CEO of Child Welfare Agency Arrested for Allegedly Choking Autistic 12-Year-Old

The CEO of a child welfare agency was arrested after being accused of putting a child in a chokehold.

Vincent Hillyer, who runs Great Circle Academy in Missouri, was arrested on May 7. A video from March, obtained by KMOV, appears to show him putting a 12-year-old autistic child in a headlock while seated on a couch.

In the video, a staff member appears to want to take the child away from Hillyer, but it seems he or she is ushered away by other staff members.

One staff member appears to try and help Hillyer restrain the child in a safer way, which still looks kind of odd, as the staff member and the man believed to be Hillyer stretch the child out by his arms and legs and hold them in place on the floor. One staff member throws a pillow down next to the group, which they don’t use.

Former employees claim that aggressive behavior from Hillyer towards children at the institute is common, KMOV reported.

“I feel like the children aren’t safe. They take in children and don’t provide the staff with enough training and then when things go wrong, they come and get on the staff,” former employee Joice Valentine told KMOV.

Staff members that reported Hillyer’s behavior were fired, and others didn’t dare to speak out for fear of losing their jobs, KMOV reported.

“We went and talked to the police but they started targeting us because we were the ones who started the initial investigation,” said former Great Circle employee Ricki Simms, via the news outlet.

The 59-year-old CEO of the institute was charged with six counts of first-degree endangering the welfare of a child/creating substantial risk, second-degree attempted endangering the welfare of a child, and one count of assault in the fourth degree.

Hillyer’s bond was set at $205,000.

Hillyers attorney doesn’t think the video provides the proper context.

“He doesn’t choke anybody,” said attorney Joel Schwartz, via KMOV. “Mr. Hillyer acted appropriately in that situation he was sitting with the kid for several minutes, approximately 10-15 minutes the child bit him and he restrained him.”

Schwartz also refutes statements that his staff were not permitted to seek outside help during emergency situations with children.

Schwartz says that staff are to blame for Great Circle’s current troubles.

“In a nutshell someone did something wrong, they were fired for doing something wrong and now they are blaming the CEO, that is not a criminal charge,” Schwartz told KMOV.

Great Circle’s website says the company has campuses, counseling centers, and community-based services all over Missouri, and that they plan to serve 40,000 individuals in 2019.

The organization issued a statement, obtained by KMOV, in response to Hillyer’s arrest:

“Great Circle and the people who work here are fully committed to serving the behavioral health needs of nearly 45,000 children and families each year. Our top priority at all times is the health and well-being of those we exist to serve. Working with young clients who have acute behavioral health needs can often be difficult.

“Today, we became aware of an investigation by the Webster Groves Police Department related to care provided in a small number of circumstances. While we remain confident in the therapeutic approach used in our facilities, as an organization, we will fully cooperate with all of those who are investigating this matter. Given that this is an ongoing law enforcement investigation, we are not able to comment further at this time.”

Great Circle’s board of directors posted another statement on May 8 on Great Circle’s website announcing that Hillyer asked to be placed on administrative leave. Chief Operating Officer Paula Fleming and Chief of Staff John Money are assuming Hillyer’s role in his absence.

According to Hillyer’s LinkedIn profile, he has been the President and CEO of Great Circle for over 26 years. Before that, he was an executive at the Boys & Girls Town of Missouri.