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The stories of abuse and anguish told by former employees, former residents and parents of residents paint a frightening picture of what has taken place over the past decade at the Aurora Plains Academy intensive youth treatment facility in Plankinton, S.D.
Parents remain outraged at how their vulnerable children were hurt and humiliated at the private facility that is overseen by the state of South Dakota. Past residents, now adults, are still traumatized after being bullied, abused or injured. And former employees still shudder when recalling the mistreatment of youths who were at the facility to receive help for a variety of psychological, sexual or substance disorders.
Their recollections provide a window into Aurora Plains that would otherwise be shrouded by South Dakota’s restrictive public-records policies and an unwillingness by officials from the facility or its owner, Wisconsin-based Clinicare Corp., to provide News Watch with an interview or tour of the facility.
When those with first-hand knowledge of Aurora Plains were interviewed by News Watch, the stories they told all suggested a facility where needlessly rough treatment, inappropriate sexual touching and emotional taunting of residents remain commonplace. Here are some of their stories.
Lauren Schroeder’s son, then 12, spent about five months in Aurora Plains in 2014-15 on a voluntary commitment and during each monthly visit, she noticed his mental and physical condition had worsened.
Academy officials said her son routinely acted out and had been physically restrained as a result. In his short stay at the academy, her son was put on strong anti-psychotic medications including Haldol and Lamictal.
“They think he has this and they think he has that, but they weren’t doing any diagnostic tests; they were just putting him on a boatload of meds,” Schroeder said.
Yet the physical restraints continued. During one visit, Schroeder noticed her son had dried blood under his nose and all over his shirt. Her son told her that a Therapeutic Support Staff member at the academy had grabbed the back of his head and smashed his face into a cinderblock wall.
She complained, she said, but no one seemed to listen or take her seriously.
“It started getting worse on each visit,” she said. “He was losing weight, he was gaunt, and he was miserable.”
As she prepared to leave after visits, her son would break down and sob.
Schroeder said that when she called Aurora Plains, supervisors and officials she spoke with were dismissive and “snotty.”
About five months into her son’s stay, she was denied the right to speak to him by phone. The next day, she drove to Plankinton to pull her son from the academy. When he lifted his shirt, she saw rug burns and significant fresh bruising and partially healed bruises about his torso and limbs.
She said she filed a complaint with the sheriff’s office and twice left messages for the local state’s attorney, John Steele. But she said that to her knowledge, no investigative action was taken.
Since then, Schroeder has spoken to other parents and former residents of the academy and heard stories similar to that of her son.
“A lot of the staff members there are absolutely horrible to the kids,” she said. “Physically abusive, mentally and emotionally abusive.”
Jessica Lee, now 24, was a resident of Aurora Plains for two years in her teens and was both a witness to and victim of abuse. Lee said residents who bothered or bugged academy employees for any reason were sometimes thrown to the ground or roughly restrained despite state regulations that allow for physical restraint only to prevent residents from hurting themselves or others.
“Sometimes, I would just be sitting there, but not listening and not complying with orders, and I wouldn’t go to chair time and I would be put in a restraint,” Lee said.
A few employees, often those serving in the role of Therapeutic Support Staff, were especially rough on her, Lee said.
A couple employees had bad reputations and bad tempers, Lee said. One male staff member “would slam me against the wall and on the floor, and I would get carpet burns.”
One employee frequently pinched Lee’s breasts to the point of bruising, she said.
Lee said she once saw a young girl suffer a gash on her chin after she was thrown to the ground and, despite needing stitches the next day, was never interviewed about what happened by academy management or the state. “The whole chin-splitting thing, there was blood everywhere and there was no investigation that we knew of.”
Lee, now a mother of two, said there were good people at the academy who stood up for residents who were bullied. But, she said, she still struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder from her time at Aurora Plains and has had a hard time finding stability in her life since her release. “It’s touch and go,” she said. “I still deal with the PTSD from being there and with my own mental issues.”
Jeff Gortmaker was a Youth Development Specialist at the academy for about six years from 2005 to roughly 2011.
Gortmaker said he enjoyed helping children improve their lives but that the academy was a tough place to work. He said he never received a pay raise during his employment and would frequently be required to work overtime shifts that lasted up to 14 hours, often on weekends.
Gortmaker said staff turnover was extremely high and that as a result, the resident-to-staff ratio that was supposed to be a maximum of four or six to one was often 12 to one or higher. He said he once worked 28 straight days without a break.
Echoing reports from other former employees, Gortmaker said the management structure at the academy is one of favoritism that allows overly rough employees to harm residents with near impunity. Employees who saw inappropriate behaviors or violations of policy were discouraged from reporting them, Gortmaker said. He said it was sometimes necessary to restrain a resident to protect them or others, but that a few academy employees were known for needlessly rough restraint of residents.
