Disturbing Echo

A teen's suicide while in state custody prompts an independent review and a coroner's inquest.

ON THE DAY she decided to kill herself, 17-year-old juvenile offender Angela Miller seemed to have found the right place for it in Echo Glen Children's Center, a state juvenile detention center in the east King County town of Preston.

Last week, Seattle Weekly obtained a report from a state-appointed independent panel of experts—a child psychologist, a state court official, and a state suicide-prevention specialist—that revealed startling new information about Miller's death.

As the questions kept mounting in the case, King County Executive Ron Sims announced last week the county would hold a coroner's inquest into the death later this summer.

The panel of experts revealed the self-destructive Miller was never assessed by a psychiatrist, despite her attempted suicide two months earlier at another state facility, and though she kept glass in her room to mutilate herself, a medical doctor took her off suicide watch at Echo Glen 10 days before her death.

Miller also possessed a hemp necklace that could be made into a handy noose, apparently looped it through a small air vent that was supposed to be suicide-proof, and had partially papered over her window so staffers couldn't see in, says the panel's report. With seemingly precise timing, she hanged herself during room security checks that reportedly were being made every 15 minutes at the 200-unit cottage-style center for young offenders.

When a medical team and staffers responded after she was found hanging from the vent March 1, they forgot to bring an oxygen tank from another building, the panel says. Staffers performed CPR but Miller was in a coma from which she never recovered.

Though the state was aware that 40 percent of the juveniles in its custody today have psychiatric problems, Echo Glen had only a part-time clinical psychiatrist working one day a week and had to concentrate on those with the most acute problems. For those select few, individual sessions averaged just 15 minutes per month. Miller was not among them but was on the waiting list.

Miller's suicide was the second at Echo Glenn in three years and the fourth since the facility opened in the late 1960s (see "An Eerie Echo," SW, April 5). But if this all seems like evidence that the state failed in its mission to protect the teenager in its custody, the new report suggests otherwise.

The three-member outside panel appointed by the state found little fault by the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration (JRA), a division of the Department of Social and Health Services. The panel concluded the staff medical response was appropriate and that Echo Glen "exceeded the standards" for suicide intervention.

However, the panel still seemed puzzled about the method by which Miller died. "It is not clear from the documentation or staff statements if the necklace was used in the hanging, although a thin, dark ligature mark was observed circling her neck," the panel reports.

That question seems key to a death probe. But Cheryl Stephani, JRA assistant secretary, says she's satisfied with the report's thoroughness and recommendations. The suicide is apparently a highly sensitive topic in the department: In an interview with Seattle Weekly, Stephani tape-recorded the session and had a media relations aide sit in.

Stephani says she has no questions about how the suicide happened, but she could not explain why the small, anti-suicide breakaway air vent through which the necklace was apparently looped was able to hold human weight. That is a forensic question for police and others to answer, Stephani says. She adds that the state is more interested in reviewing its policies and procedures.

ECHO GLEN will now have a psychologist on call full time, Stephani says. New intake and room-search procedures are also being reviewed. Stephani says the state Legislature is adding $1.1 million to fund more mental health treatment of juveniles, but that amount will fall far short of the state's needs.Though Miller was slated to be seen by a psychiatrist, Stephani says, the fact that she was not considered an urgent case "gives you an indication of the acute problems we deal with," she says.

State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who pushed for a wider state investigation after reading a Weekly story on the death, says she's "disturbed" by the information revealed in the report. "Residents' lives and well-being have got to have a higher priority than appears to have been the case at Echo Glen," she states.

Miller was in her third month of a 9-month sentence for burglary, convicted of entering a residence in her hometown, Riverside in Okanogan County, with a boyfriend and stealing a Jack Russell terrier and its litter, valued at $250.

Miller's family has announced it is seeking $2 million in damages from the state. Family members could not be reached and the family attorney did not return phone calls.

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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