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Family of Woman Who Killed Herself at County Mental Health Clinic Files Suit

February 25, 1988|JESS BRAVIN | Times Staff Writer

The family of a suicide victim has filed suit against the county mental health clinic where the woman shot herself last June, alleging that the failure of its staff to supervise the woman resulted in her death.

The woman, Maria Susanna Soto, had a history of suicide attempts before she killed herself with a pistol at the Santa Ana clinic on June 18, 1987.

The wrongful death suit, filed by Soto's mother, Antonia Soto, and sister, Dulce Olivier, seeks undetermined damages for pain, suffering and emotional distress, as well as the cost of burial.

Soto, who was 21, had been undergoing treatment for severe depression at the county's Adult Outpatient Services office at 1623 W. 17th St. The Anaheim woman had come to the clinic that day for an appointment with a health care worker, officials said at the time.

In a Room Alone

Soto, who had come to the clinic with her sister, Olivier, had been placed in a room alone to take a written test, Sheriff's Department Lt. Tom Conner said after the woman's death.

"A few minutes later, mental health workers heard a gunshot and called paramedics, who discovered the victim had shot herself in the head," Conner said.

Soto had put the barrel of a .38-caliber pistol in her mouth and pulled the trigger, the coroner's office reported.

In the lawsuit filed Tuesday in Orange County Superior Court, Olivier alleges that "upon hearing a gunshot (she) rushed into the room (and) . . . observed (Soto) sprauled (sic) across the top of the table with a gunshot wound to her head."

A county mental health official declined to discuss the case. Larry P. Ogilvie, program manager for adult treatment services, said his agency had not seen the suit and therefore could not comment on it.

The Soto family's attorney, Frank P. Barbaro, said Wednesday that mental health workers had failed to guard against the woman's suicide.

"They knew there were guns in that family. They had taken a gun from her once before, and then they had given it back," Barbaro charged, adding that the clinic's staff had misdiagnosed the woman's condition.

'A Certain Risk'

The attorney said that Soto had been hospitalized for severe depression at the county's Royale Convalescent Hospital in Santa Ana on April 23, 1987, and was released May 28, less than three weeks before she killed herself.

Barbaro said that before Soto's release, a hospital psychiatrist had written the woman's family saying, in part, that "there continues to exist a certain risk for suicidal attempt indefinitely."

Soto was depressed, Barbaro said, because of her inability to establish relationships with others.

He said the clinic had misclassified Soto as a lesbian, and had sent her to a lesbian support group shortly before her death.

Mental health workers had concluded Soto was homosexual "simply because she indicated she was having ideations of being with another woman," Barbaro said. "But she had not had any experience with that," he said.

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