Boot camp sued in Santa Rosa teen's death -- Suit says Missouri center failed to give prompt, competent medical care, also abused youth Boot camp sued in Santa Rosa teen's death -- Suit says Missouri center failed to give prompt, competent medical care, also abused youth
By Paul Payne & Carol Benfell
Source: The Press Democrat, February 7, 2005

The parents of a Santa Rosa youth who died at a military-type boot camp in Missouri have filed a wrongful death lawsuit alleging the camp denied their son proper medical care.

Roberto Reyes, 15, died Nov. 3, less than two weeks after he was enrolled in the Thayer Learning Center Boot Camp in Kidder, Mo.

Medical examiners said his death was probably the result of a spider or insect bite. The lawsuit, filed Friday in Buchanan County, Mo., alleges that Reyes would have lived if he had received prompt, competent medical care.

"He collapsed. His death was called at the hospital, but he stopped breathing at the school," Kansas City attorney James Thompson, who represents the Reyes family, said last week before the lawsuit was filed. "No one knows when he was bitten."

A Missouri child fatality review panel, made up of state and county officials, reviewed the circumstances of Reyes' death and in December concluded that "earlier medical treatment at the Thayer Learning Center may have prevented this fatality."

Symptoms of Reyes' failing health "would have been present for a significant period of time prior to his death," according to the lawsuit.

The Caldwell County District Attorney's Office and the Missouri Department of Social Services are investigating the death.

The attorney for Thayer Learning Center, Ed Proctor, could not be reached Sunday for comment. He previously told the Kansas City Star that "every child at Thayer has immediate access to medical care at any time."

Aside from inadequate medical care, parents Gracia and Victor Reyes claim their son was dragged, hit, placed into solitary confinement and "forced to lay in his own excrement for extended periods of time." [Emphasis added]

"Abuse has been alleged by prior employees. The claims are very specific and graphic," Thompson said. [Emphasis added]

The tops of Reyes' toes were scraped, indicating he might have been dragged. The bottoms of his feet were blistered, as if he had been doing heavy exercise barefoot, Thompson said. [Emphasis added]

The Reyeses could not be reached for comment about the lawsuit Sunday.

"Their reaction is shock," Thompson told the Kansas City Star on Friday. "As more and more information comes to light, they cannot even comprehend it." [Emphasis added]

The lawsuit is the latest in a series of complaints against Thayer, which promises to instill discipline in willful young people at a cost of some $50,000 a year.

Former Thayer employees have told investigators that children were required to sit in their own urine, dragged, hog-tied and placed in solitary confinement, Thompson said. [Emphasis added]

Missouri is home to several teen rehabilitation programs, many of which are drawn to the state because of a lack of regulations.

The fatality review panel also called for new legislation giving juvenile authorities and social service workers greater access to such programs.

Beware of the quick fix
Henry Lawton's remarks after reading about the teen's death at Thayer

This tragic situation speaks to the importance of careful assessment when considering an out-of-home placement for a troubled teen, rather than acting from ignorance, anger, and/or frustration. While these parents were doubtless well intentioned in their desire to get their son on the right road, we see the consequences of being into denial about and/or ignorant of the emotional nature of whatever problems this boy had.

Parents should learn from this tragedy that troubled teens are emotionally disturbed and must be treated therapeutically rather than by behavior modification alone. But as long as denial remains the order of the day, such occurrences will only continue.

Some general principles that parents considering placement might wish to consider are as follows:

(1) Try to keep the child at home. Get him into therapy with a therapist who knows how to work with kids. Face the fact that you as parents play a part in why your child is troubled and commit to family therapy in addition to whatever individual work your child may need.

It may not be easy to find a decent therapist you can feel comfortable with. Do not be afraid to keep trying. Do not make excuses for your child or lie for him. Start being honest. One reason most emotionally troubled kids have problems is because of dishonesty from the adults in their lives. If the parent has abused the child, face up to it and get help. Continuing abuse does not help, but will only intensify the child's problems. Belief otherwise is delusion.

(2) If the child cannot be retained at home for whatever reason (eg. severity of emotional problems, delinquency that might see him in jail if not countered, need to protect the child from himself, etc) have the child thoroughly evaluated so you know what is wrong. If you have to seek the help of public child welfare, do it. Therapeutic facilities can be very expensive and rightly so. Public child welfare should have money available to pay the costs, more importantly hopefully it can be a source of expertise on resources that exist, how to access them, and making the system work for you rather than against you.

(3) Residential facilities should be licensed and accredited by their state as well as being eligible to receive funds and accept kids from other states. Make sure a facility is appropriately accredited by the state it is in. Look at the degree of regulation to which a facility has to adhere. Any state (e.g. Missouri) that has lax regulation should be avoided like the plague. Even if the parent has the means to pay the costs involved, these issues should closely scrutinized. Parents who fail to do this could be unconsciously setting their children up for more extreme failure, injury, even death. Find out if a facility has a history of complaints (e.g., past allegations of abuse, injuries, deaths, etc.). Such information should be available on the Internet though you may have to search for it. Always make a pre-placement visit. Ask about the program, how it works, staff qualifications, etc. If they do not seem totally honest, walk away. Insist on speaking to some of the kids who go there out of hearing range of the staff. Ask them about the program, what it offers, and if they feel it has helped them. If they reply in the negative or tell you things dramatically different from what staff says, the staff may have something to hide. Do not put your child there.

(4) Does the facility make any effort to involve the family in the child's treatment? If not, walk away. This is a key reason why kids should always be placed close by. Family must be involved in the child's program unless it is an older teen and the plan is independent living. The more the family is distant and uninvolved, the less likely that return to home/community will be successful. No matter how disturbed the child might be, he does not deserve to have the deck stacked against him. All to often this is a problem in placement cases.

(5) All troubled teens are emotionally disturbed in some way, shape or form. Deviant or problem behavior is an expression of an emotional problem, NOT an end in and of itself. Those who tell you otherwise are either into denial or liars. Walk away from anything that seems to offer a quick fix or easy solutions. This is fantasy. Helping emotionally disturbed teens is difficult work that takes honesty, tenacity, dedication and belief in the child. (I think it was Father Flannigan who said that there are no bad boys. In my experience, he was, for the most part, right.) Parents often seek illusory quick-fix programs like boot camps because they feel themselves taxed beyond endurance and feel hopeless and helpless. While this is understandable, parents must do their utmost not to give in to such feelings. If your child cannot look to you for strength and the ability to stand up and do whatever it takes to help, what hope can he look forward to?

Hopefully you get the idea.

Henry Lawton
February 8, 2005

See False allure of the boot camp by Henry Lawton.

See related: Prosecutor: Boot camp won't face charges

See related: Defendant John Bundy allegedly ‘threatened and harassed’ them; Parents in Thayer lawsuit seek protective order

Return to Halls of Shame
Return to Boot camp for kids: Torturing teenagers for fun and profit
Return to this Newsroom date
Select other Newsroom date range
Return to Project NoSpank Table of Contents at