The California Youth Authority, battered recently by criticism for overmedicating and improperly punishing inmates, came under attack again Tuesday by the parents of two teenagers found hanged in a cell they shared in a Northern California facility last month.
Standing in front of Los Angeles County's Central Juvenile Hall, the parents of 17-year-old Deon Whitfield and 18-year-old Durrell Taddon Feaster said they were frustrated by reports that their sons had committed suicide and they called CYA mental health services inadequate.
Family members said that Preston Youth Correctional Facility in Ione, 32 miles southeast of Sacramento, had failed to watch over their children properly, dealt with relatives insensitively, and still had not explained the circumstances behind the deaths. They filed claims against the state Tuesday in preparation for a civil suit.
"I once believed that the system was designed to rehabilitate and correct, but just to the contrary," said Whitfield's cousin Marcus Malone, 34, of Reseda. "It didn't do it in this case."
The CYA said Tuesday that it regretted what happened to the teenagers. Spokeswoman Sarah Ludeman said that, in case the CYA staff members delivering the news to the families hadn't said they were sorry to lose the two teenagers, the department does consider the deaths a tragedy.
"Our director has been quoted in most newspapers that our entire department is deeply saddened," Ludeman said.
She declined to comment on specifics of the claims but did say that since 2001, the youth authority has implemented many changes designed to improve its mental health services, such as hiring more and better-credentialed mental health staff and requiring staff members to meet weekly with wards identified as needing mental health attention.
Whitfield of Los Angeles and Feaster of Stockton were not on suicide watch, Ludeman said. Preston youth authority officials found the teenagers hanging by bedsheets on a routine afternoon check Jan. 19. They cut down the sheets and called paramedics, but the boys could not be revived.
Based on preliminary information, the Amador County Sheriff's Department called the cases apparent suicides. The county coroner has not declared official causes of death but has said that preliminary reports point to asphyxiation due to hanging. The coroner's office said it was still waiting for toxicology reports.
"According to the pathologist, there was no trauma on either of the boys, no apparent foul play such as wrists being tied," said Amador County's Sgt. John Ouilhon. "It appears to be a straight-up hanging."
If so, they would be the first suicides at Preston since 1996.
In the last five years, five youths committed suicide in all the CYA facilities, officials said. Ludeman said Preston had no more suicides than any other facility. Chino's Heman G. Stark facility, for example, has had two suicides since 1997, both hangings.
The Whitfields and the Feasters said they found it hard to believe that the teenagers committed suicide.
In the claims sent to the state Tuesday, lawyers Sonia M. Mercado and R. Samuel Paz accused the CYA of negligence, deliberate indifference to life-threatening medical needs, violations of constitutional rights such as protection from cruel and unusual punishment, and tampering with evidence. The lawyers wrote that they planned to seek at least $2 million in damages for each family.
Allen Feaster, 49, said his son sounded happy Jan. 16 when they talked on the phone about his upcoming release.
"He had learned a skill -- he was going to do landscaping -- and I told him I would open a side business with him," Feaster said.
The last letter the Whitfield family received from their 17-year-old, which arrived about a week and a half before he died, sounded hopeful about the future, relatives said. He gushed about wanting to change his life, they said.
Concerned about the conditions at Preston, state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) toured the facility the same day the parents of Whitfield and Feaster pressed their case. Accompanied by CYA Director Walter Allen III, the chairwoman of an oversight committee on corrections was preparing for a Feb. 19 hearing on the authority.
Times staff writers Jenifer Warren and Nora Zamichow contributed to this report.