The Albert J. Solnit Children’s Center in Middletown
The Albert J. Solnit Children’s Center in Middletown

With the autopsy still pending of a pregnant teenager who died in an apparent suicide at Connecticut’s psychiatric hospital for children, the Department of Public Health, along with an intersection of state agencies, has begun an investigation into the death.

The 16-year-old’s suicide, which occurred late last Thursday night at the South Campus of the Albert J. Solnit Children’s Center in Middletown, has prompted inquiries from child advocates, the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Public Health, and the state police. The facility is operated by DCF.

Department of Public Health Spokeswoman Maura Downes said that although the matter is still under investigation, officials with the Facilities and Licensing Investigations Section identified concerns with the complex when they inspected it Friday and Sunday.

“Our inspectors did identify concerns with the facility, and officials there submitted an action plan to address those concerns,” Downes said. “That plan has been approved by the Department and implementation has been verified.”

DPH inspects the facility on behalf of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid  Services, which licenses the Albert J. Solnit Children’s Center. It will continue working with other state facilities to “ensure that a senseless, heartbreaking tragedy like this does not occur again,” Downes said.  

The Office of the Child Advocate has also opened its own investigation.

“We have initiated our review,” said Associate Child Advocate Mickey Kramer. “Because this was a child in a psychiatric facility, it elevates everybody’s concerns.”

Assistant Child Advocate Faith Vos Winkel said the organization will work closely with the medical examiner’s office and review state police records during the course of its investigation.  

“We will look at, how do we affect systemic change? Within the systems, are there processes that can be tightened up? Are there safety issues that can be addressed?” Vos Winkel said. “In these situations, where the death occurs in a state-operated facility, there’s an expectation to see if they have done everything they can to prevent [the death].”

Vos Winkel is unsure of the timeline of the investigation and said the public report, if the office is inclined to deliver one, may take up to a year.

According to child advocates, this is one of just a few cases involving youth fatalities in state-operated facilities, and to their recollection, the first in Connecticut’s psychiatric hospital for children.

In 1998, the child advocate’s office investigated the death of a teenager who hanged herself while in state care at the former Long Lane School in Middletown—the only state-run juvenile correctional facility that operated throughout much of the late 20th century. Long Lane was shut down in 2003 following accusations of abuse and neglect of its residents. It operated without accreditation or licensing, unlike Albert J. Solnit Children’s Center, which is accredited by Connecticut State Medical Society.

“This is (under) investigation because it’s a child in state care,” Vos Winkel said. “We have to examine the circumstances of the death.”  

The death comes amid heightened concern following nationwide increase in suicide rates, specifically among middle and high school aged-youth.

In its 2017 fatality report, the state’s child advocate recorded 14 suicides of children between the ages of 10 and 17—a notable increase from the nine recorded suicides in 2011.  It also saw an increase in death by suicide of teenage girls.

“For the past five or six years we have seen the continual uptick of suicide, and we need to be continually aware of that,” Vos Winkel said. “People understand that this is a serious public health issue.”

Vos Winkel said that teenagers are at particular risk, considering they are often at a transition point in their lives and many show signs of depression.

“What we know is that kids do feel sad and hopeless,” she said. “This is real, youth suicide is real.”

Alyssa Hurlbut was The Connecticut Mirror’s 2018 Bill Cibes Journalism Summer Intern, named after long-time CT Mirror board member Bill Cibes. She is the Editor of The Circle, the student-run newspaper at Marist College, where she is a rising senior. Her previous journalism experience includes roles as a research assistant for PolitiFact in Washington D.C. and a reporting intern at The Journal Inquirer. She also worked at Hartford-based Partnership For Strong Communities writing affordable housing case studies. Alyssa is pursuing studies in journalism and political science at Marist.

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