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Oregonian: Suicide attempts, signals among child immigrant detainees up last year in Portland
Author: Christina Morales
Posted: August 9, 2019

To read the original, visit the Oregonian.

Unaccompanied teenagers in a Portland immigrant shelter who arrived last year showed more trauma and exhibited more suicide attempts or other outward signs of possible suicidal intent than previous arrivals, interviews and federal records show.

In 2017-18, teens held at a Morrison Child and Family Services facility made eight suicide attempts or suicide gestures, according to the federal documents. The facility houses unaccompanied teenage immigrant boys ages 13 to 17 who arrived at the border without parents or a legal guardian.

Gestures can include a boy holding his hand in the shape of a gun to his head or making a slashing motion across his throat.

Two of the eight incidents resulted in injuries that were not serious, according to Patricia DiNucci, a Morrison spokeswoman. Most were times that a boy used a gesture, she said.

“The kids are tougher, the kids are rougher, and they’ve had quite a life,” DiNucci said.

The previous high for such behaviors at Morrison’s Southeast Portland center was a single attempt or gesture in both 2015-16 and 2016-17, federal records show. In 2014-15, teens held at the center made no attempts or gestures, the documents show.

A suicidal attempt is when somebody attempts to take their own life with intent to end it, said Javier Casado Perez, an assistant professor of counselor education at Portland State University. A gesture is a behavior that could indicate an intent or statement of suicide. Gestures indicate a response is needed for a person’s emotional well-being, he said.

Casado Perez said immigrant children experience trauma due to things such as being separated from their families and a lack of safety and security.

“For children, traumatic experiences leave a mark for a lifetime,” he said.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees centers such as Morrison’s and which compiles suicide-related safety records, categorizes attempts and gestures together.

DiNucci said she does not know how many of the eight incidents at Morrison were suicide attempts and how many were gestures.

During 2017-18, Morrison took in at least 23 boys from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico and Yemen, federal records show.

Three boys made the eight attempts or gestures, the records showed. DiNucci said one teen committed five of them. The other two teens required first aid.

The teenager involved in the 2015-16 attempt or gesture was taken to Randall Children’s Hospital, DiNucci said. No medical treatment was needed and the teenager was released back to the program the same day. There was no medical intervention or first aid needed for the 2016-17 attempt or gesture.

The Morrison center can hold up to 16 boys, and the facility wasn’t at or over capacity when the increased number of suicide-related behaviors occurred last year, DiNucci said. The facility is currently under capacity.

Nationwide, the average stay for children in such centers averaged 93 days in November 2018, a spokesperson for the federal Administration for Children and Families said.

Two weeks ago, several members of Congress from Oregon, including Reps. Peter DeFazio, Suzanne Bonamici and Earl Blumenauer and Sen. Jeff Merkley visited Morrison’s facilities. Merkley told OPB that Morrison was “the best facility in every possible way.”

After The Oregonian/OregonLive asked Merkley for comment about the rise in suicidal attempts and gestures, a spokesperson sent a statement that read in part: “We know that that the young people coming here are fleeing sometimes horrible circumstances that nobody, let alone children, should have to live through. … All of the experts say that being separated from family and being locked up can inflict serious, long-term psychological damage. That is why Sen. Merkley is fighting tirelessly for processes that put kids in homes and schools as quickly as possible and treat everyone with dignity and respect.”

Morrison has quality management and program evaluation departments that are evaluating the processes and procedures to benefit the teens and families, DiNucci said.

Mental health counselors and clinicians hired to work at the center are given suicide intervention training within a month of employment and again once a year. After attempts or gestures of suicide, staff get together and debrief what happened, what set the child off and what circumstance pushed the child to make that decision, she said. Staff look at what they could’ve done differently and signs and symptoms that might’ve not been immediately apparent, DiNucci said.

“All of Morrison programs and all of Morrison employees are on a continual path of improvement,” DiNucci said.

Portland is home to Lines for Life, a nonprofit devoted to suicide prevention throughout the Pacific Northwest. It operates a suicide prevention line that is answered 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It can be reached at 800-273-8255 or by texting “273TALK” to 839863.