Did OJJDP Bury Suicide Report?

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The author of a recently published report on suicides in juvenile facilities says that, despite the major findings in the study, the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) sat on it for five years.

The National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA) received about $75,000 to produce Characteristics of Juvenile Suicide in Confinement. Lindsay Hayes, a project director for the NCIA, said he handed in the report during the winter of 2004. OJJDP finally published the study and made it available on its website last month.

“I just don’t know why they put the kibosh on it,” Hayes said.

Among other things, the study found that:

• More than one-third of the 110 suicides from 1995 to 1999 were not known to the supervising or licensing state agency.

• More than half of suicides at juvenile detention centers occurred within six days of a juvenile’s commitment to the facility.

• Only 35 percent of youths who committed suicide while in detention had received a mental health assessment before the suicide.

• Many of the suicides discovered during the research were not known to child advocacy agencies, and researchers learned about nearly one-sixth of the deaths through newspaper articles and conversations, despite surveys being 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,” Hayes 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.”

In an interview, Hayes said he believes the number of suicides in confinement was higher than the 110 cases the study identified, even though that number is higher than any estimate previously published by OJJDP. 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.

Hayes and his staff were able to obtain detailed information on about 79 of the 110 deaths. Forty-two percent of those 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 Light of Day

Hayes recalled a strange timeline that wavered between support and indifference beginning in the spring of 2004. Because the issue was so important, Hayes said, OJJDP allowed NCIA to post an unofficial version of the study on its website. Shortly thereafter, he met with J. Robert Flores, then the OJJDP administrator.

“He said they were going to make it a bulletin, publish the full report and fast-track it,” Hayes said. “But then, [the report] just sat there.”

Hayes said he called regularly to check on the report. As recent consulting jobs with juvenile facilities made him realize how preventable many suicides were, he said he became “so infuriated” that in the summer of 2008, he “wrote a fairly nasty letter” to Flores.

A day or two later, Hayes got an e-mail from OJJDP staff saying the study had been approved and was in the publication stage, with an expected release date of 2008.

Then last December, Hayes said, he got an e-mail saying the study was no longer approved. But in January, after Flores left the agency, Hayes was told by OJJDP that the publication would be released, five years after its submission. The study bears the name of Acting Administrator Jeff Slowikowski and a 2009 date. But officials have said that Flores actually approved the publication.

The report is at http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/214434.pdf.