Gross Negligence?

The family of a boy who died in the custody of the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections has filed a claim against the state for $20 million.

Christopher Camacho, 15, was found hanging from a sheet in his cell at Adobe Mountain School in north Phoenix on April 11. It is unknown whether he committed suicide intentionally or accidentally asphyxiated himself. In any case, Christopher's parents, Joseph Camacho and Tammy Price, contend that the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections (ADJC) denied their son his civil rights and created conditions that led to his death.

"Pending litigation is not something we choose to comment about," says ADJC spokesman Steve Meissner.

Suicide has been a problem at ADJC facilities in recent months. On Saturday, October 12, a 16-year-old boy at Eagle Point School in Buckeye attempted to hang himself with a bedsheet in his room. The boy was in critical condition at an intensive care unit at a Phoenix hospital, Meissner said Monday.

In July, another boy committed suicide by hanging, three months after Christopher Camacho's death.

In an eight-page letter obtained by New Times, the Camacho family's attorney, Barbara Cerepanya, enumerates her charges of gross negligence:

*Christopher first learned to hang himself for pleasure from other boys at ADJC, a practice that, according to the state's own internal investigation, was rampant.

*Christopher and other boys in his cottage, Unit Freedom, had complained verbally and in writing about the potential sexual misconduct of a staff member. Nothing was done.

"The boys felt uncomfortable about the way he looked at them, the way he touched them and invaded their personal space, arguably predatory grooming behavior that required serious address," Cerepanya writes.

*Christopher and other children were routinely locked in their rooms because of staff shortages, and "on occasion denied showers, telephone calls, programming, therapy, recreation and free time due only to severe staffing shortages on the unit and in the agency."

*On the evening Christopher died, Unit Freedom was severely understaffed, and Christopher was accidentally assigned to a single room. That evening, Christopher asked to be placed in the Separation Unit, where he might have received counseling, and was denied. Although he was clearly distraught after being accused of possessing contraband, "he was left alone and unsupervised in a room with his fears, concerns, and feelings of hopelessness."

*Throughout his seven months at ADJC, the boy did not receive appropriate psychological counseling or anger-management counseling.

"Though Christopher was prescribed Prozac, he told staff that it was ineffective and the psychiatrist acknowledged concern about it's propriety in his case. Nevertheless, nothing was done to change or address the issue," Cerepanya writes.

*Although Unit Freedom is described as offering specialized treatment for drug abuse -- something ordered by the court for Christopher -- it offers nothing more than any other ADJC unit.

*Christopher was denied a proper education, and he was forced to go without glasses for months, waiting for them to be repaired.

*Price and Camacho were not told about many of Christopher's problems at ADJC.

"Had ADJC partnered in good faith with Christopher's parents, they may have been able to provide him with the support he needed to stay alive," Cerepanya writes.

In addition to the $20 million, Camacho and Price are demanding that the state employees responsible for creating the conditions that led to Christopher's death be held accountable, including possible criminal charges. They also want the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections to be forced to comply with state and federal laws, the agency's own policies and procedures, and the rules set forth in a federal court order stemming from a class-action lawsuit in which children were abused in ADJC's care.

In a series of articles over the past two years ("Slammed," Amy Silverman), New Times has detailed abuses at ADJC since the federal court order was lifted in 1998. Although ADJC officials insist that they are continuing to follow the court order, violations abound: Children are regularly locked in solitary confinement for days or even weeks, mental health care is almost nonexistent, children abuse each other and are abused by staff, educational services are subpar, staffing levels are dangerously low.

On July 11, three months after Christopher Camacho's death, 14-year-old David Horvath also died by hanging. ADJC has not yet released findings from the death investigation.

After the second suicide, Margaret Leon, ADJC's quality assurance specialist, resigned. She told New Times that her own audit had revealed inaccuracies in more than 70 percent of the incident reports filed this summer with a national organization designed to regulate standards at the agency.

New Times recently obtained a document used in a presentation by the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators to ADJC employees, in which Leon's figures are confirmed.

That's not the only outside scrutiny of ADJC.

Earlier this month, investigators with the U.S. Department of Justice made their first visit to Arizona, as part of an ongoing investigation into conditions at ADJC facilities. They reportedly spent the entire four days of the visit at Adobe Mountain, where both Camacho and Horvath died.

"Not much has been said about how things went," says one Adobe Mountain employee. "[The investigators] were scurried from here and there pretty quickly. It's my understanding they spoke mainly to the kids."

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at