Trial Postponed For Casper Police Officer Charged With Child Abuse
The trial for a Casper Police Officer accused of abusing her adopted children has been pushed back to early next year.
Laura Starnes-Wells has pleaded not guilty to one charge of child abuse.
Her trial was scheduled to begin July 31, but both her defense lawyer and Natrona County prosecutors agree the trial could take more than one week, and only three days had been scheduled by the court.
A new trial date has been set for January 29, 2018.
According to an affidavit, the Wyoming Department of Family Services received a report in March 2008 from the principal and social worker at one of the child's schools.
The report noted concerns for both children “due to extreme punishment by the mother.”
The children at one point had to “run stairs” as a punishment, and the girl reported throwing up from running up and down so many stairs.
The boy reportedly told the school social worker his mother was still mad the next day and punched him in the neck, making him fall back and hit the back of his head.
When the school social worker told the children that she would have to speak to their mother, court documents say, the children became “petrified” and said, “If you do, it will make everything worse.”
The social worker also indicated school staff saw Starnes-Wells “always being mad at the children.”
When Starnes-Wells was angry, she would allegedly tell the children, “Why don’t you go live with someone else?”
The social worker reportedly noted the girl was beginning to act out more and more, while the boy was increasingly withdrawn.
The Natrona County Sheriff’s Office began investigating in May 2016 after the girl told Centennial Junior High School officials that Starnes-Wells hit her over the previous weekend.
The counselor noticed the girl had a partially-black eye and a swollen lip.
She was taken into protective custody that same day.
According to an affidavit, the girl said she and her brother were required to run “hills” for any number of minor infractions and that they had run as many as 146 hills in a 2-week time frame.
According to court documents, the girl said Starnes-Wells' then-husband, Casper Police Sgt. Todd Wells, had to physically stop Starnes-Wells from abusing the boy about three months beforehand.
In an interview with investigators, Starnes-Wells reportedly admitted to slapping or using corporal punishment on the children.
She said she may have told the girl to walk the hill 50 times, but has never forced her to do it.
The children also said there were cameras in the house to track their movements.
The boy was allegedly required to walk to school as a punishment.
During his ninth-grade year, it took him two hours each way to get to and from Kelly Walsh High School. In his 10th-grade year, it took him an hour each way.
When he got home, the boy was required to sit on the front step in view of a video camera so Starnes-Wells could ensure he was waiting there, regardless of the weather.
Investigators learned that sometimes the boy had to go out his bedroom window to go get food from the kitchen, and he had reportedly stolen money from Starnes-Wells to buy food at school.
The boy said he was afraid to ask for snacks and would stutter due to fear.
He implied that he got in trouble for stuttering, court documents say.
The boy was in the Wyoming Behavioral Institute in June 2010.
According to the report, a counselor tried several times to facilitate change in Starnes-Wells’ parenting style, but she always refused.
The boy was held in the Youth Crisis Center for 54 days from March-May 2014.
In March 2014, a doctor diagnosed the boy with, among other conditions, reactive attachment disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, adoptive parent-child relationship difficulties and “problems with primary support system.”
The doctor also noted the boy has an anxiety problem, particularly when he’s in trouble at home, and has problems with self-esteem because he is frequently in trouble.
The doctor also reportedly noted depressive features which “occur after he is in trouble.”
The boy believed it was a foregone conclusion that he would be sent to long-term residential treatment, court documents say.
Another counselor said the defendant’s parenting style was “militant” and “demeaning.”
The boy was placed on probation from April 16 through December 5, 2014, for out-of-control behavior and theft as reported by Starnes-Wells. At her request, the boy was placed in DFS custody and housed at the Youth Crisis Center.
According to the boy’s probation agent, the agent couldn’t reason with Starnes-Wells, and that it was “’her way or the highway.”
Starnes-Wells reportedly told the probation agent, “I have a life and he will not ruin my life… my life comes first.”
The probation agent told the DFS consultant in October 2016 that Starnes-Wells had “no mercy with her kids,” using discipline or punishment systems similar to the model of law enforcement used by the Department of Corrections.
Starnes-Wells had the child placed in foster care, according to the DFS consultant’s report, because she didn’t want the boy in her home.
She only saw the boy at school in her role as school resource officer.
Starnes-Wells is free on $1,000 bond awaiting trial, and could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
She is currently on administrative leave from the Casper Police Department.
The Natrona County Sheriff's Office handled the investigation, because law enforcement agencies cannot investigate their own employees.
Similar charges had been filed against Wells. Prosecutors recently dropped them, however they may refile in the near future.