’s not published, it’s not peer reviewed. And looking at their methods and their results, even in their own paper, they say as much as this doesn’t work for the youthful offender cohort.”
The Wyoming Boys’ School emphasized compliance, not changing behavior or helping the boys get along, said Eugene, who was sent to the Boys’ School for theft. “The staff was just there to control us.
“We’d wake up, do physical training, eat breakfast. Go to school. Then after lunch, do more physical training and then go back to school for study hall. Then go back to the dorm after study hall and then we do it again. Three physical trainings per day,” Eugene said, acknowledging that he only knows how boys were treated in his dorm.
Eugene recalled having to do 100 burpees in a row without stopping. “They would overdo it,” he said.
There were no creative outlets — no music class, no art, no alternative to exercise, according to Eugene.
Weber confirmed there were no art classes, but he said reporters’ questions on a recent tour of the facility inspired him to bring in someone to teach a painting workshop. One of the student’s paintings now sits on his desk.
All boys are required to have buzz cuts, and Eugene, who is biracial, said it was hard to lose his afro.
As to why the cuts are required, Weber said, “I think it’s been in place for a long time. I do not know what the reasoning was behind that.”
The boys also wear matching monochromatic sweatpants and sweatshirts, except for a few students in orange jumpsuits, who, Weber explained, are either new or considered high-risk.
“I’ve heard of no [detention center] that removes all identities, and makes you a homogenous group,” Tuell said. “We have to repair them individually, not with some sort of homogeneity.”
What Tuell recommends is far from what Eugene described.
When Eugene was released and went back to school he heard racist remarks in the hallways that reminded him of the name calling at the Boys’ School, he said. Uncertain he could keep his cool, he dropped out of high school rather than risk a fight that would send him back to Worland, he said.
His mom May — also an alias to protect Eugene’s identity — said her son’s in worse shape after the Boys’ School.
“He’s been considered disabled since he was in kindergarten,” May said, in part because of “major impulse control problems” that went unaddressed. “I just don’t think they put him in the right place. I think he would have been better off somewhere else getting treatment or something.”
Lack of alternatives
The Boys’ School might not be a good fit for kids with acute mental health needs but, “we don’t have a lot of alternatives,” said Worrall, the Washakie County Attorney. “And part of that’s budgetary.”
“Why are these kids in the system in the first place?” he asked. “And the biggest question is, ‘how can we keep them out of it?’”
Worrall said he’s talked to Schmidt about his concerns, and he’s satisfied that she’s “committed to the idea of developing more resources to help Wyoming’s youth, and to find better ways to handle the lack of resources that we have.”
Schmidt said pressure from reporters to explain the increased use of restraints and seclusions and the incidents described in police reports has prompted more internal dialogue.
“Are we learning from all of the conversations that you’ve been having with us? Absolutely,” Schmidt said. “Does it prompt us at any given time to look into things a little bit deeper? Absolutely.”
“I think you can hold our system responsible for how it responds to difficulties and what it does to improve … and I think that’s what you’re seeing here,” Schmidt said of her ongoing conversations with Weber, the Boys’ School superintendent.
Reducing restraints and seclusion is not a goal, Schmidt said, but it’s something she and Weber are keeping an eye on. “It’s an indicator, right? Something that you watch regularly to say, ‘how are we doing?’” Schmidt said.
More reflection is something former Boys’ School staffer Nelson says is sorely needed. That might seem strange given that he punched a boy, but he took a job at the Boys’ School nine years ago because, he said, “I thought I could make a difference.”
Nelson had a long career in law enforcement and was also a foster parent, so working security at the Boys’ School felt like a good fit, and it was for the most part, until 2021 when he says he was assaulted roughly a dozen times. But his chief complaint isn’t with the kids. It’s with the way leadership responded to those incidents.
“Nobody ever talked to me about the traumatic stress, and I wouldn’t say post, because I’m still going through it,” Nelson said.
After a career as a first responder, the way the Boys’ School responded to violence was like nothing he’d experienced before.
“In law enforcement and fire, when we have major incidents, we have debriefings at the end,” Nelson said. Those debriefs helped to mitigate stress, to identify triggers and to keep people safe, he said.
“We never had that at the Boys’ School,” he said.
While Nelson was cleared of criminal charges by local law enforcement, he couldn’t return to work until Child Protective Services completed its child abuse investigation.
When he was allowed to go back to work, Nelson said the Boys’ School put him on the night shift and cut his pay, at which point he quit.
“I do some remodeling and handyman work to keep busy, and I’m not very happy with the state or DFS,” Nelson said.
