HAD NO ONE ASKED, the state wouldn't have informed the public about a teen-age girl who died in its custody last month. "Wouldn't have announced it, no," concedes Don Mead, superintendent of Echo Glen Children's Center, the 200-unit juvenile detention center in Preston, in east King County, where 17-year-old Angela Miller was found hanging from the ceiling in her cottage room March 1. "We don't have a policy" of announcing such things, Mead says. "It's not something we do."
Fortunately, the Eastside Journal picked up on a tip two weeks after Miller, a troubled, suicide-prone kid from the small town of Riverside in Okanogan County, was found hanging from a braided necklace she had threaded through a ceiling air vent, the third suicide at the center since it opened in the early 1970s. Now, since the Journal broke the story, troubling new details have emerged.
Given CPR, the girl was rushed to Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue in a coma. Word of the incident spread after her family removed her from life support March 3. Queried by the Journal, the state Department of Social and Health Services issued a brief press release more than a week later, noting the girl had been under close watch at the juvenile offender facility yet somehow managed to take her life.
Sentenced to 36 weeks detention for a residential burglary, Miller entered the state system in November as a known suicide risk. Bruce Moran, Omak County juvenile administrator, says, "We were concerned she was inclined to do that. She was depressed." Adds Al Camp, court reporter for the weekly Omak Chronicle, local officials "had concerns about her when she left and had passed on those concerns to the institution."
As it turned out, Miller attempted suicide not long after arriving at Naselle Youth Camp in southwest Washington but was stopped. After her transfer to Echo Glen in February, she was put on suicide watch—but taken off the watch 10 days prior to the hanging. Officials say she killed herself just minutes after her room was checked by an observer.
The center will not publicly reveal all details of the hanging, including such seemingly mundane facts as what the girl may have stood on to reach the ceiling vent. The King County Medical Examiner's office did not get involved until the day after the girl died. Deputy Examiner Joe Frisino says that they picked up the body at the hospital in Bellevue, so they were not able to inspect the victim at the death scene in Preston. A King County Sheriff's Department patrol officer was called to the scene that day, but an hour after the incident and after Miller had been taken away. According to his report, two counselors used scissors to cut Miller down from a "rope," and aid crews were unable to revive her. He noted that Miller "has made several suicide attempts in the past." A county detective is now investigating, and while "basically, it looks like a suicide," says spokesperson Bob Conner, there will likely be a coroner's inquest to fully explore events.
An inquest was held in a similar earlier case at Echo Glen. Resident Ashley Shaddox, 14, used a bedsheet to hang herself in a shower—also on March 1—in 1998. Though the girl's mother claimed Shaddox had been abused, an inquest jury did not find staff culpable in the death, although some jurors did question staffing procedures and the belated arrival of detectives that led to problems with evidence.
A 13-year-old Tumwater boy was the first to commit suicide at the facility, in 1992, hanging himself with a curtain cord looped over a window latch.
Superintendent Mead says the state has tried to eliminate hazards that may facilitate such deaths. "We have removed old [ceiling] vents," for example, he says, "and put in vents which are less likely to be successfully used for suicide."
Mead is baffled by Miller's lethal use of those vents, as well as how quickly she was able to hang herself. The teen was being checked on every 15 minutes in her room that day, Mead says, where she'd been locked in as punishment for refusing to attend classes.
"They wanted to keep a close watch on her to make sure she was safe," says Mead. Two staffers were taking turns at the 15-minute checks, he says. At 4:30 p.m. she was fine. At 4:45 p.m. she was found hanging from her homemade belt.
"It's almost impossible" for her to have threaded the belt through the tight venting and then looped it around her neck, says Mead. "They are very, very small holes, very difficult to get anything attached to the vent. I'm not sure how she accomplished it."
Did she stand on something, was the belt hers, did she leave a note? he was asked. "I can't describe it beyond what I've said," Mead answers (the police incident report says an officer "located several notes on Miller's desk stating that she wanted to die").
"Whenever there's a suicide," adds Mead, "you always ask yourself, what might I have done different? We don't know what we could or couldn't have done in this case. We thought the staff did what they needed to do. Probably when the review is done, there may be some recommendation that would provide more insight."
For now, says Mead, the center's procedures remain unchanged.