Worse Than Ever

Agency insiders say conditions are continuing to deteriorate at ADJC

Another teenager in the care of the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections has tried to kill himself.

On September 21, a boy assigned to the mental health unit at Adobe Mountain School in Phoenix tried to hang himself, ADJC spokesman Steve Meissner confirms.

Although he released a few details on the most recent hanging attempt, Meissner refuses to comment on additional reports coming out of ADJC in recent days: that the boy who tried to hang himself had also jumped from the back of a moving pickup truck in a separate suicide attempt just days earlier, or that another boy recently took a handful of psychotropic drugs prescribed to someone else and then went into convulsions.

Meissner's only response: "We will not violate the privacy of our youth by discussing their case histories with you."

The most recent incidents come as ADJC Director David Gaspar is about to leave the agency. In the last year of his tenure, three boys have committed suicide, from the spring of 2002 to the spring of 2003.

Gaspar is leaving days before the expected release of a yearlong investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into conditions at ADJC -- including mental health conditions.

One current employee who has worked at a high level in the department for more than six years says of conditions at ADJC, "It's worse than I've ever seen it. . . . Kids aren't getting services, kids are hurt."

The employee worries that federal investigators weren't given full access to critical information, despite multiple trips to ADJC facilities.

"There weren't enough eyes," the employee says.

The federal investigation is being conducted by the special litigation unit of DOJ, which enforces the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA). An attorney with the unit first began making inquiries regarding Arizona's juvenile corrections system in the summer of 2001, after a New Times special report revealed poor conditions at ADJC since 1998, when a federal court order monitoring the department was lifted ("Slammed," Amy Silverman, July 5, 2001).

The court order came as a result of a 1987 class-action lawsuit, Johnson v. Upchurch, which stemmed from a case in which a boy was held in solitary confinement for several weeks. Similar situations had arisen in the ensuing four years, New Times reported. The stories included evidence of physical, sexual and verbal abuse of juvenile detainees by staff, inadequate mental health services and instances of kids being kept in detention far longer than their recommended times of stay.

After the first stories came out, the worst prediction came true: A boy successfully hanged himself, in April 2002.

Christopher Camacho was the first child in 14 years to die in the department's custody, but he wasn't the last. He was followed on July 11, when David Horvath hanged himself in his cell at Adobe. And on the morning of Sunday, March 23, Roy Roman Jr. looped a belt around his neck and hanged himself in his cell at Adobe as well.

Litigation against the state is pending in all three cases.

Encanto, ADJC's mental health unit, which is run out of Adobe Mountain, has remained at the center of the controversy. There is a long waiting list for the unit, and once there it's questionable, sources say, as to whether youth are getting the right services.

One former employee, Tammy Herrington, who was the supervisor of the mental health unit for boys when she quit earlier this year, tells New Times that conditions at Encanto were far worse when she left than when she got there in August 2000.

"When I left there, I said, Something bad is going to happen in that unit. There is going to be a suicide attempt in that unit, and I'm not going to be around for it,'" Herrington says.

"I had no voice when I was there," she adds. The kids "weren't getting the mental health treatment that they should be getting. Ethically and morally, I couldn't sit back and watch it happen anymore."

Oddly, she contends, the three successful suicides at Adobe Mountain are partly to blame for the deterioration of services. Before the suicides, Herrington says, there was some structure to the programming. Kids got one-on-one counseling.

"It started to go downhill after that first suicide. [Administrators and staff] were just reacting to the suicide and trying to cover their asses. And it got worse and worse and worse. What I know about kids . . . that have mental health diagnoses, they need extreme structure. I'm not saying they need to be locked in their rooms, but they need something to do."

Instead, she says, the kids were left to watch television and play cards. Because staff was so busy filling out the additional paperwork required by the department for data collection purposes, there was no time for one-on-one counseling.

Much was done to try to prevent future suicide attempts -- but it was the wrong approach, Herrington says.

"They did a lot of Band-Aid-type stuff, which drove me crazy," she says, including spending a lot of money to suicide-proof the cells.

Herrington says she repeatedly asked, "What are we doing about the issues that the kids have, about why they are committing suicide?" -- and got no answers.

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