Longform

WILD AT HEART

part 1 of 2
Casey Collier's quicksilver moods--kind and gentle one moment, unruly and obstinate the next--puzzled the people around him from the time he was a preschooler. He landed in therapy before he was ten, in a mental hospital at age twelve. The explanations for his actions seemed to change with every psychologist and psychiatrist who had a crack at him.

His adoptive parents, Mike and Rose Collier, tried futilely to find help for him. Their frustration was exacerbated upon learning that Casey's birth mother had had mental problems of her own--something the Denver Department of Social Services didn't mention at the time of adoption.

Casey grew up. But he never got better. He spent much of his adolescence in a rotating series of group homes and institutions. By the time he was a teenager, he stood six-foot-five and had become known as a problem patient, often angry, sometimes violent.

Last year, at age seventeen, Casey made his last stop on the treatment merry-go-round: the Cleo Wallace Center, a Westminster facility for adolescents and children with behavioral problems. The staff at Cleo Wallace was supposed to help Casey, enforcing a series of ironclad rules designed to force him into

more positive behavior patterns. Instead, they killed him.
On the afternoon of December 21, Cleo Wallace employees became convinced that Casey had lost control. Two staffers grabbed him, intending to escort him to an isolation room. When he began struggling, four other employees joined in. Using a controversial method of restraint that Cleo Wallace staffers refer to as "the Illinois system," six men pressed Casey face down on the floor. One man held his head, another his arms, another his legs. Three staffers laid across his back, a procedure that, according to the autopsy report, literally prevented the asthmatic Casey from drawing air into his lungs.

When Casey quit struggling, the staff members released him. By then he was dead, facedown in a pool of his own vomit. An accident, said Cleo Wallace directors--their staff had used the restraint for years with only minor injuries to staff or patients. An accident, said the Jefferson County Coroner's office.

Last month, after a seven-week investigation, the Jefferson County District Attorney's office ruled that insufficient evidence existed to bring charges of criminally negligent homicide against the Cleo Wallace employees. That finding officially concluded the criminal probe into Casey Collier's death. But it hasn't ended the questions.

For in addition to raising doubts about the care he received at Cleo Wallace, Casey's death has laid bare a glaring omission in state regulations regarding the use of physical restraint at residential child-and-adolescent-care facilities such as Cleo Wallace.

No requirements mandate that staff at such facilities receive training in the use of physical restraint techniques. State regulations say that "holding shall be the only means of restraining a child," and that discipline may include "gentle physical restraint such as holding." The rules say too that "children shall not be subjected to physical harm or humiliation," and prohibit "cruel and unusual punishments" (including "roughly handling a child"). But those regulations don't explain what "holding" means--and state inspectors apparently have decided that the technique that led to Casey Collier's death didn't qualify as "rough handling."

Rose and Mike Collier say they're incensed about the state's apparent inability to help them. "If they killed Casey like this, they could kill someone else," says Mike Collier, in a voice that keeps pace with his rising anger. "It never leaves my mind. For the past two or three weeks, all I can picture is him laying on the ground, struggling and knowing he's going to die."

"Casey wasn't just thrown away to that place," adds Rose. "Casey had someone to fight for him, and he's dead. What about the children who have no one to fight for them? Casey didn't just die for nothing. He died for a reason. Somebody's going to have to tell us something, sometime."
The Colliers say they want to know why Cleo Wallace staffers found it necessary to manhandle their son. Didn't employees realize they shouldn't lie across the back of an asthmatic? Why didn't they notice that, as they held Casey down, he was choking on his own vomit? And why didn't staffers realize, in time to save his life, that the young man they continued to press against the floor had stopped breathing?

Casey's tragic death capped for his parents a series of tragedies that began the day they adopted him. For if the Colliers had known the sad truth about Casey and his biological mother--facts that would not come to light until almost ten years after he'd come to live with them--they might never have brought him home in the first place.

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Karen Bowers