“A lot of kids were hurt by these certain staffers who restrained them too hard,” Gortmaker said. “There’s ways of being gentle and there’s ways of being rough. You can tighten up and make it hurt, and you can not tighten too much so it doesn’t hurt. Certain staff would tighten up to make it hurt.”
After she was picked up and body-slammed to the floor by an Aurora Plains employee, LaDawn Bruguier said an infected welt formed above her eye and swelled so large she couldn’t see. When she complained, an academy nurse offered her Tylenol, she said.
“They wouldn’t even give me an ice pack,” she said.
Bruguier was 14 when she was sent to Aurora Plains in 2010, where she stayed about two years.
Bruguier, who had been abused as a child, acknowledges that she responded with anger when confronted by employees over minor issues or when they denied her requests to speak to her grandmother, whom she considered her mother.
“They abused their power and they felt like they could do anything to us,” she said.
Bruguier, now 23, said she was once pushed from a set of stairs onto the ground and her pants fell down in front of residents and staff. She severely injured her knee, but the worst part was the humiliation.
“The staff, men and women, they were pointing at me and laughing and saying, ‘Ewww,’” Bruguier said. “At one point, it made me want to find a piece of glass outside and slash my throat with it.”
When Bruguier said she filed a complaint over a violent restraint, she was told that Child Protective Services within the state Department of Social Services was made aware. Nothing ever came of her complaint, she said. “They would tell me, ‘Quit faking, just quit faking it.’”
Bruguier said she was placed on a high dose of Clozoril, a strong medication used to treat severe schizophrenia, that made her physically ill and mentally unstable. The drug, she said, turned her into someone she didn’t recognize and made life in the academy terrifying.
When she could no longer handle the stress and abuse, Bruguier said she went on a hunger strike and refused to take her medications. Eventually, she said, academy staff kicked her out of the facility.
In addition to emotional scars that still linger, Bruguier said she can still feel scarring near her eye and has almost constant pain in her knee that was injured on the stairs.
“They find ways to anger the residents so they can restrain them,” Bruguier said. “It’s a torture academy because of what they do there.”
Brittany Dozark worked in the female sex-offender unit at Aurora Plains for two years in the late 2000s and early 2010s. She said she always tried to remember that even though the youths had been placed there as offenders, almost all had also been offended against. She remembered one resident who had been abused and left chained to a radiator for hours.
“They never received proper treatment, so they thought it was OK to do to someone else what happened to them,” she said of many academy residents.
Remaining cognizant of residents’ troubled pasts helped her show compassion and remain empathetic to their situation and need for support and treatment, said Dozark, who is now in her 30s and living in Sioux Falls.
Yet not all staff members approached the residents with that level of understanding, Dozark said. Some academy employees on the therapeutic-support staff would begin the process of “breaking down” the residents the moment they arrived. They would cut the residents off from their families, taunt residents, punish them often, and react physically to any resident who did not comply with a command, Dozark said.
Protection of abusive employees by supervisors allowed aggressive or borderline interactions with residents to continue, Dozark said.
Dozark recalled one boy who became agitated during movie time because his relative had recently died in a fire and he was not allowed to leave to attend the funeral.
She took him to the “reflection room” and allowed the boy to calm down. After a while, a TSS employee arrived, slammed the door behind him and began to shout at the boy. When the boy reacted by punching a wall, the TSS employee slammed him onto the floor and crushed him with his weight, she said. News Watch has confirmed her version of events with the former resident.
“To me, it was excessive because he could have controlled him with a hold and kept him standing up, but instead now he’s on his face and [the staffer is lying] on top of him,” she said.
At the end of her shift, she filled out an incident report. Later that night, a supervisor called and told her the report was inaccurate and that he would rewrite it. “The next day I got there and the incident report was in my mailbox for me to sign off on, but it was exaggerated and not truthful.”
Dozark said she was eventually fired from Aurora Plains after pushing back against a supervisor’s orders. From her experiences and discussions with other employees, she remains convinced that abusive behavior is continuing at the facility. “They’re too quick to put their hands on a resident instead of de-escalating things,” she said. “And when they do restrain, it’s just excessive.”
Barb Swett is the mother of a foster son who has had a long, hard road through the juvenile justice and treatment systems in South Dakota, including a 14-month stint at Aurora Plains.
Now that her son is away from the academy, he has shared with his mother stories of some troubling incidents. For instance, he told her he witnessed another resident suffer a broken arm from a harsh restraint and was also aggressively restrained himself by the same employee.
“He told me he said a swear word and this guy ran at him, tackled him and put him on the ground immediately,” Swett said.
Swett said her son manipulated the staff at Aurora Plains into thinking he was a model resident, after which he was simply housed and not treated.
“I looked at it as though they never helped him, but they enabled him to manipulate them,” said Swett. “What a way to take care of kids who are troubled.”
