A study of juveniles who committed suicide while in confinement - first contracted by the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in 1999, completed five years later but only released yesterday - shows that more than a third of the 110 suicide deaths that occurred between 1995 and 1999 were not known to the supervising or licensing state agency.
[The study's author has criticized OJJDP for sitting on the report; click here for that story.]
In addition, many of the suicides were not known to child advocacy agencies and nearly a sixth of the deaths were learned about through newspaper articles and conversation, despite surveys sent to almost 4,000 public and private juvenile facilities.
"The fact that any suicide occurring within a juvenile facility throughout the United States could remain outside the purview of a regulatory agency should be cause for great concern within the juvenile justice community," the study's author, Lindsey M. Hayes, project director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, wrote in his report.
"At a minimum, each death within a juvenile facility should be accounted for, comprehensively reviewed, and provisions made for appropriate corrective action." Hayes said.
He said he was fairly certain that the number of suicides in confinement was higher than the 110 instances the study identified, which is higher than any estimate previously published by OJJDP.
"I don't think it's a substantially higher number than what we found, but it is definitely more," Hayes said.
The uncertainty is largely due to the fact that more than two-thirds of private facilities did not respond to survey requests. Requests for information on those facilities that Hayes and his staff made to state agencies often yielded no information.
"Private facilities are a very closed group," Hayes said. "They don't have to respond to us. But they should certainly be reporting to state agencies."
Hayes and his staff were able only to obtain detailed information about 79 of the 110 deaths. Forty-two percent of these occurred in training schools and other secure facilities, 37 percent in detention centers, 15 percent in residential treatment centers and 6 percent in reception or diagnostic centers. More than two-thirds of the victims were white, 11 percent were African American and 6 percent were Hispanic. The victims ranged in age from 12 to 20, though more than 70 percent of the victims were between the ages of 15 and 17.
Unlike confined adult suicide victims - who most often commit suicide while in detention, often within hours of their arrest - two-thirds of the juvenile suicide victims were committed at the time of their deaths. The suicides were fairly evenly distributed across all the months and all the days, and fairly evenly distributed over a 12-month period after confinement.
An exception was detention centers. More than half of juveniles who killed themselves in detention did so in the first six days. Only 35 percent of them had received a mental health assessment at the time of their death.
"The same kids are entering from the community, to detention centers, then to state correctional facilities," Hayes said. But mental health services available at state commitment facilities are often far superior than those available at detention centers, he said.
The 79 deaths occurred at a total of 70 juvenile facilities. Sixty-five had a single suicide, three had two suicides each, one facility had three suicides and an unidentified facility had five suicides. The majority of suicides occurred at facilities that were at or under capacity. And 70 percent of suicide victims had been assessed by a qualified mental health professional, through an exam separate from the intake screening. Only 17 percent of the victims were on suicide watch at the time of their deaths.
About one-third of the 79 victims were confined because of status or public order offenses of probation violations, and property and person offenses were about one-third each. Only 3 percent were confined on drug charges. Most of the victims had prior offenses (79 percent); most of those offenses were of a nonviolent nature, with property offenses being the most common (50 percent).
But 71 percent of the suicides occurred during waking hours (6 a.m. to 9 p.m.); half occurred between 6 p.m. and midnight. All but one of the victims died by hanging, most often using bedding. (The lone exception escaped from confinement and ran into the path of a train.) Three-quarters were assigned to a single occupancy room.
The report recommends that juvenile facilities have written suicide prevention policies, and create and maintain effective training programs.
Nancy Lewis contributed to this story.