Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Why Walker Allowed Lincoln Hills Abuses

His staff knew about it for years. Why didn’t the governor act?

By - Feb 16th, 2016 11:54 am
Gov. Scott Walker at the executive residence, Dec. 30, 2014. Photo by Kate Golden/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Gov. Scott Walker at the executive residence, Dec. 30, 2014. Photo by Kate Golden/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

In February 2011, Gov. Scott Walker was at his busiest and most besieged, facing a furious reaction to his plan to decimate public employee union rights. Yet his staff felt he would want to take the time to speak to man who identified himself as David Koch, but turned out to be an impostor.

But a year later, in February 2012, Walker received a letter from Racine County Circuit Judge Richard Kreul, alerting him to problems at the Lincoln Hills Schools for Boys, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has reported. The letter included a copy of a memo detailing the beating and sexual assault of a boy and the failure of Lincoln Hills staff to notify law enforcement, child protective services and county officials. “I’m sure reading the attached memo will shock you as much as it did me,” Kreul wrote. “The indifference in this sordid tale is absolutely inexcusable.”

Yet Walker’s staff felt this brief letter was not important enough for the governor to read, according to what his spokesperson told the Journal Sentinel. If we are to believe that, Walker’s staff has been trained to prioritize his time so that a call from a non resident, David Koch, whom Walker said he had never met, was more important than a letter from a Wisconsin judge alerting him to a horrendous situation at a boys home whose mission is to rehabilitate youthful offenders.

The memo said the Lincoln Hills staff waited 15 days to inform Racine County officials about the assault and waited more than six hours to take the victim to the emergency hospital. When Lincoln Hills psychologist Paul Hesse was asked by a Racine County caseworker about the long delay getting the victim to a hospital, Hesse explained there was a basketball game going on and the sport was a “big deal” at the school. “Dr. (Hesse) chuckled and asked me, ‘What did you want them to do, stop the basketball game?'” the caseworker wrote.

All of this was in the memo from Judge Kreul, yet Walker’s staff didn’t feel it was important enough to give the governor a quick summary, much less suggest he read it. Or so we’ve been told. The other explanation is that Walker did see the letter or was told of its contents and took no actions to change the situation.

Either way, the result is that the problems at Lincoln Hills escalated in the nearly four years since then to include child neglect, abuse of prisoners, strangulation and suffocation, using pepper spray to cause bodily harm or discomfort, tampering with public records and misconduct in public office. The problems are so serious the state Department of Justice (DOJ) and FBI launched investigations of the situation.

Walker has said he only recently learned about the problems at Lincoln Hills and that he and his corrections secretary, Ed Wall (who has now resigned) took swift action to address problems at the school. As Walker told the Journal Sentinel in mid-December, “it wasn’t until recently that they (the DOJ and FBI) brought those concerns to our attention as to just how serious they thought (it was.)”

In fact there is overwhelming evidence that Walker knew for years there were problems at Lincoln Hills and did little about it. For starters, Racine County officials, in response to the sexual assault of a boy from their county, decided to stop sending any youthful offenders to Lincoln Hills. Next to Milwaukee County, Racine would be among the counties sending the most youthful offenders to Lincoln Hills. That’s a red flag to state officials they had such a huge problem that one of their biggest partners preferred the financial headaches of finding a local solution rather than simply sending their youthful offenders to the state facility. Yet we are to believe Walker was never told about this problem.

Rick Badger, executive director of Council 32 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told the Journal Sentinel that staff complaints about security concerns at Lincoln Hills had long gone ignored. “AFSCME members for years have complained that DOC leaders were covering up multiple youth-on-youth assaults and assaults on Lincoln Hills staff and failing to report these violent incidents to local law enforcement, as required by law,” he said.  Yet no one felt Walker need to be bothered with this information.

Thomas Wanta, administrator of the Milwaukee County Division of Delinquency and Court Services, told the Journal Sentinel he received a phone call on Nov. 18, 2014, from a woman alleging that youth at Lincoln Hills were not receiving adequate education and that a number of them had their arms broken. Wanta said his agency, Milwaukee County prosecutors and Circuit Judge Mary Triggiano took the matter to the state Department of Corrections (DOC) and met with state officials about the allegation. Yet none of this was shared with the governor?

Rep. Mary Czaja (R-Irma) met with DOC administrators in March 2015 to discuss concerns about inmates abusing staff, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. Irma gave the newspaper a DOC report for fiscal year 2014 which showed there were 16 assaults on staff, twelve of which were referred to law enforcement, seven of which resulted in injuries. Half occurred at Lincoln Hills. Wouldn’t the concerns of a Republican legislator have been relayed to the governor?

After weeks of the governor insisting none of this was shared with him, the Journal Sentinel did a public records request asking the Walker administration for documents related to Lincoln Hills. The documents showed Walker’s office “was told multiple times over the past year about problems… including claims of violence against youths and staff, inadequate classroom time, and the need to improve sexual assault safeguards,” the newspaper reported. “On July 28, Kevin McCarthy, a retired corrections employee living near the Irma prison, wrote the governor’s office that he was concerned about the safety of his daughter and friends, who still work at the facility. ‘You have staff who are being assaulted, youth who are being assaulted, doors being broken, windows broken… does the sheriff’s department or state police need to get involved when the staff at Lincoln Hills’” lose control of the institution? McCarthy wrote.

