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California Pays $2.5 Million After Girl Attempts Suicide at Juvenile Facility

California officials have agreed to pay $2.5 million to the family of a teenage girl who was left severely brain damaged after trying to hang herself in the mental health unit of the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility (VYCF). According to the family’s lawsuit, VYCF guards and supervisors failed to follow established suicide prevention protocols.

In May 2008, Shanelle Crawford, 16, was incarcerated at VYCF, a facility operated by California’s Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). She suffered from major depression, was a victim of sexual abuse and had made a serious suicide attempt two years earlier. Due to her mental health condition, she was placed in the Intensive Treatment Program (ITP) at VYCF and classified as being a “high” suicide risk. The ITP housed 14 juvenile females, all with preexisting mental illnesses and all in need of visual observation.

On May 25, 2008, Shanelle was talking on the phone with her father when a guard, Matthew McHendry, told her to get off the phone because it was time for her to shower. An argument ensued and, according to court records, McHendry “physically hung up the phone, greatly upsetting Shanelle.”

Afterwards, Shanelle spoke to a female supervisor and was then escorted back to her cell by a counselor. Although still agitated, she was left alone and unmonitored.

When McHendry made his rounds, he observed that the window in Shanelle’s cell was covered. Instead of immediately intervening as mandated by DJJ policy – a policy instituted after a successful suicide by a youth in 2005 – he continued his rounds.

Only later, when McHendry observed that Shanelle’s window was still covered, did he take steps to open her door. He then discovered Shanelle hanging from a bedsheet she had tied around her neck.

Witness testimony and evidence concerning the extent of Shanelle’s resultant brain trauma suggested that she had been hanging for 8 to 10 minutes.

When deposed, McHendry acknowledged his practice of allowing girls to cover their cell windows while they used the toilet or undressed for a shower, but only for “a minute or two.”

Shanelle now requires full-time care; she has a life expectancy of 20 years. McHendry was subsequently promoted to a supervisory position at VYCF.

The district court approved the $2.5 million settlement on July 13, 2011, which included $948,097.50 for attorney fees and costs, $202,157 to cover Medicaid obligations and $1,088,745.50 to establish a special needs trust for Shanelle. The plaintiffs were represented by Pasadena attorneys Ronald Kaye and Kevin Lahue of the law firm Kaye, McLane and Bednarski. See: S.C. v. Finley, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:09-cv-03956-GHK-E. The settlement and complaint are posted on PLN’s website.

Additional source: Los Angeles Times

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Related legal case

S.C. v. Finley