Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Missouri boot camp part of national investigation

The Kansas City Star

A Missouri boot camp where a student died nearly three years ago is part of a federal investigation into the nation’s facilities for troubled teens.

Three former employees of Thayer Learning Center in Kidder, Mo., told The Kansas City Star this week that government investigators told them Thayer was a key focus of that investigation.

Greg Spies, a Kansas City attorney for Thayer, said Thayer officials have “fully cooperated” with investigators for the U.S. Government Accountability Office who recently visited the facility and interviewed students.

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, is conducting the nationwide investigation into residential treatment programs for children at the behest of U.S. Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 10 in Washington, D.C., before the House Education and Labor Committee, of which Miller is the chairman.

Ultimately, Miller’s office hopes to convince Congress that boot camp-type facilities should be more stringently regulated.

Thayer — which is exempt from state oversight under Missouri law — houses more than 100 troubled teens about 50 miles north of Kansas City. It has been the subject of numerous child abuse allegations, most of which came to light after the November 2004 death of student Roberto Reyes.

Roberto, 15, died after spending less than two weeks at Thayer. His death was attributed to a spider bite. Thayer owners John and Willa Bundy denied any wrongdoing in connection with the fatality. They also have denied any abuse allegations.

In February 2005, Roberto’s parents alleged in a wrongful-death lawsuit that Roberto was subjected to physical exertion and abuse that caused or contributed to his death. They alleged that he would have lived had he received competent medical care in a timely manner and that he was dragged, hit, placed into solitary confinement and “forced to lay in his own excrement for extended periods of time.”

In court filings, Thayer officials denied those and other allegations. The two sides settled the case in March 2006 for slightly more than $1 million.

A 2005 investigation by The Star showed that, between April 2003 and October 2005, at least seven persons had reported more than a dozen allegations of child abuse at Thayer to the Caldwell County sheriff’s office. A state investigative report said “it appears that those responsible for the safety and well-being of Roberto Reyes failed to recognize his medical distress and to provide access to appropriate medical evaluation and/or treatment.”

Thayer officials are challenging in court the Department of Social Services’ findings of “probable cause” that employees at Thayer medically neglected Roberto.

No Thayer official was charged in connection with Roberto’s death or any other child-abuse allegations.

Tom Kiley, communications director in Miller’s office, said the GAO began a review of boot camp-type facilities in 2006 and expanded it in 2007.

Kiley wouldn’t confirm the specific subjects of the investigation, but former Thayer employee Sarah Mackey of Polo, Mo., told The Star she was interviewed in September and that one of the GAO investigators told her Thayer was a key subject.

Former employee Kris Trimble of Gallatin, Mo., said the same thing, adding, “They said they wanted to open the public’s eye about things that are going on.”

Miller first asked the GAO in December 2005 to conduct a nationwide investigation, noting in a letter to the agency, “This study is urgently needed because of allegations of child abuse, human rights violations, fraud and other violations” at facilities throughout the country.

He estimated that thousands of American children were enrolled in hundreds of programs nationwide.

Miller introduced legislation in April 2005 that would provide more monitoring of boot camps and similar programs. The End Institutionalized Abuse Against Children Act would, among other things, provide $50 million to states to support the licensing of child residential treatment programs.

Miller is concerned that many states, like Missouri, have laws that allow facilities such as Thayer to operate with virtually no state or federal oversight.

The third former employee interviewed by The Star, Ricky Ableidinger of Jamesport, Mo., not only spoke to the GAO but also in August filed a report with the Caldwell County sheriff’s office. In it, he alleged that a student was “grabbed by the neck and squeezed until (his) face started turning purple.”

The same report referred to a separate incident in which the same student allegedly was repeatedly pushed to the ground by a drill sergeant. That student at some point suffered a broken arm, the report says. The report doesn’t make clear when or how that happened. Spies, the Thayer attorney, said all allegations in Ableidinger’s report were investigated by “a couple of different agencies” and were determined to be unfounded. He didn’t know which agencies had conducted the investigation.

Ableidinger, who worked as a security guard for Thayer for a little more than a month during the summer, alleged that a drill sergeant was forcing the student to run and repeatedly slammed his own hands into the student’s back hard enough to make the student fall. The student was crying and begging the drill sergeant to stop, according to the report.

Ableidinger alleged that the student fell to the ground “at least eight to 10 times” and that, at one point, he “landed on his right wrist and elbow.”

According to the police report, Ableidinger called in sick the next two days and then was off work for two more days. The next time he saw the student, the report said, the child’s right arm was in a cast and Ableidinger was told it was broken in two places. The drill sergeant then told Ableidinger that the student’s injury did not occur at Thayer but happened before he got there.

According to the police report, a Thayer official offered Ableidinger a promotion if he didn’t go to the police about the incident. Spies said that never happened.

“Not even close,” he said.

Ableidinger quit and filed the report on Aug. 4.

When contacted recently by The Star, Ableidinger said he stood by his allegations.

He said that the student’s arm wasn’t broken when the student first got to Thayer and that he saw other things that bothered him: Some students were denied bathroom breaks until they urinated and defecated on themselves, for example, and other students were forced to exercise until they vomited and were then forced to exercise in their own vomit.

“I was so disturbed by some of the things I saw there,” Ableidinger said.

Thayer officials previously have called similar allegations “ludicrous and false.”

Caldwell County Sheriff Kirby Brelsford couldn’t be reached to discuss his office’s role in the investigation. Ana Compain-Romero, communications director for the Department of Social Services, cited state privacy laws in declining to comment about the state’s role in the case.

Caldwell County Prosecutor Brady Kopek said he’s not sure whether investigators have had a chance to speak with the child named in Ableidinger’s report and that nobody has been charged in connection with the incident.

“It’s still under investigation,” Kopek said.