Teen’s Suicide Prompts Parents to Seek Change in Mental Health System
Note from Doni: anewscafe.com sought comment from staff at Shasta County Mental Health and Remi Vista. Both refused requests to discuss policies, protocol and guidelines when dealing with suicidal youth. Click here to see the written response from Shasta County Health and Human Services.
On April 5, a noose made from double-knotted tennis shoe laces became 14-year-old Joshua Valdez's means of suicide in the privacy of his bedroom closet.
Just four hours earlier the dark-haired, dark-eyed eighth-grader had returned home from his second appointment in three days with Shasta County mental health providers.
His parents, Dave Valdez of Redding and Cindy Valdez of Millville, are grieving for what they believe was the preventable death of their middle son. They believe Josh Valdez might be alive today if mental health professionals had treated their son's condition as the emergency it was. They believe the Shasta County Mental Health system failed their son and their family.
They are not the only ones who've lost faith in Shasta County's mental health system. Dawn Taylor, the mother of 17-year-old Dreis Luera, accused of stabbing his father to death last month, said that her son also had an appointment with the same social worker who'd seen Josh. Dreis' appointment was on April 3, one day after Josh's.
Taylor said she took her son to SCMH upon the recommendation of a physician, to whom she'd taken her son when Dreis began exhibiting alarming, psychotic behavior.
Taylor said while at SCMH, the social worker asked her son two questions - one about sleep, and the other about delusions - and then recommended counseling and sent him on his way. The bill was $315.
Seventeen hours later Dreis killed his father.
"Two people died in two days," Taylor said. "My son didn't get the treatment he deserved."
Taylor and the Valdezes are on a mission to find out the truth of what went so wrong at Shasta County Mental Health that within two days, a 14-year-old killed himself and a 17-year-old killed his father, both hours after being sent home from Shasta County mental health providers. Both were seen by the same SCMH mental health worker.
Three days before Josh's suicide, on April 2, Josh's father took his son to Shasta County Mental Health for what the father believed was a life-and-death situation.
"He told me he felt suicidal every day," Dave Valdez said in a letter. "He also told me he tried to 'choke himself out' several days before."
Cindy and Dave Valdez know nothing will bring their son back to life. But they want answers. And they want Shasta County's Mental Health system to change so this never happens to anyone else's child.
According to Valdez, their arrival at SCMH first required about 30-40 minutes of paperwork. After that, an intake worker spoke with Josh. When Valdez left the room to give his son privacy with the worker, that's when the boy confided that he felt suicidal every day. The worker appeared concerned enough to immediately announce a page over the loud speaker for a social worker, which she followed with a "code blue" alert.
When, after about 20 minutes, a mental health clinician still hadn't appeared, Dave Valdez said the intake worker came out "frantically searching" for one. The worried father felt validated by the intake worker's display of urgency and empathy. Valdez felt relieved that finally, help was on the way for his boy.
About 10 minutes into the continued paging for a mental health social worker, Josh came out of the room and sat with his father. The boy shared what he'd said to the intake worker.
"I told her everything about feeling suicidal," Josh said.
About five minutes later, the intake worker located a social worker. But from the moment the social worker appeared, and began reciting the mandated reporter statement, any previous confidence Dave had in the Shasta County Mental Health system vanished, and never returned.
Valdez said the social worker displayed zero compassion for Josh, that she made no attempt to engage, engender trust or form a human bond. Valdez said the social worker spoke harshly to Josh, sternly warning him that anyone who might have provided the boy with illegal drugs could go to jail. Valdez said the social worker told Josh that he might be sent to an out-of-town lock-down facility.
"Her words were very scripted and lacked feeling," recalled Valdez."After putting fear and intimidation, and reciting the mandated reporter information, she then asked Josh how he was feeling."
By then, Valdez said, Josh had clammed up and shut down, even though he'd already told the intake worker about feeling suicidal. At the time, Valdez was thinking that there were so many crucial questions the social worker could have - should have - asked, but didn't.
For example, she could have asked if Josh had been prescribed any medications in the last six months.
Yes. Josh was prescribed Prozac two months' earlier, which he'd discontinued after three weeks.
She could have asked if Josh had been in danger in the last six months.
Yes. In February Josh was hit by a truck, and suffered a lower lumbar fracture. Witnesses and police agreed it was Josh's fault, that it appeared as if the boy made no attempt to get out of the truck's path.