The Wisconsin State Journal had also requested documents related to Lincoln Hills. Yet the Walker administration never shared the letter from the Racine judge with either the State Journal or the Journal Sentinel (which eventually got it from another source). This is simply the latest example of Walker’s consistent policy of resisting and undermining the public records laws.

When you pile up all the evidence showing state officials and the Walker administration had known for years of the horrors going on at Lincoln Hills, you have to ask why wasn’t something done about this? One possibility is they simply didn’t care. But a more likely explanation is they did not want to devote more resources to the problem.

To save money, the Walker administration in 2011 shut down the Ethan Allen home in Wales and transferred the youthful offenders there to Lincoln Hills. (Judge Kreul has told the press he didn’t understand why Lincoln Hills was preserved as it had a worse reputation than Wales.) As the State Journal reported, Lincoln Hills had housed 160 inmates on average per day and Ethan Allen housed 184 inmates, but by 2014, Lincoln Hills was left to handle 241 inmates. This dropped the cost to the state from $49.5 million in 2011 to $25.9 million in 2015, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

The situation at Lincoln Hills raised huge questions about this strategy. It suggested the merger caused horrendous problems and left an opening for advocates of more social service funding to argue that Walker’s priorities were all wrong. So the problem was simply hushed up. For more than a year, and more likely, ever since 2012, when that letter arrived from the Racine judge, the problems were not addressed.

This goes beyond mere (or even gross) negligence and suggests a complete indifference to the health and safety of the teen boys in state custody. The first and most important rule for a public official is to protect the lives of those he or she serves. By this simple standard, Walker has failed, and heartbreakingly so for those teen boys and their families.

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21 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Why Walker Allowed Lincoln Hills Abuses”

  1. Dave says:

    Just look at that face and tell me you see a guy who cares about anything but himself. He didn’t win 3 elections for Governor by himself, though. It took a state full of stupid, selfish, assholes to do that.

  2. Vincent Hanna says:

    I am not nor have I ever been a politician. A governor is a busy man and has a lot of staff working for him or her. I don’t doubt that Walker has a lot on his plate on any given day. But is there any way that a judge sends a letter addressed directly to him (not his office or his staff) about sexual assault of minors at a state run facility and he doesn’t know anything at all about it for more than 3 years? That is just really impossible to believe, unless you buy that he is that hands-off about matters in the state he runs.

  3. tom says:

    If Walker has so much on his plate that he is so overwhelmed and cannot respond to warning signs, how could he just pick up leave the state and run for President? A person that is overwhelmed with state issues cannot just turn around and all of a sudden dedicate every minute of his day to a presidential run. He did nothing because problem youth in housed in northern Wisconsin mean nothing to his political future. Walker is simply a criminal. Our despicable governor thinks nothing of denying healthcare to our poor and most vulnerable citizens. Walker cares about Walker’s future and nothing else. He will stab anyone to get ahead.

  4. tomw says:

    There are two elephants in this room (if you’ll pardon the pun) – one most of the young people involved are from Milwaukee and we all know how Walker feels about Milwaukee; two most are African Americans! It’s a perfect storm for the Walker Administration! Why is no one talking about Civil Rights Violations? So sad!

  5. Rich says:

    He did nothing because problem youth in housed in northern Wisconsin mean nothing to his political future.

    Let’s hope now that the problem youth housed in northern Wisconsin mean Walker has no political future.

    That is if this “state full of stupid, selfish, assholes” took the time to notice and then took the additional time to do anything about it. They’re probably too busy enjoying the extra $110 in spending money they got from “lower property taxes”…

  6. blurondo says:

    The Tea Party = racism + retaliation.

  7. Bruce Murphy says:

    Note to Tomw: the FBI investigation will be looking at potential civil rights violations.

  8. leah says:

    As easy as it is to point to racism and politics, the reason that Walker didn’t care is very simple and has been the hallmark of his stints as County Exec and Governor- ideology. When you commit to an ideology that has as it’s single goal the shrinking of government it doesn’t matter if the institution works or not. What’s most important is what it costs. To those who think like Walker, Lincoln Hills is a success because they were able to cut the budget by $25 million. In many ways they hope for failure so that the service can be privatized and government can shrink even more. As County Exec Walker allowed any number of services to fail and get taken over by the state because he had no interest in making them work, his only interest was to cut taxes by whatever means necessary. When you don’t believe in government your priority is not in making institutions work. Its in making it small.
    That’s why I never understood why people who rely on government in order to prosper, like the road builders, supported Walker. If your business relies solely on government spending and efficiently run institutions why would you ever support someone who only wants to cut spending and gut services? Illogical
    Grover Norquist, the darling of the small government set, said “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub “. The Walker administration (and the failing government of Gov. Brownback in Kansas) is the embodiment of that philosophy. Lincoln Hills is what drowning government in the bathtub looks like.

