Casper Cop Accused Of Abusing Her Children Will Face Trial
A Casper police officer will be tried in Natrona County District Court for mentally abusing her adopted son and daughter.
Natrona County Circuit Court Judge Steven Brown agreed with Assistant District Attorney Brett Johnson there is probable cause that Laura Starnes-Wells committed felony child abuse for causing mental injury to her children.
But adoption carries serious responsibilities especially if the child has mental health issues and the parent repeatedly does not heed the advice of therapists and other health care providers, Brown said when he bound her over for trial.
A trial date will be set later.
However, Starnes-Wells' defense attorney Tom Fleener unsuccessfully tried to show she did not actually harm the children because they were already in an unstable mental condition when she and her ex-husband adopted them in 2006.
"We never got an answer about (the question), 'what is the injury,'" Fleener said during his closing argument.
Starnes-Wells may have severely disciplined her children and may not have been a good parent, but those are not crimes, he said.
In February, Starnes-Wells was charged with the one felony count. Her husband Todd Wells was charged with a misdemeanor count of child endangerment, according to court records. The Natrona County Sheriff's Office conducted the investigation because the police department could not investigate its own employees. They were placed on administrative leave.
During the four-hour preliminary hearing in circuit court, Sheriff's Sgt. Aaron Shatto testified police and sheriff's officers told him about the abuse case on May 31, 2016.
His investigation revealed Starnes-Wells and her ex-husband adopted the boy, and his older sister, in 2006. By then, they had endured their own family tragedies and mental health issues.
Shatto said school officials who reported severe punishments inflicted by Starnes-Wells including hitting the children, making them run up a 250-yard hill, having him walk two hours to school making the boy sit at a table with his hands on it during the day -- interrupted only if he asked for food or to go to the bathroom -- and writing thousands of sentences.
But much of the question about Starnes-Wells' actions hinged on the childrens' mental condition.
Casper children's therapist Tonya Yelton testified she read the reports of other therapists who worked with , and tried to work with Starnes-Wells.
The boy has "reactive attachment" disorder, in which a child does not develop a healthy relationship with a parent. "The key is trust," Yelton said.
The boy was taken away from his mother and placed in foster care before Starnes-Wells adopted him, she said. After the adoption, Starnes-Wells took him to six therapists, but quit all of them. That instilled a sense of distrust in the boy.
Food is especially important to children, she said. They want to know that they will be able to eat, and the parent is supposed to be the provider. When that breaks down, the child will overeat, or sneak food. Likewise, M.S. often did not eat with the rest of the family, which enhanced his isolation and distrust.
"It was her job to take care of their needs," Yelton said.
But she didn't.
While the children were already damaged by the time they were adopted, it was Starnes-Wells responsibility to follow through with therapy and apply what counselors advised, she said.
After the children were removed from their home and given the proper therapy, they dramatically improved over the next six months, Yelton said.