She could have asked if Josh had tried to harm himself in any way.
Yes. Just a few days earlier Josh had tried to choke himself.
"Josh had a difficult time telling people how he felt," said Valdez. "He now did not trust (the social worker) ... The first thing she did was intimidate him with fear, when she should have shown concern."
Session over, the social worker sent the father and son home, along with an appointment scheduled for three days later at Remi Vista, an out-patient counseling center that contracts with Shasta County Mental Health.
Before leaving SCMH, Valdez said nobody at the facility spoke with him in private about Josh being suicidal, or high-risk, or offered information or guidelines about what to watch for, or precautions to take.
In fact, were it not for Josh admitting to his dad that he was suicidal, Valdez wouldn't have known. It would have remained a secret between Josh and the mental health staff.
At that point, Josh's parents didn't know what else to do, except follow through with the Friday appointment at Remi Vista, which both parents attended with Josh. They'd sought protection for their suicidal son by entrusting his care in the hands of trained, mental health professionals.
The way Josh's parents see it, for SCMH to release Josh home without significant, life-saving treatment would be like an ER sending a patient - in the throes of a full-blown heart attack - home with nothing more than an appointment for a check-up at a walk-in clinic three days later.
"They sent us home to follow-up with Remi Vista," Valdez said. "I went with Josh and his mother. Josh told the social worker the same thing, that he feels suicidal every day."
Even so, according to Valdez, the Remi Vista appointment was "all paperwork". Again, Josh was sent home.
Valdez said that on the drive home, Josh asked, "How come they don't take it seriously?"
He died alone in his closet four hours later.
Dave and Cindy agree with their son's observation that it didn't seem as if the mental health system took him seriously.
"If mental health would have helped a kid that was in dire straits, without dragging their feet, sending him to a low-cost treatment facility, instead of being more proactive with his treatment plan, our family would have had the help we needed," Valdez said. "Every child's cry for help should be treated as an emergency."
To add insult to grief, Valdez said that on the day of Josh's memorial service, he got a call from the very mental health social worker who'd so alienated Josh. She was calling to see how Josh was doing.
Valdez recalled how, when Josh told his father about the choking incident, Valdez brought Josh immediately to the mental health facility.
"I did not call and wait," he said. "Why would mental health not consider this an emergency?"
Cindy Valdez is an LVN in training to be an RN. Ironically, her next class session begins with the topic of suicide.
She sat the dining room table of the Millville home she shares with her 12- and 18-year-old sons and fiance. Large windows offer views of pastures and neighbors' horses and the backyard garden Josh plowed for her recently.
A poster, covered in photos of Josh, was propped against the fireplace, remnants of her son's memorial service.
She said that as a little boy, Josh was loving and soft-hearted. He was thoughtful, the kind of boy who bought Mother's Day flowers. Though he was small-framed - 5'5"/ 100 pounds - he was was a natural athlete; football, basketball, hockey, wrestling, you name it. He was artistic, and dabbled in video animation. He was a hard worker, and mowed lawns and worked outside. He liked to build stuff with his dad. His mother said that as he grew older Josh kept things bottled inside. He tended to say what people - especially adults - wanted to hear.
Cindy admitted she's still in shock, that his death doesn't seem real. And even though Josh had troubles - in retrospect some are more obvious - she really never believed he would kill himself. She thinks a lot about what was must have been going on inside his head.
"Things added up, I think," Cindy said.
A beloved family dog died last year. A teacher called Josh gay. He struggled with schoolwork and was facing summer school. He'd stolen alcohol a few times, and smoked pot. He was in pain from getting hit by the truck. He'd moved in with his dad 10 months ago.
She remains haunted by the appointment she attended with Josh and his dad (her ex-husband) at Remi Vista. And she's angry that the staff seemed to disregard Josh.
"Maybe it's because he has this habit of smiling when he's talking, even when it's serious," she said. "He was talking about suicide and he'd kind of pause and smile. Or maybe they didn't take him seriously because when they asked if he had a plan, he didn't answer. I'd left the room for a couple of minutes, and when I got back that's what they were asking him: Did he have a plan? I wish now I'd stayed out of the room. Maybe he would have told them."
But with that thought, she says that it shouldn't have mattered whether Josh disclosed a suicidal plan or not.
"What kind of a system is it where the only way a suicidal kid can get any help or attention is if he says he has a plan?"