  9. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    To paraphrase Kanye West “Scott Walker doesn’t care about kids who end up at Lincoln Hills.” And neither does the trash that still Stand with Walker.

    That’s what a lot of this comes down to. These kids and their community are thought of as “less than”, and so in Walker World these atrocities are able to be swept under the rug for political purposes. And it’ll take people to start showing their humanity and making sickos like Walker and WisGOP to pay a price for being so callous.

  10. Bruce Thompson says:

    Doesn’t this have parallels with the situation with the county mental health center when Walker was County Exec?

  11. Frank Galvan says:

    Um…because he’s an incompetent boob?

  12. Bill Kurtz says:

    This is Walker’s “Flint, Michigan” moment.

  13. Jerry says:

    Walker is once again stalemating this situation and getting it out of the public eye. What staff person supposedly did not show him the letter and why haven’t we been told who did this and why hasn’t that person been disciplined like Walker wants done to civil service employees. Secondly: Where did the letter go? It must have been passed on to DOC administrators. Which administrator was given the letter and why didn’t that individual take appropriate action and why didn’t that administrator alert Walker to the seriousness of the issue. Why wasn’t that administrator disciplined. Walker does this all the time with the media. He refuses to dialogue with reporters or answer questions just like he does with open records. This like so many other issues needs a federal Dept. of Justice investigation in which people are put under oath to get at the truth. We all are of the belief that Walker knew of the problems and saw the letter but told his staff and DOC officials to bury it.

  14. Keith Prochnow says:

    Somebody call the state police. Arrest Scott Walker! Maybe the world could get a two-fer by also arresting his twin in Michigan, Rick Snyder. Two governors who slash the costs of caring for poor people in order to give a big tax break to the rich people who fund their campaigns. Book ’em, Danno!

    “Starve The Beast.” It’s Walker’s mantra, starve the beast so that it dies. Starve the County Parks, starve the transit system, starve public union workers, starve the DOC, at least the part that is required by law to protect the safety and health of its young charges. Then they’ll all go away.

    Starve The Beast is Walker’s local version of Grover Norquist flushing a reduced federal government down the toilet.

  15. Alene says:

    Judge Kruel thought sending the letter just to Walker would get some action. At that time we didn’t know as much about how Walker governs as we do now. Now we know that sending a letter just to the Governor may or may not get any action.

    In hindsight, Racine County Circuit Judge Richard Kreul should have sent the letter to Walker with copies to all of the leaders in the state senate and legislature, the head of the DOC, the FBI, and the state AG. It would not have gotten buried like it did if all of those people had been brought into it at the beginning.

  16. Jaime says:

    Thanks, Bruce, for opening this reader’s eyes. I thought I already knew how bad Walker is but this is a new low.

    There were a couple of comments that stood out for me out of many good ones: it’s probably even less than $110/ yr for taxpayers (assuming that’s what Rich meant.) I’m thinking it’s a good idea to put a number–a price, as it were–on the amount taxpayers would likely pay to spare those lives affected by Walker’s neglect. And the comment from Leah (great!) about people voting against their own best interests ties together, imho, with a need for a greater effort to educate taxpayers on how this government isn’t helping you (us.) yes, you’re doing your part right here.

  17. C says:

    This is not Wisconsin’s only issue of abuse within the walls of taxpayer funded facilities for children. The Eau Claire Academy was one of a handful of facilities selected by the Chicago Tribune and Medill Watchdog for a series about abuses in residential treatment centers. This facility has the same issues with abuse as Lincoln Hills and many of the same clientele, many who would rather be in Lincoln Hills. From broken femurs, arms, teeth and concussions by staff to attempted and successful suicides, the facility is not physically or emotionally safe. Children from both facilities are mistreated and when they commit acts against Lincoln Hills’ staff have gone to adult prisons, where they remain as adults. Should we keep these citizens imprisoned for charges brought by a facility that was abusing them? Should taxpayers pay over $120K/year per child for those children to become permanent residents of the system?

    Check out the original story here:

  18. PatrickL says:

    I think this issue is big. Because the FBI is involved, people are going to talk. How about a John Doe III?
    Wouldn’t it be great to get the ego-centric Mr. Walker on the stand. We can’t count on our own DOJ. A Federal investigation is the only way. I think Walker feels he’s done his job by replacing the the top DOC official.

  19. concerned says:

    If Milwaukee took care of their kids to begin with, they wouldn’t be at Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake School with all sorts of serious criminal issues. Who is really at fault here?

  20. Vincent Hanna says:

    So the City of Milwaukee is to blame for kids being physically and sexually abused at the facility, not the abusers? I guess some people will find a way to blame Milwaukee for anything. Sad.

  21. Maizey says:

    It is the job of the staff to keep inmates safe, and they neglected their legal obligation to report the crimes.
    Now they have just paid out 300K. That warrants looking at the staff. The FBI? Oh goody.

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