The felony child abuse case alleging a Casper police officer used harsh punishment and failed to meet the mental health needs of her adopted son will move forward, a Natrona County Circuit Court judge ruled Thursday. Judge Steven Brown moved Officer Laura Wells’ case to District Court after a four-hour preliminary hearing, despite arguments by Wells’ attorney that the allegations may constitute bad parenting but do not rise to the level of a criminal charge.
Prosecutors and investigators alleged that Wells, a former school resource officer at Centennial Middle School, inflicted a mental injury on the boy by not following therapists’ treatment plans and by using “extreme” punishment to discipline the teenager.
Before announcing his decision, Brown compared not following counselors’ treatment plans to not obeying a doctor’s orders for a physical illness.
“If you don’t fill the prescription, are you negligent?” he asked hypothetically before issuing the ruling to bind over the case.
Wells’ husband and the children’s adoptive stepfather, Casper police Sgt. Todd Wells, was also charged with a misdemeanor count of child endangerment in connection to the allegations. Both were placed on administrative leave in November after the police department learned that the case had been referred to the Natrona County District Attorney’s Office.
The boy, who has now been a teenager, and his sister have both been removed from the Wells’ custody. The boy is doing much better now, the prosecutor said.
More details about the case emerged at the preliminary hearing Thursday.
Laura Wells adopted the boy and his sister from an abusive household in Colorado when the children were small, Tonya Yelton, a licensed counselor, said at the hearing. The sheriff’s office, which led the investigation, contracted Yelton to complete a case review of the family’s history. Yelton said she collected hundreds of pages of documents and conducted more than 40 interviews of counselors, family friends and others who knew the family to compile her 250-page report. Parts of that report were included in the arrest warrants for the Wellses.
Although early records aren’t specific, she said, they indicate that the children were removed from their mother, who was addicted to drugs. The children were then placed in two or three foster care homes, where there were allegations of abuse. Before they were adopted by Laura Wells and her former husband, the children were diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder and the boy, who was 6 years old at the time, was being treated for depression.
Yelton described reactive attachment disorder as a condition that prevents children from developing healthy, trusting relationships due to past traumas. Kids with the disorder need intensive family and individual counseling to improve, she said.
“The key thing that we know now, because of what we know about brains, is that these kids need gentleness,” Yelton testified.
Case against Wells
However, that’s not what the children adopted by Laura Wells received, according to court documents and testimony Wednesday.
Laura Wells and the children consulted with several therapists and psychiatrists, court documents show, yet Wells never implemented their recommendations and repeatedly ended contact with the mental health professionals without notice.
“You can go to 50 counselors, but if you never do what they recommended, there’s a deficit you’re giving your child,” Yelton said.
Along with the lack of consistent counseling, Wells’ discipline methods negatively affected the boy by shaming him and isolating him, according to the testimony. Some of the methods recorded in court documents included making the boy walk miles to and from school, forcing him to sit at the kitchen table with no activities for entire days and ordering him to write tens of thousands of sentences. The boy also told investigators that Wells had slapped or hit him a few times.
The punishments only further compounded the boys’ illnesses — including diagnoses of depression, ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder and other behavioral disorders — and created an atmosphere of fear in the house, Yelton said. Counselors told investigators that they never saw signs of affection between Wells and her son.
“You have a gentleman who is not connecting to human beings and then you take all the human beings away from him,” she said.
Later in the hearing, Wells’ defense attorney, Tom Fleener, pushed Yelton to describe what she identified as child abuse in the case.
“You don’t think she has the right to punish her child?” he asked.
“Not in the manner she did, no,” Yelton responded. “Not for a child with (reactive attachment disorder).”
Sgt. Aaron Shatto of the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office described a series of strict rules the boy had to follow in the home, including that he had to stay within Wells’ sight and was monitored by cameras in the home. Shatto said the boy told him that the only time Wells touched the boy was when she slapped him.
At the end of the hearing, Wells’ attorney asked the judge to dismiss the case because prosecutors did not prove that Wells injured the boy and that the allegations did not constitute a crime.
“Apparently in the state of Wyoming, punishing your child is a crime,” Fleener said. “It’s not a crime to be bad at counseling.”
Assistant District Attorney Brett Johnson argued that Wells created a “hostile, nasty, shame-based situation” that seriously affected the boy.
At the hearing, Judge Brown did not have to determine whether a crime was committed but did determine there was enough evidence to move the case to district court.
In district court, prosecutors will have to prove that Wells caused a mental injury to the boy. As defined by state law, a mental injury is “an injury to the psychological capacity or emotional stability of a child as evidenced by an observable or substantial impairment in his ability to function within a normal range of performance and behavior with due regard to his culture.”
If convicted of the single felony charge, she could face up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.