Girl, 15, found dead at detention facility

Apparent suicide puts attention on delay in prevention programs

March 16, 2002|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

A 15-year-old girl in state custody for petty property crimes was found hanging by her shoelaces from a bottom bunk while her roommate was reading on the bed above, authorities said yesterday.

The girl was discovered about 8:30 p.m. Thursday in her room at the Thomas J. S. Waxter Children's Center in Laurel, said Lee Towers, spokesman for Maryland's Department of Juvenile Justice, which runs the facility.

State police are investigating whether the girl, from Montgomery County, committed suicide.

Nevertheless, the death has brought to light the department's sluggishness in starting suicide prevention and screening programs.

State employees outside the juvenile justice agency recommended more than a year ago that such programs be developed. The department agreed more than 10 months later to create the programs but has yet to train its employees to conduct the screenings.

Towers said the training began within the past several weeks and is progressing slowly.

But he said the girl who died, who was not identified, had been seen routinely by a psychiatrist because she had been prescribed medication. Her visits with the doctor included suicide assessments, Towers said.

The girl gave staff members no indication that she would need to be watched carefully for possible suicide attempts, Towers said.

"This caught them totally, totally by surprise," he said. "She was laughing and acting happy right before she went in her room at 7:30."

Waxter is the only facility in Maryland to which girls are committed for juvenile crimes. Its designed capacity is 91, and on Thursday it held 86 girls, some nonviolent, some violent.

Sources said the girl who died was one of 15 teens in the "Nurturing Impact Accountability" program, in which they are locked up for 30 to 90 days. Judges often order juveniles to such programs to try to prevent them from progressing from relatively minor crimes to more serious offenses.

The girl had been referred to the juvenile justice agency at least twice, the sources said, for minor property crimes such as vandalism and shoplifting.

She had completed more than 60 days of a 90-day program.

On Thursday, as a nightly routine, the girls were sent to their rooms at 7:30 to await their turn to shower, Towers said.

The girls usually take advantage of the time to read or write in journals. Instead, the girl used a coat to shield herself from anyone peering in the narrow window of her room.

While sitting on the lower bunk bed, the girl wrapped a shoelace around her neck, covered it with a bandanna, tied the shoelace to the top bunk - where her roommate was reading - and leaned forward, Towers said. He stressed that the investigation is continuing.

The roommate was apparently unaware of what was happening, he said.

Two staff members who entered the room to tell the girls it was time for their showers found the girl sitting on the edge of the bunk with no pulse. They removed the shoelace and began cardiopulmonary resuscitation, Towers said.

The girl was transported to Greater Laurel Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

Counselors were talking yesterday with staff members, who were "all taking it very hard," Towers said.

As early as Feb. 6, 2001, an inspector from the state's Office of the Independent Monitor, which conducts unannounced visits to juvenile justice facilities, listed among its major findings that the Waxter center lacked a suicide prevention plan.

The monitor broadened the criticism to the entire department for not having a suicide prevention plan, although more than half of the teens committed to the department suffer from mental illness or drug and alcohol problems.

The Juvenile Justice Department "does not have a comprehensive suicide screening and assessment process in place for youth admitted to DJJ facilities," the report found. "Youth must be screened and assessed for suicide risk upon intake. In addition, a suicide prevention program for youth while in residential care must be in place and practiced."

Juvenile justice officials and the monitor's office did not agree on a suicide prevention plan until early December.

On Dec. 18, they agreed that the Johns Hopkins University would develop a screening and assessment plan for all teens who enter juvenile justice facilities.

"That's the goal, but we're not there," Towers said. "There are plenty of reasons not everybody has been trained to do the screenings."

Among the challenges, he said, are the turnover among employees and the need for coverage 24 hours a day - which makes it difficult to schedule the training.

He said he did not know when the training would be completed.

Sun staff writer Laura Cadiz contributed to this article.

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