Swett said she often had a bad feeling when she visited the academy that has barbed wire atop its fences and a water tower on site. “Aurora Plains was like a dungeon when you go there, dark and bleak and oppressive,” she said. “You never saw other kids; it was just very dark and old.”
In the five years Thai Le worked as a counselor at Aurora Plains, one violent incident stands out.
Le, a youth-development specialist from 2013 to 2018, said he sometimes saw academy employees take residents to the ground for unwarranted reasons.
But the worst thing, Le said, took place one day when he was alone on a boys’ unit and two male residents began to fight and ended up on the floor. Le said he was able to separate the two and things had mostly calmed down when other employees finally arrived to help.
“One of the staff grabbed one of the kids I had, a kid that was calmed down,” Le recalled. “He left the unit doorway, and I heard screaming like this kid is begging. He was getting his butt kicked and screaming in pain.”
The next day, Le said, the resident was discovered to have broken bones in his shoulder. “It was a big mess, because the kid slept there that night, and they didn’t even take him to the hospital until the next day. He was complaining all night because he slept on a broken shoulder.”
Le, who now works at a different youth treatment facility near Mitchell, said some staff who are overly aggressive with residents are protected from consequences because “a lot of these guys, the clinical director included, they’re all buddies and they all go hunting together.”
Le, 28, said he frequently worked 14-hour shifts at Aurora Plains that left him exhausted and unable to be as effective as he would have liked. He said he was paid $12.75 an hour to start and $14 an hour when he left five years later. He said he sometimes had responsibility over 18 residents at one time.
“They put me in a real unsafe situation,” Le said. “If something popped up, how would I control that?”
During his tenure at Aurora Plains, Le said he probably restrained residents 50 to 100 times and never caused an injury. But he said some employees routinely used over-aggressive restraints that led to resident injuries.
Le said one employee in particular is known for rough and unnecessary physical restraints of residents. “This one guy, he uses more force than necessary, and he’s a big dude and these kids are like 90 pounds,” Le said. “With him, it’s restraint, restraint, restraint, and that’s when kids end up getting carpet burns, bruises and bumps.”
Charles Isaac worked at Aurora Plains for seven years and said residents were generally treated well and that most employees cared about them.
Isaac did see some overly aggressive restraints and some that came about faster than rules that require several attempts at de-escalation before engaging in physical restraint.
Isaac also had occasional concerns over how the facility was managed amid a culture of whitewashing of incidents that became physical, which he said has allowed abusive employees to remain on staff. That culture, he said, increased the likelihood that residents who needed medical treatment may not get it in a timely manner.
Isaac recalled an incident in which a plus-size Native American girl who was misbehaving seriously injured her arm, which became swollen and inflamed. “They didn’t want to take her for an X-ray because she was having behavior issues at the time,” Isaac said. “I said they should take her and they just said ‘No.’”
Isaac said he felt that he and most other staff members helped residents on their path of recovery, but that a few employees give the place a bad reputation. “For the most part, I think it is safe and they want to help kids out to make a positive change in their lives,” he said. “But there are some problem people there.”
Ever since her son, Ender, was pulled from a chair, slammed to the ground and pinned face-first on the floor just for making noise, Emily Mitchell has been an outspoken critic of Aurora Plains Academy and the abuse of children there.
Ender was 10 years old in February 2013 when he was roughed up by an Aurora Plains employee whose physical stature dwarfed that of the waifish boy whose clothes at the academy were two sizes too big.
Mitchell has looked out for Ender throughout a series of treatment programs in a handful of states, and she refused to stay quiet when she learned of the abuse her son endured.
Criminal charges were filed and later dropped against the academy employee, but Mitchell has never stopped trying to expose what she says is the systematic mistreatment of children at the academy.
“They are subjected to a massive amount of verbal, sexual and emotional abuse in that place,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said her son was sexually abused by other boys at the academy and that staff did little to protect him. She said her visits and phone calls with her son were highly restricted, especially after she became an outward critic of the abuse he suffered and treatments he received, including heavy use of psychiatric medications. The academy clinical director once aided a failed attempt to have Mitchell’s parental rights over her son terminated.
Mitchell, who allowed News Watch to use her son’s name and image, continues to support ongoing treatment for her son, who just turned 17. Together, they are trying to overcome the lingering trauma of Ender’s time at Aurora Plains, but they will never forget what he endured.
“I do think being there made Ender a little crazy,” Mitchell said. “Our kids don’t deserve to be treated so badly.”
According to those who were at Aurora Plains at the same time as Tawny Rockwood, the Native American teen became well known at the academy for her willingness to stand up to staff who bullied her and for protecting other girls in her dorm.
Rockwood spent about 14 months at the academy during her late teens in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Rockwood is now dead, having been shot in the head at age 25 and left in an apartment in Andover that was set ablaze in February 2018. Her boyfriend at the time was convicted of her murder, which left her two daughters without a mother.