Cindy says her son was quiet and reserved, and she thinks it was humiliating for him to talk to strangers about his darkest feelings.
"I think he felt ashamed," she said. "And he was really good at hiding his feelings."
It's been more than a month since Valdez lost her son, and in that time her grief has prompted her to take action in ways that surprise her.
"At first I wanted someone to do something about that first social worker, and the way she treated him," she said. "I wanted it on the record about what happened, things that didn't happen that should have. "
During those first days of loss, she was somewhat spun out. She mailed off long emails of complaint, without spell check, she added with a laugh.
And then she started hearing from Josh's friends, and reading comments posted on the R.I.P. Josh Valdez Facebook page. Soon, kids started confiding in her that they, too, had sometimes felt suicidal. And most shocking to her of all was when she learned that Josh had told at least five of his friends - maybe as many as seven - that he was suicidal. Nobody told an adult because Josh asked the kids to stay quiet, and not tell. So they didn't.
Messages flowed like tears on his Facebook page, some written directly to him.
If I could only turn back time. Think about you everyday josh. Hope your watching over all of us. Miss you so much<3
I'm going to miss josh he' ll aways be in my heart and mind he was my best friend and was always there for me. ...
I don't see why they didn't help. If a kid has those thoughts and problems, they need to be fixed right away. no matter what
Cindy said it's ironic, because Josh was so very private, and now his life and the way he died, is out for all to see.
"What's strange is that Josh wouldn't want anyone to know, but now I'm telling the whole world," she said. "Somebody told me recently that we are all here for a certain time, and everything happens for a reason. Now that Josh is gone, I can't bring him back. The only reason that makes any sense is to get the word out and prevent this from happening to anyone else."
True to her mission, she's created a Change.org page that shows Josh's photo with the words: "Redding Mental Health: Help Kids/Adults that are Suicidal." It has 200 signatures.
She's written grievance letters to Shasta County Mental Health, and Shasta County Board of Supervisors and others. She's posted links on the R.I.P. page about suicide-prevention resources and information, in hopes of reaching some kid who's quietly contemplating suicide.
And she's contacted more than 40 lawyers in hope they'll take her case and help bring change to the mental health system. Not one attorney would take the case, but a lawyer in Texas who specializes in psychiatric and psychological malpractice did say his paralegal would try to find "a good California lawyer" for her. He also mentioned that he believed California might have a $250,000 cap for non-economic damages. "If so, this makes prosecuting a case for you hard to do," he said.
What, ultimately, does Cindy Valdez want?
"My goal is to make a change within our mental health system," she said. "They don't seem to care ... maybe they're overworked, but they have to take these kids more seriously. I mean, why not call 911 when you get a kid saying he's suicidal?"
She paused. "Somebody commented on Facebook that I should have taken Josh to the emergency room, instead of mental health," she said. "That hurt. But what if we had?"
And that begs the question. What if Josh had been taken to the emergency room? Would ER staff have sent him to mental health? And would mental health staff have sent him to Remi Vista? And would Remi Vista staff have sent Josh to an out-of-town locked-down facility? And then what?
Cindy can't go there. But she knows what she knows, that her son had the courage to tell the mental health professionals that he was suicidal, but when he did, the system dropped the ball, and didn't follow through. And he killed himself.
"Mental health let Josh down, and we're going to fight so this does not happen again," she said. "Our only comfort is knowing Josh is forever at peace and with God."
She said she's wiser now, in some ways.
"People think won't this happen to them. People don't want other people to know they're going through this," she said. "It's like even thinking of suicide, or having someone in your family who commits suicide, says we're flawed or weak."
She said Josh wasn't weak. He was in pain, and her memories of his strength give her the strength to go on
"After we plowed the field I remember asking Josh if he would like a pig for 4-H to help save up for a car," she said. "I laugh when I remember him saying, 'Focus on the garden!' and that's exactly what motivates me every day."
Cindy Valdez has a message: Kids, if you're depressed, join a church youth group or get a mentor match, if you can. If someone confides in you and tells you he or she is feeling suicidal, tell someone. They will honor your confidentiality. Teachers please do not talk about kids, it hurts. Adults, be a mentor. Kids need you.
To everyone, kids in pain do things to feel relief. Please don't judge them, ask them if they're OK.
Click here for the Change.org petition Cindy Valdez created in hopes of getting signatures to help prevent suicide in youth. So far the petition has 200 signatures.
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.
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