Casper Police Officers Charged With Child Abuse
Two Casper police officers could face prison time after allegedly subjecting two adopted special-needs children to “extreme,” “militant” and “demeaning” physical and emotional abuse over roughly the past decade.
Laura Starnes-Wells, a former school resource officer at Centennial High School, is wanted on one count of felony child abuse. She could face up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine if convicted.
Sgt. Aaron Shatto of the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office, which conducted the investigation, says the office is in contact with Starnes-Wells’ attorney and “working on having her turn herself in,” as she was in another state when the warrant was issued earlier this week.
Todd Wells, who is charged with a misdemeanor count of endangering children and could face up to a year of imprisonment if convicted, turned himself in to authorities on Tuesday.
The children – a boy and a girl – remain in the custody of the Wyoming Department of Family Services. The boy has been in DFS custody since May 2014, and the girl was taken into custody at the end of May 2016.
Since Starnes-Wells and her ex-husband adopted the children in 2006, the boy has seen at least seven different doctors, therapists and counselors, stayed in the Wyoming Behavioral Institute for two weeks, was held in the Youth Crisis Center for nearly two months, was sent to the Cowboy Challenge Academy, was placed on probation and was put in a foster home at Starnes-Wells’ request.
One of those counselors, who worked with Starnes-Wells and the boy for a year, finally told Starnes-Wells that her behaviors in counseling were emotionally abusive, also telling the officers that she could no longer be their counselor, court documents say.
According to an affidavit, the Wyoming Department of Family Services received a report on March 25, 2008 from the principal and social worker at the boy’s. 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 reportedly noted that, “when mom gets mad she withholds what little affection there is.” According to court documents, the social worker and other playground aides have seen Starnes-Wells yell at the children when dropping them off, even if the children were doing nothing wrong. She 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 worker told a DFS agent that she was very concerned “about this one,” and it seemed as though Starnes-Wells was using her police training on the children.
The Natrona County Sheriff’s Office began investigating on May 31, 2016 after the girl told Centennial Junior High School officials that Starnes-Wells hit her over the previous weekend.
Court documents say the girl told a school counselor that Starnes-Wells slapped her. The counselor noticed the girl had a partially-black eye and a swollen lip. The girl was taken into protective custody that same day.
The girl also said Starnes-Wells grabbed her face and slapped the girl repeatedly, something that has occurred “her whole life,” the girl said.
She also described Starnes-Wells grabbing her by the hair, pushing her up against walls and slapping her or punching her in the chest. Starnes-Wells would allegedly shake the girl’s head to the point the girl got headaches.
According to an affidavit, the girl said she and her brother were required to run “hills” for any number of minor infractions. The girl said the hill in question is behind Starnes-Wells’ house and is about 250 yards from bottom to top.
The girl said she had run 146 “hills” in the past two weeks. She also indicated that she and her brother were required to do sit-ups as punishment.
According to court documents, the girl said Wells had to physically stop Starnes-Wells from abusing the boy about three months beforehand. The girl said Wells pulled Starnes-Wells off the boy and left, slamming the door.
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.
She allegedly admitted to making the girl do “table time,” which consisted of sitting at the kitchen table. A school employee later said when she was babysitting the children, Starnes-Wells had instructed her to enforce table time on the boy which consisted of him sitting at the table from the time he got up in the morning until he went to bed at night. The boy was reportedly required to ask permission to go to the bathroom or get food and was to have his back to the television at all times.
Todd Wells reportedly told investigators that the boy had been required to write sentences as punishment, both children had been required to do “table time” as punishment, and Starnes-Wells made the girl do “hills” as punishment. He allegedly said he thought the girl had done 20 or 30 hills in the week prior.
The children also said there were cameras in the house to track their movements, rooms were locked to keep children out and Starnes-Wells isolated the girl from her brother, according to an affidavit.
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 reportedly required to sit on the front step in view of a video camera so Starnes-Wells could ensure he was waiting there. He was not allowed to go into the house after school until Starnes-Wells got home – usually between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. – or Wells got up and let him in.
The boy told investigators he had to sit outside, in view of the video camera, no matter the weather.
Other punishments included pushups, jumping jacks, table time, being locked in his room, being locked out of the house and being monitored by cameras, court documents say.
The boy said in the past, there had been numerous cameras in the house, including one in his room. His bedroom camera was reportedly removed when the alarm went on his bedroom door in the summer of 2015. The alarms made a high-pitched sound like a car alarm and, once tripped, Starnes-Wells would have to get up and reset them. There were also other alarms on doors in the house, according to an affidavit.
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 also said he was forced to do thousands of jumping jacks, mainly because he asked for food in front of his grandfather on a trip to Montana. He was reportedly in trouble for having a “bad attitude” on the trip, which meant that he asked for food, ate without asking, was on the computer and rough-housed with other children, according to charging papers.
In the fall of 2016, the Department of Family Services retained an independent consultant to review all contacts with DFS, the courts, law enforcement and treatment providers involving Starnes-Wells, Wells, and the children.
A doctor performed a psychological evaluation on the boy in May 2010 and noted the child “usually does well behaviorally at school and gets in trouble at home,” adding that the boy had been involved with tae kwon do in the past, but it had been taken away due to his negative behaviors.
The doctor recommended, among other things, that Starnes-Wells get into a parental support group.
The boy was in the Wyoming Behavioral Institute from June 2-16, 2010.
According to the affidavit, the DFS consultant could find no individual or family counseling records for that child from April 2011 to March 2013.
From March 2013 to March 2014, a new counselor provided 22 sessions for some combination of Starnes-Wells, Wells and the boy.
The counselor reportedly noted that neither parent ever showed any affection toward the boy, who was often in a “state of frozen fear” and unable to speak.
Starnes-Wells would reportedly tell the boy in session, “you’re sick… something is wrong with you… what is wrong with you?”
According to the report, the counselor tried several times to facilitate change in Starnes-Wells’ parenting style, but she always refused.
The counselor noted that Starnes-Wells would make the boy write tens of thousands of sentences as punishments, court documents say. He would be sent to his room to write them and it would take days for him to complete the sentences.
In April 2013, it was reported that the boy had finished writing 24,000 sentences. The counselor spoke with Starnes-Wells regarding other, more appropriate forms of punishment and made it clear that making the boy write that many sentences was inappropriate punishment for a child that age.
In an October 2013 session, Starnes-Wells reportedly told the counselor she made the boy write 65,000 sentences for stealing money and books. The counselor recommended several times that Starnes-Wells get professional help for her emotional regulation, but Starnes-Wells never followed those recommendations.
That counselor terminated her relationship with Starnes-Wells in Marcy 2014.
The boy was held in the Youth Crisis Center for 54 days from March-May 2014. An employee reportedly expressed concern about the family dynamics in the boy’s home, citing no parental visitation during the boy’s stay other than medical appointments.
Community members eventually began feeling bad for the boy and began helping him, court documents say.
A neighbor bought him a backpack because the boy was required to carry his books to and from school after Starnes-Wells decided that the boy purposely put a hole in his backpack.
Cafeteria staff gave the boy extra food. People would give him rides home from school but had to drop him off well before his house, as the boy would reportedly be in trouble if Starnes-Wells found out he got a ride.
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, Starnes-Wells believed something was wrong with the boy and would make no room for the possibility that her actions were part of the problem. The agent said he 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.
The boy’s then-foster mother reportedly described him as “very sweet, kind and respectful” generally.
“He so badly wanted her to love him and she would emotionally push him away,” the foster mother said, according to court documents.