ANNAPOLIS – Incidents involving suicidal behavior among girls significantly increased last year at Thomas J.S. Waxter Children’s Center, a female juvenile detention facility in Laurel.
The Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit’s 2013 annual report indicated a spike in suicide ideation and attempts from youth serving time at Waxter. The Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit is an independent organization in the Maryland Attorney General’s Office that conducts annual evaluations of the Department of Juvenile Services regulated facilities.
According to the report, the number of ideation – also called suicidal thoughts — and attempts increased from 75 in 2012 to 117 in 2013 – a 56 percent jump.
In the report, the Department of Juvenile Justice had the opportunity to respond to the findings.
“All youth expressing suicidal ideations and or gestures are immediately evaluated by behavioral health staff,” the Department of Juvenile Services wrote. “The youth may verbalize intent or gesture, but be at low lethality because of restricted access to instruments and close staff supervision.”
Eric Solomon, public information officer for the Department of Juvenile Services responded to questions in an email.
“The Department takes every ideation very seriously, “ wrote Solomon.
“The last thing we want to happen is for one of these youth to move forward with their statements. “ Solomon continued. “You will see our response in the … report that these ideations are youth making statements for secondary gain and to get attention from the staff. Many of these statements came from the same individual.”
Solomon wrote that 62 individual girls were responsible for the 117 incidents in 2013, and 51 girls were responsible for the 75 incidents in 2012.
Capital News Service’s requests for access to the Waxter facility, interviews with staff or youth and copies of the incident reports were denied.
Solomon responded to additional questions by referring to the content of the report issued Feb. 18 by the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit.
That response indicated: “While there was an increase in reported incidents of suicidal ideation, only two incidents involved gestures, and no youth required transfer to a hospital setting.”
The report continued: “The high frequency and low lethality pattern may be indicative of youth displaying this behavior seeking secondary gain in these verbalizations and gestures; either desiring one to one supervision by staff, attention from peers, or to receive other social reinforcers.”
In the response, the Department of Juvenile Services said, “Mental health clinicians and administrators will continue to closely monitor and evaluate interventions for this behavior at Waxter.”
Eliza Steele, Juvenile Justice Monitor for Waxter said that the facility is “not an appropriate place for mental health treatment.”
For Steele, the suicide ideation and attempts are part of a larger mental health issue – particularly among girls.
In the report, the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit states: “Data produced by the Department shows that, in 2010, 75 percent of girls in out-of-home placements had a moderate to high mental health need, compared to 57 percent of boys. However, the availability of mental health services at Waxter is inferior to that at comparable facilities for boys.”
Steele said, “There is a significant number of kids, particularly girls that come into the juvenile justice system with mental health problems.” She added that aside from suicidal behaviors, some girls have other mental problems that the detention centers are not equipped to properly address.
To solve this, Steele suggested an increase in the availability of evidence-based treatment programs for youth in the juvenile justice system.
Waxter formerly served as a detention and committed treatment facility for female youth. The treatment program has been discontinued and Waxter is now a secure detention center with the capacity for 42 girls. According to the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit’s report, the average population in 2013, was 26, which is a reduction of 16 percent from 2012.
Dr. Marilyn Benoit, a board certified child psychiatrist who is not affiliated with Waxter, said that “All behavior is a way of communicating.“
“It may be attention-getting, but look at why they want attention,” Benoit said, “Some of them have problems and don’t know how to communicate what they are feeling.”
Benoit, who has a practice in Kent Island, said that many of the emotional problems incarcerated teens have were developed before they were placed in the system and family problems could have lead them to getting in trouble.
Since Benoit has no direct relationship with Waxter, she couldn’t speak to specific concerns that may be causing the increase. She said that in order to understand why each teen is displaying suicidal behavior, the child’s environment should be evaluated.
“For kids to be in a detention center to begin with, something has gone awry.” Benoit said, and that many of the children in the system have a history of learning problems, mental illness, child and substance abuse issues.
Benoit said that adolescent years are generally a time of “emotional turmoil” for girls and that being in detention leads to more feelings of isolation. She said that for the girls, the incarceration itself is a risk factor for suicidal behavior and referenced incidents of teens around the country committing suicide while in custody.
“They feel that they are social outcasts and are angry,” she said.