San Diego County Making Changes to Juvenile Halls After Teen's Suicide

Changes result from 16-year-old Rosemary Summers' death; county to pay her family $1 million

San Diego County agreed to pay the family of a 16-year-old who committed suicide while in juvenile hall custody $1 million and is making changes to help prevent future deaths.

In September 2013, 16-year-old Rosemary Summers was serving time in the Kearny Mesa juvenile hall facility when she committed suicide by hanging herself.

In a lawsuit against the county, the family alleges County of San Diego’s Probation Department employees, who work in the facility, made some very serious errors. According to the lawsuit, Summers was overmedicated, potentially intensifying her suicidal thoughts, and the facility was understaffed the night she died. It also claims she was sent her to her room alone when she was upset.

This week, the County Board of Supervisors agreed to settle that lawsuit and pay Rosemary's family $1 million. The county did not admit guilt but is making changes to the juvenile facilities across the county to prevent future deaths from occurring.

The changes the county has already started include:

  • Cutting the doors to the juveniles rooms in half, so that unless they are changing (or there is an instance where privacy is needed), the top half of the door will remain open.
  • Removing the large door hinge which caused the doors to shut automatically.
  • Covering up vents in the rooms.

NBC 7 Investigates revealed data from the state corrections agency that shows suicide attempts by juveniles inside San Diego County detention facilities have increased each year since 2011. The California Board of State and Community Corrections reports there were eight suicide attempts at San Diego County juvenile hall facilities in 2011. That number went up to 11 in 2012 and then more than doubled to 25 attempts in 2013.

Click here to see the complete first NBC 7 Investigation.

The county sent NBC 7 Investigates a statement which said, “Rosemary Summers’ death was the first suicide by a juvenile in County Probation custody in 32 years. Providing a safe environment for youth in custody is the highest priority for the Probation Department and their staff.” Read the full statement below.

Summers spent a year and a half in and out of the juvenile facility after first being arrested for possession of marijuana and resisting arrest. Her last arrest occurred when she attended a 2013 rally for Trayvon Martin, the African American teen fatally shot by a neighborhood watch captain in Florida, and didn’t tell her probation officer.

Her family previously spoke to NBC 7 Investigates and described Summers as a sassy and sensitive young lady; a young woman trying to find herself.

NBC 7 Investigates attempted to talk to a member of Summers' family Thursday but the family’s attorney Gerald Singleton said the relative was too distraught to speak.

According to Singleton, the county has agreed to develop other improvements to the system as a result of the death of Rosemary Summers.

They include:

  • Improving the sharing of information about minors between probation officers at different facilities throughout the county and mental health officials.
  • Installing cameras at the Girls' Rehabilitation Facility.
  • Increasing the girls' access to mental health, including having a full mental health expert assigned to Rehabilitation Facility (currently, there is only one doctor who works limited hours) and having at least one mental health professional at Kearny Mesa all the time.
  • Making a number of changes designed to increase the ability of the girls' families to come visit them.
  • Improving/increasing the training of staff members regarding suicide prevention.
  • Probation Officers being allowed be able to put girls on what's called "close watch status,” a designation used when staff is concerned about a girl, but not enough to subject the girl to full blown "suicide prevention watch." Currently, according to GRF's policy and procedure, only mental health experts can place a girl on close watch.
  • Implementing a multi-disciplinary team to see how best to improve the system.

Singleton said his legal team used over 30 depositions and other “overwhelming” evidence to reveal how the suicide came to take place.

According to documents submitted for mediation, the juvenile officers “didn’t know their policies about suicide and didn’t train the line workers on these policies.”

“If they just had done that, trained on their policies and followed the policies, Rosemary would still be alive,” Singleton said.

The night of her death, when Summers asked to talk to one of the guards, a guard looked at her and said, “Yeah, she is distressed, I need to talk to her,” according to the mediation documents. The guard asked her supervisor's permission to talk to Rosemary but the supervisor told her “no.”

“You just don’t do that,” Singleton said. “You have a kid who has tried to commit suicide twice. And the supervisor says no.”

According to Singleton, the 16-year-old kept a journal in which she described her pain and confusion. The journal was part of a timeline of statements and behaviors which was submitted as part of the evidence.

The county probation department’s Internal Affairs Division investigated the juvenile hall supervisor's actions. NBC 7 Investigates does not know the outcome of that investigation but has learned the supervisor has since retired from the county.

Click here to see the timeline of events created by Singleton.

When Summers was discovered hanging in her room from a bed sheet, Singleton said, the resulting confusion among staff added to the problem. Rosemary was hanging for several minutes before they cut the bed sheet to bring her down.

Click here to read the Probation Departments debrief on the incident:

“There are two tools which they are supposed to know where they are at all times: suicide scissors and suicide knife.”

Singleton said his team discovered the scissors were in general use; they were blunted and not as sharp as they should be. The staff also didn’t know where the knife was, he said.

“In a situation like this, every minute counts,” Singleton said.

According to Singleton, the county probation department has updated their policy and procedure to require the suicide scissors and knife be placed in one location (a secured lock box) and that before every shift, the probation officer will verify these emergency items are in their correct place.

Read the full statement from the County below:

"Rosemary Summers’ death was the first suicide by a juvenile in County Probation custody in 32 years. Providing a safe environment for youth in custody is the highest priority for the Probation Department and their staff. Accordingly, following Rosemary’s death, Probation identified and
made safety improvements, and now, in addition, has made or is in the process of making all of the additional improvements suggested by the attorneys and family of Rosemary, in order to prevent a tragedy like this from ever occurring again."

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