Pleas for treatment ignored, official says

Home where teen killed herself wasn't equipped to handle case, chief says

May 04, 2002|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

State officials repeatedly ignored pleas that a suicidal Baltimore girl be admitted to a treatment facility and instead left her in a Montgomery County group home where she hanged herself, the group home's operator said yesterday.

Treatment centers are generally better equipped than group homes to handle suicidal people.

The girl, 14-year-old Jennifer McLarin, was found hanging from a scarf in her bedroom last month at the Brotherhood and Sisterhood International group home in Wheaton.

Up to three girls at a time are housed at the facility, and three staff members are on duty at all times. McLarin was first sent there in July by the Baltimore City Department of Social Services because of behavior and developmental problems.

Carolyn Kennedy, who runs the group home, said workers realized the girl was suicidal shortly after she arrived at the home. Kennedy said she repeatedly called social services to ask them to remove the girl from the home and place her in a residential treatment center.

"We had told them on many occasions that she belonged in a treatment center," Kennedy said. "We told them we'd do the best we could to keep her safe but that she needed to be elsewhere. We grew to love that girl, but we knew she was better off elsewhere."

Kennedy said the staff was heartbroken over the girl's death.

Treatment centers are more restrictive than group homes and incorporate a higher level of mental health programming. The centers are considered better to handle severely suicidal people because they usually include specific holding areas for those considered at immediate risk.

Sue Fitzsimmons, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, said confidentiality laws prevent her from discussing any specific case her office may be involved in.

She said, however, that children are often temporarily placed in facilities such as group homes until more appropriate treatment slots become available.

The department does not keep statistics on the number of children waiting for services, Fitzsimmons said.

Kennedy said McLarin had threatened suicide numerous times since her arrival in July. Workers at the group home took the threats seriously and sent her at least four times to area hospitals for emergency psychiatric evaluations.

The girl was hospitalized from one week to about a month each time, Kennedy said.

"It was the severity of her problems that had us so concerned," Kennedy said. "She was severely, severely suicidal, and we felt we didn't have the expertise."

Cathy Surace, an attorney specializing in mental health issues for the Maryland Disability Law Center, said she was at a loss to explain why the social services department would not place the girl in a treatment center.

"What I can say is there is a big problem with social service departments around the state in their ability to place children with disabilities in appropriate settings," Surace said.

Slots in certain types of facilities often are simply unavailable, she said.

The state Office of Health Care Quality, which licenses the group home, is investigating the death.

Inspectors from the office had cited the home in October for not having a specific behavior plan in place for McLarin to prevent her from hurting herself.

State documents indicate the reason a plan was not in place was because the group home operators were told during one of the girl's emergency hospitalizations that she would be placed elsewhere when she was discharged.

In fact, the girl was returned to the group home one day before the inspectors arrived and discovered the plan lacking.

A behavior plan, developed by a clinical psychologist, was in place when the girl killed herself, state records indicate.

Kennedy said the girl had been left alone in her bedroom for less than 10 minutes when she killed herself.

"We have always had suicide prevention training," Kennedy said. "This was something far different. Please understand how disturbing it was to hear from a beautiful girl, so young, that she wanted to be in a better place. This is why we wanted help for her."

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