McCawley, the former dorm supervisor, remembers a time when the Boys’ School was more actively engaged in minimizing restraints through training, but that fell off — a trend she attributed to budget cuts.
According to the Boys’ School Operations Manual, new employees “shall participate in new employee orientation.” The manual outlines around 30 topics that must be covered, including Right Response, a use of force training; signs of suicide risk and precautions; social and cultural lifestyle of the juvenile population; and supervision of juveniles.
Additional required training is the responsibility of the employee’s supervisor, according to the manual. McCawley said ongoing and additional professional development waned over her years at the Boys’ School. “They had some training there, at the Boys’ School, but it wasn’t like when I first started there,” McCawley said.
McCawley remembers a time when more training “focused more on de-escalating instead of restraining, and getting the student calm, and to relax and talk about what the frustration is and not act out on it.”
Those techniques were important because being too aggressive or demanding compliance could be triggering for kids who’d been abused by adults before, McCawley explained. “Once relationships were built, the restraints became less and less.”
As training diminished and new staff came in, McCawley said the facility felt more unhinged.
“Anytime you have an escalation, everyone’s at risk,” she said. “You have to be aware of students that are even in their rooms, because any type of a violent encounter, or raising of a voice even, can trigger other students. And so it creates a completely unsafe environment.”
Weber confirmed there’d been a decline in training.
“Yeah, I mean, I hope to bring that back and then some,” he said, with a focus on trauma-informed care. “I think that that’s going to be the core, from which we kind of build out and get everybody really on the same page.”
In June, staff completed an eight-hour training via Zoom called “Becoming Trauma Informed: Focus on Youth,” which Weber explained over email “focused on giving our staff the building blocks to having a Trauma-informed culture…”
The increased number of restraints brought to his attention by reporters played a role in the decision to do more trauma-informed training, Weber said. And the use of restraints and seclusionary holds has started to fall.
Incidents involving physical restraint dropped from 10 in fiscal year 2021 to three in fiscal year 2022, and those involving mechanical restraints — “handcuffs, leg restraints and/or belly chain” — declined from 58 to 37. The restraint chair was used only two times in fiscal year 2022, down from 13, and there were zero instances of chemical restraints.
Seclusion was used only half as often in 2022 compared to 2021.
The 2022 fiscal year marks the first time instances of restraints and holds have decreased since 2018.
There’ve been fewer calls for law enforcement support in recent months, according to the Washakie County Sheriff’s Office.
While conditions seem to be improving, Schmidt admits there’s nothing to guarantee that future DFS and Boys’ School leadership will continue to monitor restraint and seclusion data.
“Is there anything right now written down in statute, rule or policy about that?” Schmidt asked. “No.”
Provenza, the Laramie representative, wants that to change.
When she raised questions about how abuse and mistreatment are handled at the Boys’ School during the judiciary committee’s study of juvenile justice — its No. 1 priority during the interim — she was concerned when she learned information was confidential. In response, she put a call out on social media for people to share their experiences at the facility. She estimates she heard back from over a dozen people — students, their families and staff.
“Not a ton, but one’s enough,” said Provenza, who also admits that without more information from DFS, she’s predominately hearing critiques of the Boys’ School.
“All I have is that side of it,” Provenza said. Without more information, Provenza said the state can’t detect recurring problems like violent incidents, and ask: “How can we get ahead of that and stop it before it happens again?”
There are ways to be transparent without compromising juveniles’ right to privacy, Provenza asserts. Provenza is eyeing strategies to make that happen.
During the 2022 legislative session, the Wyoming Legislature passed a bill to improve juvenile justice data collection. The bill provides some guard rails for required data, but DFS has until 2024 to define the full breadth of information to be collected and to get a data system up and running.
Provenza suggests the use of restraints and seclusion, and information about investigations and their outcomes, could be included in what DFS decides to actively track.
“I think that there needs to be some form of accountability,” Provenza said. “I don’t know where the line is between the Legislature having a heavy hand in agency policies and the line of protecting youth and ensuring … that we are invested in positive outcomes for these kids, and that we’re doing everything in our ability to have that outcome.”
The paucity of currently available information motivated Provenza to make the five-hour drive from Laramie to see the Boys’ School for herself.
“The school that they have at the facility doesn’t look or feel like a prison,” Provenza said. “But the dorms look and feel like a prison. Where they sleep looks and feels like a prison. The common area seems like a prison. How they dress looks like a prison.”
Until there are more therapeutic services for troubled kids available in the state, she said, prosecutors and judges will continue to rely on the Boys’ School.
“It’s not my end game to close the Boys’ School,” she said “My end game is to just have good outcomes.”