Editor’s Note • This story is about suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the national lifeline for suicide prevention provides 24 hour assistance at 1-800-273-8255.
Kirsta Simons was sent to a place where no one looked like her. No one spoke the way she did.
Bermuda child welfare officials transported the 17-year-old over 2,600 miles to a Utah youth treatment center, where she committed suicide nearly two years.
Her mother, Johnita Simons, still doesn’t know why island officials chose West Ridge Academy. Her daughter didn’t know anyone in Utah and had never left Bermuda before.
“Why was she so far from home?” his mother asked. “Far from friends, family, and culture. I just don’t understand why she was sent there. Why was this determined to be the best place for her?
Police reports show Kirsta fought at West Ridge Academy and was under suicide watch in the days leading up to her death.
On November 14, 2019, she attempted to end her life. Kirsta was rushed to hospital and died the next day.
Now her parents are suing West Ridge, alleging that the treatment center should have done more to prevent their child’s death. Lawyers for the parents have tried to obtain documents that could explain why Kirsta was there, but the lawsuit says the facility has not released them.
The lawsuit, filed last month in a Salt Lake City courtroom, alleges West Ridge Academy “had an increased duty of care” to keep children safe, but failed to protect Kirsta from herself. This lawsuit comes as a new state law requires centers to develop suicide prevention policies.
“What we would expect to find in the records is that this was a foreseeable event,” said Thaddeus Wendt, the parents’ civil lawyer. “Kirsta, we know, was struggling with a mental illness. She had depression. She had thoughts of suicide. These were known issues. Ultimately, his suicide at West Ridge Academy was predictable. And, we think, preventable.
The executive director of West Ridge Academy did not respond to a request for comment.
Kirsta’s last hours
While at West Ridge, Kirsta shared a room with three daughters in one of the nearly a dozen multicolored brick cottages scattered across West Jordan’s 50-acre campus.
In the days leading up to her death, Kirsta had not slept in her room. Staff members moved her to the common area, according to a police report, so they could keep an eye on her after she tried to harm herself.
But the school gave students 10 minutes of privacy to shower, according to a police report. When a member of staff told her her shower time was over on a Thursday afternoon, Kirsta reportedly asked to go to the bathroom. He was given two extra minutes. It was then that she hanged herself.
Employees later told police that only a few minutes had passed, but police were unable to verify the schedule. Security camera recording equipment had been unplugged since September, staff told police.
Police closed the case without taking action, and Utah regulators did not sanction West Ridge Academy.
Regulators found that the treatment center was breaking a rule – that a staff member watching the girl shouldn’t have been outside the toilet when she tried to kill herself. School policies state that the staff member should have been in the bathroom and “maintain[ed] frequent verbal checks ”with Kirsta.
But no disciplinary action was taken.
Lawyers for Kirsta’s parents allege West Ridge was negligent. In their 73-page lawsuit, they say West Ridge did not communicate a treatment plan to Kirsta’s parents and did not sufficiently supervise Kirsta. They also say the facility did not have proper procedures to identify when a “higher standard of care” was needed.
Why not move Kirsta to another location, lawyer Matthew Feller asked, if they weren’t equipped to help her?
“If the issues that this facility, or any other facility, addresses are too complex for this facility, the most important thing is to get the kids to a place. [where] they can be taken care of, ”he said. “And we just don’t see it as something that has happened here.”
Parents and child protection programs have great faith in residential treatment centers, Feller said. The children there have complex problems and are sent there for help.
“The reason parents and guardians place their children in these kinds of facilities is based on the promise that these children will not be worse off when they leave,” Feller said. “In fact, the goal is to make them better. “
“A great void in my heart”
Johnita Simons said she was unaware Kirsta was sent to Utah and had no say in the decision. Kirsta had been placed in the foster care system, and Bermuda’s child welfare officials made the choice.
Bermuda, a British island territory at the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean, has spent more than $ 8 million over five years to send Kirsta and 39 other children to its foster care system in ‘teenage care facilities. difficulty ”from Utah. The state has more than 100 such centers and attracts students from all over the United States and beyond. West Ridge Academy received nearly $ 850,000 from Bermuda officials.
The Bermuda government wrote in a public statement in December 2019 that sending a young person overseas is not a decision taken lightly and is only done “after all other local resources have been exhausted ”. Local resources, they say, include family, counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists and other family intervention programs. They further stated that removing children from their homes and placing them in the child and family services division, like Kirsta was, is only a “last resort”.
Utah’s ‘troubled teens’ industry has come under scrutiny by lawmakers, activists and the media in recent years over accusations of abuse and neglect in some facilities. Meanwhile, Kirsta is the only teenager to die in a central Utah – although other deaths have been reported at similar facilities across the country, including in Michigan, where Cornelius Fredericks, 16, has been reported. , died while staff held him back.
Utah lawmakers this year passed a bill that strengthens oversight of the state’s youth treatment industry and places limits on their use of restraints, drugs, and isolation rooms.
The legislation also requires facilities to develop suicide prevention policies, which include a plan for how they will respond when a child self-injures or is suicidal.
Johnita Simons has said she hopes her trial will bring some accountability and spur change so that nothing similar happens in the future.
“It’s a great void in my heart that can never be filled,” she said, “Kirsta, even though she wasn’t in my care, I loved her. I LOVE her. is my child. Not a day goes by that my heart does not hurt. And even now, two years later, I still feel that loss.
Editor’s Note • This story is part of Fired, an investigative reporting partnership between The Salt Lake Tribune and KUER, with support from APM Reports.