Screen grab of Commissioner Margie Quin of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services addressing the House Ways and Means Committee on Monday, Jan.30. Department of Finance and Administration Dave Thurman and DCS Chief of Staff Andy Verenski are seated to her right.
Two teenage boys with disabilities were denied their regular medications and allowed to suffer assaults while being held in a Department of Children’s Services lockup for troubled youth, according to a lawsuit making sweeping claims that Tennessee has violated federal and state law — and children’s constitutional rights.
The lawsuit, filed last week in a Memphis federal court, detailed the experiences of two kids: DeAngelo Turner and Brian Taylor, both detained inside the DCS-run Wilder Youth Development Center at different points in 2021.
Taylor suffered injuries that sent him to the hospital after being assaulted by fellow inmates in June 2021, the suit said. Turner was assaulted by two security guards who joined other youth in the attack, then denied medical treatment from the injuries he suffered, it said.
Both young men also had psychiatric diagnoses for which they took medications. Once they got to Wilder, according to the suit, officials replaced their regular medications, disrupting their care.
“The incident involving Mr. Taylor and Turner — and others like them — demonstrate that the employees of (Wilder) adopted and enforced a policy of deliberate indifference to inmate health and safety,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit echoes alarming incidents at Wilder brought to light last year by Disability Rights Tennessee and Youth Law Center. In a reported titled “Designed to Fail” the nonprofits detailed “dangerous” “deplorable” and “inexcusable” conditions inside the Wilder facility, located in Fayette County just outside Memphis.
The report chronicled physical and sexual abuse by staff, isolation practices that amounted to abuse, failures to educate and rehabilitate youth — many with disabilities — and a lack of appropriate mental health treatment. The report also found Wilder staff relied heavily on psychotropic medications to keep kids under control.
A spokesperson for DCS declined on Tuesday to comment on pending litigation and did not answer questions about the number of youth currently housed at the 120-bed Wilder facility or to detail any steps the agency has taken to address concerns raised by the nonprofit organization’s reports.
What’s publicly known is that in September the state building commission approved DCS’ plans to bring safety and security upgrades to Wilder, while the agency moved forward with plans to build a new Wilder facility and a new Woodlands Hills Youth Development Center, a similar facility for boys in Nashville.
In recent years, DCS has come under sustained public scrutiny for a series of missteps in caring for kids in state custody, including incidents of abused or neglected kids forced to sleep on office floors, failures to investigate allegations of sexual and physical abuse in its treatment facilities, high caseloads for social workers and a disgruntled and demoralized workforce.
Commissioner Margie Quin was tapped to lead the $1.1 billion agency in April 2022 and lawmakers have approved significant funding increases to train and hire caseworkers, add transitional housing and assessment centers and improve physical spaces that house children and teens.
Taylor spent 12 months at Woodland Hills before being released in December 2021; he died in March 2023. The lawsuit did not detail his cause of death. He is represented in the lawsuit by his father, Raymond Taylor. Turner was detained in the facility from October to December 2021.
The lawsuit names DCS, its former Commissioner Jennifer Nichols, Quin, and Wilder’s superintendent, captain of the guard and two unnamed guards. It alleges they displayed a deliberate indifference and failure to prevent foreseeable harm, violations with the American with Disabilities Act and federal education law that protects students with disabilities. The lawsuit is seeking at least $700,000 in damages.
Memphis attorneys Paul Forrest Craig and Daniel Owens Lofton, who represent the plaintiffs, were unavailable to provide comment Tuesday.DCS lawsuit - Wilder
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