County sued over suicide at lockup

County sued over suicide at lockup

June 29th, 2011 by Todd South in News

Document: Suit against Hamilton County

Suit against Hamilton County

The father of a 15-year-old boy who hanged himself with a bedsheet in the Hamilton County Juvenile Detention Center last year has filed a lawsuit seeking $3.75 million from the county.

In the lawsuit, David Wallace claims center employees failed to follow policy that could have prevented his son's death.

On June 29, 2010, Austin David Wallace ran away from the Scholze Center, an adolescent treatment facility run by the Council for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services in North Chattanooga. A city police officer arrested him about midnight that same day for burglarizing a car downtown, according to the Hamilton County Circuit Court complaint.

Austin Wallace was taken to the detention center at 1:29 a.m. on June 30.

Center employees called the Scholze Center to tell them the boy had been admitted. The next day, employees moved him to the "overflow wing" where he stayed with another teen. Wallace stayed alone that day while the other teen went to school, the suit states.

Employees checked on Wallace at 3:40 p.m. and noted "nothing out of the ordinary." Staff did not check on him again until 5 p.m. when they found he had hanged himself with the sheet. He was dead.

Hamilton County Juvenile Court spokesman Sam Mairs said Austin Wallace's death was the first suicide in the detention center's history but could not comment further on a pending lawsuit.

David Wallace, of New Jersey, and Heather Stein, of Knoxville, are listed in the lawsuit as Austin Wallace's parents. David Wallace declined to comment.

Stein said her son had ongoing mental health and drug abuse problems and had been placed in six different treatment centers, first in Knoxville, then in Chattanooga.

Her son had documented suicide attempts going back years, she said. Every time he was taken to a new treatment center, the facility couldn't get records from the previous facility.

"It was like starting from scratch again," she said.

Stein said her former husband filed the suit and that she isn't interested in the money.

"I don't feel any amount of money is going to bring my child back," she said. "Something needs to be addressed, if that's the only way we're going to get attention I guess that's what has to happen."

She said she finds more fault with Council for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services officials who, one year later, will not communicate with her or release her son's records.

Local attorney John C. Cavett filed the suit. In the complaint, he cites detention center policies that require staff to check on residents every 15 minutes for the first six hours and every 30 minutes afterward, policies he said were not adhered to in Wallace's case.

He also claims that center employees were negligent by not having constant supervision on Wallace when they learned he was undergoing drug and alcohol treatment at the Scholze Center.

County attorneys have 30 days to respond to the complaint, which was filed June 22.