Restraints Turn Fatal at Youth Facility--Mom Files Lawsuit
Posted on Sun, Apr. 24, 2005
At youth facility, restraints turn fatal
By Jacqueline Soteropoulos and Mark Fazlollah
Inquirer Staff Writers
By most accounts, Walter Brown was doing well at a spit-and-polished central Pennsylvania juvenile detention facility that holds youths from Philadelphia and its suburban counties.
He was less than three weeks away from possible release from Northwestern Academy, where Philadelphia Family Court Judge Lori A. Dumas sent him in September for participating in an armed robbery.
But it didn't work that way for the young West Philadelphia man. Brown, who had just turned 18, died Jan. 27 after he was held face down - for nearly three hours - as he struggled with staff workers.
When Northumberland County paramedics arrived at the detention center, Brown was not breathing and had no pulse. Much of his face was covered with bloody scrapes, apparently from grinding against the floor during the fight.
Although the autopsy report is not complete, Brown's mother alleges in a lawsuit that her son died from suffocation caused by being kept in a position where he could not breathe.
And city judges are so concerned that they removed the nine other Philadelphia youths from Northwestern Academy, which was opened in 1997 in remote Coal Township, about 120 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
Said Joseph Rocks, a former Philadelphia state senator who runs the academy's $250 million-a-year parent company, the nonprofit Northwestern Human Services in Fort Washington: "Even if it is proven that we met all protocol... it doesn't matter. A kid died on our watch."
Rocks and other Northwestern officials said that on the advice of their lawyers, they would not comment on the suit. No other counties have removed their youths from the 242-bed facility.
Family Court Administrative Judge Kevin M. Dougherty, who ordered the Philadelphia juveniles taken from the center and brought back to the city, said he saw "devastating" photos of Brown's battered face.
Said Dumas: "No one deserves to be treated like that."
Brown's death is similar to scores of restraint-related suffocations that have occurred in institutions around the country in recent years. The U.S. government in 1999 put limits on the use of physical restraints in federal institutions, and Pennsylvania also implemented limits that year.
Robert Listenbee, chief of the Philadelphia Defender Association's juvenile unit, has urged state officials to implement tougher controls. Although Pennsylvania's regulations are considered to be more progressive than many other states', Listenbee advocates improvements that include a limit on the time juveniles can be restrained. Currently, there is no time limit.
In New Jersey, violent youths in detention facilities can be strapped down for hours at a time in "restraint chairs." Although such chairs are banned in juvenile facilities in Pennsylvania and several other states, Howard Beyer, New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission director, said the chairs are safer than physical restraints.
In Brown's death, Northwestern Academy staffers might be in the clear, Northumberland County District Attorney Tony Rosini said.
"It appears that everyone at Northwestern followed the appropriate procedures," said Rosini, who was still awaiting final investigative reports and autopsy results. "We don't anticipate criminal charges unless something significant comes up. It appears that this boy was extremely violent and extremely hard to control."
Brown's mother disputes that.
"Whoever did this to my child needs to be put in jail for the rest of their damned life," Caroline Brown said.
Some details of Brown's death can be drawn from medical records, documents that Northwestern Academy submitted to state investigators and the courts, and an interview with a friend of Brown's who was also being held at Northwestern and who said he witnessed some of the events.
About 11:50 a.m. Jan. 27, Brown punched his dorm supervisor in the face. Northwestern officials said it was an unprovoked attack by Brown, who had been briefly restrained at least two other times during the four months he was at the center.
Brown was restrained briefly. He then told staffers that he was acting out because of memories of sexual assaults he suffered as a child.
Brown regained his composure, and the restraint ended. He ate lunch outside the main dining area; no problems were reported until 5 p.m.
Then, Brown was given the antianxiety medication Klonopin and the antipsychotic drug Seroquel. Brown had no history of mental illness, and it was unclear whether he had previously had either of those medications.
Northwestern officials said he then struck another staff member, and the facedown restraint started. Northwestern officials say that, typically, that type of restraint is employed only in the most violent situations. At least four academy staffers participate in that type of restraint procedure, which generally occurs several times a month.
Brown's friend, a 17-year-old Philadelphia youth who asked that his name not be used, said he was outside the room in which Brown was held and heard him say "I can't breathe, I can't breathe" just before he died.
At 7:50 p.m., Brown coughed three times, and then became unresponsive. He never regained consciousness.
Charly Miller, a Nebraska consultant who teaches law enforcement officers the proper use of restraints, said it is always more dangerous to hold people on their stomachs because it is more difficult to see whether a person is having trouble breathing.
Rocks, the Northwestern chief executive officer, said his agency is conducting a complete review. If it determines that there are better techniques for restraints, Rocks said, he will seek statewide changes to improve procedures.
"We will make something good out the horror of a kid dying," he said.