Eight youths detained at the D.C. Receiving Home for Children have attempted suicide since January, including one girl who tried to hang herself three times in one night, according to staff reports on the incidents.
Reports filed by staff members of the home, a temporary holding facility in Northeast Washington for youths awaiting trial or sentencing, show that seven youths attempted to hang themselves with sheets or belts in the last five months and one girl set her bedroom on fire in a suicide attempt.
The director of the city's youth agency, Patricia Quann, yesterday discounted several of the incidents labeled "suicide attempts" by her staff, including one in which a girl attempted to hang herself with a towel from a door. She said she could not find reports on two of the cases.
She said that all but three were "suicide gestures," in which the youths were calling attention to themselves without seriously endangering their lives.
In contrast to the eight reported incidents at the receiving home, only two such incidents have been reported this year at the city's Oak Hill facility in Laurel, a much larger 150-bed juvenile detention center.
"It is a high number," Diane Shust, an attorney with the Public Defender Service in charge of its juvenile service program, said of the suicide attempts at the receiving home. Many of the youths at the home are represented by the defender service, which has filed a lawsuit against the city charging that youths have been improperly treated in the receiving home and other city youth facilities.
The suit includes allegations of poor educational programs, staffing shortages, physical abuse of youths by staff members and insufficient psychiatric treatment.
Quann said that serious overcrowding at the receiving home may account for the number of suicide attempts. The maximum-security facility, which is licensed to hold 38 youths, currently houses 43. "Because of the kids and the numbers we're seeing, we're planning to talk to the staff because they're upset about this," Quann said of the suicide attempts and the overcrowding.
The home has a special mental health unit, and Dr. Martin Booth, a consultant psychiatrist who works part time at the home, is summoned to the facility after suicide attempts, Quann said. The home also has another doctor who works part time as a consultant, Dr. Clifford R. Booker.
Shust said the overcrowding is most serious for girls, because there are only 11 beds for them. During the Memorial Day weekend, 21 girls were detained at the home, Quann said.
"From last November until this March, girls have been sleeping on cots in the day room," said Shust. "There's a lack of privacy and sometimes they have to have the male staff supervising them. There are fights constantly."
The records, which were obtained by The Washington Post, show that the suicide attempts involved six boys and two girls and occurred on Jan. 8, Jan. 27, Feb. 3, March 3, March 14, April 7, May 12 and May 22.
On Feb. 3, two girls ran to a staff office at 9:10 p.m. and reported that another girl was trying to hang herself. Two staff members found the girl hanging from a door with a sheet around her neck. They untied the sheet and the girl was taken to a staff office. "She returned to the unit apparently calm," a report on the incident said.
The report states the girl was then seen trying to hang herself with a leather belt. "I went to the room and untied the belt from around her neck," the supervisor continued in her report. "Then a few minutes [later] I was called again . . . that [the girl] had her gown tied around her neck." A social worker was called, the girl was stripped of her clothes and at 10:50 p.m. Booth, the home's psychiatrist, arrived to see the girl.
Quana termed that incident a suicide "gesture." "If you're standing on the floor, you can lift your feet off the floor," she said. "Hanging from the door -- that's not a particularly good way to do it."
On May 12, two youths alerted staff members that a boy was hanging from the ceiling with a sheet. The boys held up their fellow detainee until staff members could pull the sheet from his neck.
Ten days later, one of the two boys who helped prevent the May 12 suicide followed in his friend's path and attempted to hang himself shortly after breakfast. The youth had been observed lying under his bed earlier in the morning and his linens had been removed from his room as a precaution. However, according to the incident report, "he was able to get a sheet and knot it."
The report said the youth was discovered hanging from the ceiling when staff members were making their rounds checking whether beds were made.
In most cases -- including the May 12 and May 22 suicide attempts -- the youths are sent to St. Elizabeths Hospital for evaluation. Those who are returned to the home and are considered suicidal are "greenlined," which means they are put under special watch by the staff, Quann said.
In a June 1985 report on the home, a New Jersey consultant said there were problems with unit staffs not knowing that youths in their care had been put on "greenline" status. "Such important matters need to be logged and clearly communicated to all staff," consultant Paul DeMuro wrote. "Suicide prevention is everybody's business."
Shust blamed the large number of suicide attempts on a lack of individual attention for the youths. "The kids in the receiving home are highly charged, emotionally disturbed kids," she said. "The overcrowding and the lack of staff has an even more handicapping effect on them."
Quann said the home takes all suicide "gestures" seriously, but said "there are a number of cases where a kid may put a sheet up and holler at someone. . . . I still feel, knock on wood, at least we didn't lose any children."