Current and former staff at Adobe Mountain School in North Phoenix tell New Times the May 25 death of a boy in custody was a suicide — breaking a seven-year, suicide-free streak for the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections.
And a former ADJC inmate who roomed briefly with the boy who died says he's not at all surprised that his acquaintance took his own life, given both his behavior and the conditions in which he was placed.
Last week, an ADJC spokeswoman said the agency was not commenting on the case beyond what little was said the day after the boy's death, but she said that Director Michael Branham may release more information in the next few days.
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New Times is not releasing the name of the boy who died because ADJC has not confirmed whether his family has been informed. The 17-year-old boy who knew him is also not named in this story because he still is on parole and fears that giving his name would hurt his chances with work and school. Juvenile court records are not public.
According to a staff member in the Adobe Mountain housing unit Crossroads, the boy was found dead by the unit's morning staff with a plastic bag over his head and a blanket over that. The staff member and other Adobe Mountain personnel say the boy had been dead for quite some time, leading to questions about whether department policy requiring frequent welfare checks was followed.
The former roommate describes the deceased boy as overweight with "hair to his nose," lots of bumps and cuts on his arms, and a high-pitched voice. Staffers say the boy was moved to Crossroads, a unit for violent kids, from Triumph, the mental health unit, after he assaulted a teacher.
That could have led to his suicide, the former inmate says.
"I have a very strong reason why [he] had killed himself. Because he was moved to unit Crossroads. You can't put a kid who was in Triumph into an assault unit . . . There are kids who will bully you. They will beat you up," he says.
The former inmate, who was released from ADJC late last year, says it was clear that the boy was seriously mentally ill — something more aggressive kids tend to make fun of.
"You kind of look down upon Triumph because it's a mental health unit; you're like, these kids are retards."
The former inmate recalls that he first encountered the boy last July.
"When I first seen him, I seen him in the cafeteria," he says. "He would freak out and hit the floor and start screaming . . . The staff would restrain him, and he would say, 'Yeah, hurt me.' It was weird. I just thought he was kind of crazy."
Kids threaten suicide all the time, the former inmate says (he admits he did, too, so he could get a break from school), but he says he knew this kid meant it. The two were roommates for a week.
"Me and him used to talk; we would talk. He would tell me things about his mom and things when he was little. His dad lost his job, and then his mom didn't have a job, and his brother was the only one working. He would tell me, like, he couldn't deal with life."
The former inmate says cutting was common when he was at Adobe Mountain. Not at Durango, the county juvenile facility, where he'd been previously — there, you couldn't find anything to cut with. But kids at Adobe Mountain had easy access, he says, to staples and pieces of Plexiglas. The boy made bloody streaks on his arms with a paper clip, the former inmate says.
And one day, "I came back to my room — I was in the Boy Scouts in there; I had come back to the unit — my room was all trashed. Everything was thrown everywhere."
The boy was sitting with his head on his knees, crying. The former inmate called for staff, and the boy told them to "fuck off," and they took him to Separation, the solitary confinement unit.
After that, the boy was placed with a new roommate.
But the former inmate kept watching.
"There are a lot of blind spots in the units that the cameras don't catch," he says, so staff never saw the boy getting hit in the bathroom while he was trying to brush his teeth or getting "punked" for his snack.
"I could see how stressful he was already and how scared he was . . . All he wanted to do was get away from everything."
Anyone watching the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections knew it was only a matter of time before tragedy struck. Trouble is, no one's really watching.
The agency is under-funded and overwhelmed. Its own officials estimate that as many as 30 percent of its inmates are seriously mentally ill, and last year, New Times wrote extensively about suicidal behavior among the teenage population.
This is not a new challenge. In the past three decades, ADJC has twice been under federal scrutiny for human rights abuses. Most recently, in 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation under CRIPA, the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, after a New Times investigative series and a string of suicides drew attention to an agency few in the state even know exists.
Lately, ADJC has been in daily headlines, as Governor Jan Brewer and the state Legislature tried to move financial responsibility for these kids (most of whom are not violent — the most violent juvenile offenders wind up in adult court) to the counties. That didn't happen; the counties and state are still negotiating about what will take place next year.
One thing's for sure: Someone had better increase funding for mental health treatment for these kids.
The federal government washed its hands of Arizona years ago, wrapping up its investigation and subsequent oversight. In early 2009, the Arizona Republic reported on the findings of a state audit, which found that there had been no successful suicide attempts at an ADJC facility since 2003.
But no one bothered to report how close some of the calls were. That was the subject of New Times' December story.
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The May 25 death is under joint investigation by the Department of Public Safety, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, and the Department of Juvenile Corrections, ADJC spokeswoman Laura Dillingham told New Times on May 26.
Dillingham refused to respond to questions regarding whether the incident was possibly a suicide. She said department policy calls for welfare checks every 15 minutes through the night and said the checks were, in fact, completed in this situation. She said the children's faces cannot be kept covered, raising questions about whether the checks were done correctly.
Several days before the boy's death, a youth corrections officer at Adobe Mountain School took his own life. Staff report that the agency tried to keep the news "hush, hush" and did not offer counseling to the kids, who ultimately heard through the grapevine what had happened. It's unknown whether the officer's death had anything to do with the boy's death.
Following the boy's death, Dillingham said, counseling was provided to staff and inmates at Adobe Mountain.