April 4, 2001

An eerie echo
A teen dies while in state custody at Echo Glen Children's Center.
By Rick Anderson

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.



May 15, 2001

The family of Angela Miller, a 17-year-old Okanogan County girl who hanged herself at Echo Glen Children's Center in March, has notified the state it intends to file a civil lawsuit seeking $2 million in damages.

The state's Department of Social and Health Services operates the facility, located near Snoqualmie.

The family's attorney, Tim Tesh of Seattle, said Miller exhibited suicidal tendencies and should never have been left alone by Echo Glen staff. Miller, of Riverside, was the third child since 1991 to commit suicide while under the state's supervision. She had served two months of a nine-month sentence for a residential-burglary conviction.

"The state should have been more careful than they were," Tesh said. "The way that the department deals with youth who are in the same sort of mental state and risk that Angela presented - that needs to be looked at closely. That's the main reason this claim has been filed."

On March 1, counselors at Echo Glen confined Miller to her room for skipping classes that morning. Counselors checked on Miller at 15-minute intervals. In between checks, around 4:30 p.m., Miller looped a braided necklace around a ceiling vent and hanged herself.

She died two days later at Overlake Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue, after her family disconnected her from life-support devices.

According to Tesh, Miller's family is "grief-stricken" and wants to know why Echo Glen administrators took Miller off 24-hour suicide watch just 10 days before she hanged herself.

Miller was diagnosed for depression and had tried to kill herself several times before. Most recently, before her Feb. 9 transfer to Echo Glen, Miller had slashed her arms at the Naselle Youth Camp in Pacific County, where she was serving the first part of her sentence.

Miller also had left several notes on her desk stating she wanted to die, according to a King County Sheriff's Office case report.

Cheryl Stephani, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social and Health Services, said the Echo Glen staff was well aware of Miller's suicidal history. But staff counselors and a mental-health professional thought Miller had made enough "significant progress" to be taken off precautionary suicide watch, Stephani said.

"I can't emphasize it enough, that the staff really cares, and they deal with these kids day to day," Stephani said. "Their goal is to provide the treatment these kids need so they can get past the issues they are dealing with, to have a successful life afterward.

"In this case, from the initial reports, all the procedures were followed, what (the counselors did) was appropriate."

Tesh said, at the least, the pending lawsuit will shed light on some important questions:

"What procedures do they have for getting kids the counseling they need? How sure are they that somebody's suicide-watch status can be downgraded?

"After three suicides, the onus is on the state to respond. Whatever has been done as a result of those previous cases was not enough. We're at the point where we need to see changes."

Meanwhile, three local youth and juvenile-justice experts are conducting an independent investigation into the death. Their findings are expected later this month.

Stephani said that investigation could figure into any administrative or procedural changes Echo Glen makes.

Michael Ko can be reached at 206-515-5653 or mko@seattletimes.com.

Copyright &\; 2001 The Seattle Times Company


June 6, 2001

News Clips— Changes due at Echo Glen?
By Rick Anderson

As the state continues its probe into the recent suicide of a teenage inmate at Echo Glen Children's Center, the parents of an earlier suicide victim are hoping that the new investigation will finally lead to changes at the juvenile facility near Snoqualmie.

"Geoff never once received any kind of professional counseling while at Echo Glen," says Ric Vorhies of his son Geoffrey Alan Vorhies, who was barely 13 when he hanged himself in 1992.

Vorhies and his wife, Georgia, are offering to help the family of Angela Miller, a 17-year-old Okanogan County resident who committed suicide at Echo Glen. The Miller family is suing the state in an effort to obtain answers about their daughter's March 1 death at the 200-unit facility.

The Vorhies family knows the territory: They won a legal settlement from the state in 1995.

Ric Vorhies says his son didn't receive the help he needed. "The staff they entitle as counselors are merely baby-sitters, with no qualifications to provide counseling of any type," says Vorhies. "The judge sent Geoff to Echo Glen because he believed he would receive intense psychological counseling there." But that never happened, he says.

Instead, "He was in a cottage with a boy whose brother had committed suicide, and who frequently threatened suicide himself." Says Vorhies. "On the night of his suicide, Geoff had an emotional outburst and was sent to his room, later to be found hanging by another resident who was sent to get him."

There are parallels with the Miller case. Though she had long been suicidal, Miller was not on suicide watch. At least one former resident has told Seattle Weekly it would be "impossible" for Miller to have worked a braided necklace through a small ceiling vent to hang herself, as the state says.

"These kids have no life when they're in there," the former resident adds. "While there, I witnessed many a person threaten suicide and just get sent to their room, no suicide watch or counseling."


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