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Youth Authority Ward Kills Himself

The Bakersfield teen's body was found 12 hours after he was taken off suicide watch.

June 06, 2003|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A 16-year-old ward at a California Youth Authority facility here has died after hanging himself in his room, the first suicide in the state juvenile correctional system since 2001, officials said Thursday.

The boy, identified by the Sacramento County coroner as Daniel Anthony Groth of Bakersfield, had been taken off suicide watch about 12 hours before he was found Saturday night during a routine room check. He was taken to a Sacramento hospital, where he was maintained on life support until his parents discontinued it Wednesday.

Youth Authority Director Jerry Harper said Groth was under the care of a psychiatrist and had been acting "amiably and sociably with staff and other wards" at the Northern Youth Reception Center and Clinic just before taking his life. Harper said an investigation was underway, but that it appeared the death was not the fault of supervisors and that nightly bed checks were performed every 30 minutes as required.

"In hindsight, we should have kept him on suicide watch," Harper said. "But we have 5,000 wards, many of them with mental health problems. We can't keep all of them on suicide watch all the time."

One official at the Youth Authority, who asked not to be identified, said Groth had a record of 11 suicide attempts when he arrived May 14 at the reception center. On Saturday night, Groth fashioned a noose out of his shower sandals and tied it to his bunk bed, the source said, adding that the ward left a note for his father.

Harper would not comment on details of the case. He said four staff members who had either worked with Groth or found his body have been given time off because of the "stress and trauma" caused by the incident.

"Several of our staff spent quite a bit of time talking with this young man, and we lost him and we feel very bad about it," Harper said.

Because it is a suicide, the California Highway Patrol is also investigating. State Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), who has long been interested in juvenile justice issues, has asked for a report on the incident. Burton said he wants to know "why was the kid on suicide watch, and then taken off? Did something happen all of a sudden where they figured he wasn't a problem?"

While declining to provide details on Groth's situation, Harper said deciding whether to maintain a youth on suicide watch -- which involves placement in special rooms monitored by cameras -- is difficult.

"There are concerns about keeping boys and girls on suicide watch longer than necessary, because it creates tensions," Harper said. "We try to gather as much information about a ward's history as possible to decide whether he's a risk to himself or others. But it's not easy and it's always a balancing act."

Harper said Groth was serving his first term in the Youth Authority. He would not comment on the offense for which Groth was sentenced nor the treatment he was receiving while in custody.

Groth's suicide occurred one day before another ward, who was not identified, tried to hang himself with a bedsheet at the Preston Youth Correctional Facility east of Sacramento. Staff members interrupted the attempt and the boy was taken for evaluation at an outside hospital before being returned to the juvenile facility. Groth's death marks the 13th suicide within the Youth Authority since 1996.

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