Before the murder, however, Rockwood shared her experiences at Aurora Plains with a friend during a videotaped conversation. News Watch has reviewed the video and is sharing its contents.
Rockwood said in the video that during her first few days at Aurora Plains, she cut her finger and was driven off campus by two male employees. On the return trip from the clinic, Rockwood said one employee grabbed her thigh and touched the area of her genitalia. Rockwood said she complained and was told by the other employee that a report would be filed, though she was unsure if any action was taken.
The only tangible result of reporting the incident, according to Rockwood, was that the employee had it out for her after that. “Basically, I became a target, as though I was someone he wanted to hurt every time he came across me, verbally or physically,” Rockwood said.
During her stay, Rockwood said she suffered a dislocated shoulder, rug burns on her face and torso, bruises on her shoulders and lacerations on her face after being dragged across concrete. She recalls being held so tightly she couldn’t breathe. Rockwood said the employee told his superiors that she caused the injuries to herself to get him into trouble.
Rockwood said she was frequently overmedicated and dopey while at the academy and was often restrained because she didn’t comply with staff orders. She said that staff members who felt sorry for her would speak up but that some who did were fired. “Everything that went on had nothing to do with healing you or showing you a better way of living,” she said. “It was keeping you at a standstill or making you worse. There was no justice whatsoever.”
Kevin Gerber, 23, can’t shake the memories of how he and other residents were not only physically mistreated but also belittled and humiliated by some employees of Aurora Plains.
Gerber spent two years in the academy in the late 2010s and was puzzled about why staff were so aggressive toward residents who may have misbehaved but clearly were not a physical threat to themselves or others. By regulation, physical restraints should only be used to protect residents from hurting themselves or others, not for discipline or retribution.
“If you’re trying to prevent them from hurting other people or themselves, and you’re taking them down to the ground really hard, that doesn’t make any sense to me,” Gerber said. “I think they take pleasure in restraining kids and taking them to the ground.”
He said some employees seemed to enjoy their authority and power but also were upset they had to work long hours for low pay. “A lot of the TSS staff tended to antagonize us after a situation was over, or they’d bring it up later to taunt us into reacting,” he said.
Gerber said the residents all quickly learned that complaining to case workers with the state Child Protective Services or to academy supervisors was a waste of time. “Even if you filed a complaint, it didn’t matter because they would just tell you that you made it up to get back at them,” he said.
State case workers and inspectors turned a deaf ear to resident complaints in most cases, Gerber said. “Everybody just passed us off because supposedly it’s the strictest treatment facility in South Dakota, so everybody assumes the residents there are the worst of the worst and deserve what they get.”
Nick Bertrand said he felt overmedicated during most of his roughly two-year stay at Aurora Plains during the late 2000s. He recalls being prescribed sleep aids such as Ambien and Lunesta and anti-psychotic drugs including Seroquel and Lithium. “I was constantly drugged up, and a staff member sometimes had to pick me up and carry me to bed,” Bertrand said. “They just kept telling me I needed it.”
If residents pushed back about their meds or refused to take them, they could be punished by being forced to sit alone and fill out “a packet” of busy work or be put in solitary confinement for up to a week. “You’d be in there for days and not have anyone to talk to or anything to do, and as a kid that’s pretty hard,” he said. “I don’t feel like it did anything but make me psychotic.”
Bertrand said he was aggressively restrained a few times during his stay, but that he witnessed numerous other examples of excessive force and intimidation.
“These kids come from broken, broken paths and a lot of kids were victims themselves,” Bertrand said. “It was really sad what they went through, and then we would get snide comments from the staff as they picked on someone. It was honestly really, really terrifying.”
Bertrand remembers one smallish boy who was picked on by staff about his height. “He would never fight back and the staff would just laugh at him,” Bertrand said. “When they wouldn’t let it go, he would just piss his pants. I never really understood that, but after some time, I just kept my head down and did whatever they said.”
The atmosphere could get spooky in the dorms when staffing fell too low, which happened frequently, Bertrand said. “It wasn’t a safe place to be,” he said. “I woke up once in my bed area with another resident choking me.”
Bertrand said he met some truly caring people at the academy, but their positive nature was drowned out by the aggressiveness of other staffers.
“The staff, some of them were pretty ruthless,” Bertrand said. “Kids would get restrained for pretty much nothing.”
Bertrand, 28, is now a father and budding Christian rock musician who continues to work through the emotions he endured while at Aurora Plains. “It’s been a long road, but I found music and friends and family,” he said.
About Bart Pfankuch
Bart Pfankuch, Rapid City, S.D., is an investigative reporter for South Dakota News Watch. A Wisconsin native, he is a former editor of the Rapid City Journal. Bart has spent almost 30 years as a reporter and editor.