2 deaths in 100 days at Oregon youth correctional centers
Two teens died in the span of 100 days while under supervision by the Oregon Youth Authority juvenile detention system, according to a new investigation by the Portland Tribune.
The death of Brett J.J. Bruns by self-harm in December 2019 — as well as the unintentional overdose that took the life of Juan Lopez-Robles in March 2020 — casts a spotlight on the contractor facilities that are paid millions of dollars per year by the state to rehabilitate youth behavior.
Oregon Youth Authority now faces a combined $16 million in potential civil penalties as two separate wrongful death lawsuits wend their way through circuit courts.
"The system is built to be sick," said Judah Largent, a Corvallis juvenile delinquency attorney not involved in the litigation. "With the tragic deaths of these children, we are seeing the absolute worst of the sick system."
The deaths of Bruns and Lopez-Robles represent half of all in-custody deaths reported by the Oregon Youth Authority since 2010, according to data provided in response to a public records request.
Every death but Lopez-Robles' was ruled a suicide, and all four occurred at residential programs, which the agency describes as facilities run by "trained staff who provide safe, effective, evidence-based services."
"No deaths were found in OYA's secure facilities," said spokeswoman Sarah Evans. She declined to answer further questions, citing the pending lawsuits.
'Full of potential'
In a $10-million suit, a Eugene-based nonprofit is accused of failing to prevent the self-inflicted death of Brett Bruns, who reportedly was placed on suicide watch hours before he ran away from the unlocked facility, never to return.
A music-lover who often could be found strumming a guitar, Bruns' life went off track in 2015 when he was committed to the Oregon Youth Authority at age 14. Charged with a sexual offense, his parents, Joseph and Christina, never gave up on Brett, who they had adopted alongside his biological siblings.
"Brett was talented, smart and full of potential," Joe Bruns said. "He was great at fixing things and had plans to be a mechanic."
In 2019, Brett Bruns entered Looking Glass Community Services' boys pathways program, one of several operated by the Eugene nonprofit for OYA offenders in exchange for about $6.9 million per year, according to a government contract signed that year.
Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019, started out as a typical day. Bruns went home to his parents' house in Springfield, ate breakfast and played video games with his brothers. But after returning to the facility later that night, Bruns became involved in a "disagreement" with another boy enrolled in the program, according to a lawsuit filed in Marion County last year, and was restricted to his room.
Shortly thereafter, Looking Glass supervisor Nicolas Brown observed Bruns knotting his shoelaces into a noose, per the suit, and had the 19-year-old placed on "constant observation status" — but contrary to the suicide watch protocol, allegedly did not confiscate the shoelaces.
The next morning, Bruns gave away some of his belongings, according to the suit, which says he had a documented history of self-harm and suicidal ideation.
Observers of the lawsuit say that factor may have worked against him.
"They're looking at it as an attention seeking behavior or a 'cry for help,'" said Erik Swallow, a Roseburg public defender who has represented clients enrolled at Looking Glass. "Repeated history of that kind can cause treatment providers to take their condition less seriously."
Fresh off a 48-hour shift, the suit says Brown returned to Looking Glass around 7 a.m. Dec. 1 because another worker hadn't shown up. The supervisor unlocked the dormitory area and, after a conversation with Bruns, "allowed" the fully dressed teenager to leave the facility around 10:50 a.m., the suit claims.
Craig Opperman, president and CEO of Looking Glass, disputed those claims, saying staff at the non-secure facility try to prevent residential clients from running away, but added that "by law and regulation, clients must be allowed to physically depart" if they so choose.
"Our hearts hurt for his family because the devastation they must feel is something no family ever wants to experience," he said. "Brett is deeply missed and will forever be in our memories for the impact he had on us and many others."
According to the suit, Bruns left behind a note telling Looking Glass staff not to attend his funeral.
"Don't expect me to come back," the note read.
OYA says the majority of youths in its custody live in community settings under the supervision of parole or probation officers, as was the case for Brett Bruns and Juan Lopez-Robles.
Looking Glass serves youths referred by both the OYA and the long-troubled Department of Humans Services, where a push to end out-of-state placements has led to new problems for the overburdened system, observers say.
"The state of Oregon is desperate to find people, and I don't think they're always on top of how well-trained and well-staffed these places are," said Swallow, the public defender.
Such issues are nothing new.
In one previously unreported incident from late May 2017, enough Looking Glass staff quit mid-shift that an entire program had to be abruptly shut down, with government caseworkers making unplanned trips to ferry the children to facilities in other counties.
"It was crazy. Most of the staff were very unhappy with upper management and lack of support," according to a caseworker email obtained by the Tribune. "This was a wakeup call for Looking Glass."
The Bruns suit claims "inadequate" or short staffing persisted at the facility, citing the supervisor who worked back-to-back 24-hour shifts. It also alleges that Looking Glass employees failed to highlight the dangerous possibility of self-harm when reporting Bruns as a runaway to his parents and Eugene Police.
Opperman disagreed with the assertion that his organization is under-staffed or poorly trained — noting that employees are certified by the state, Lane County and the nonprofit Council on Accreditation for service providers — but declined to discuss specifics, citing privacy concerns.
Regardless of how the suit resolves, it will be too late for Brett Bruns. His body was found hanging from a tree in Armitage Park on Dec. 3.
"His death was devastating and avoidable," Joe Bruns said. "We hope that this case will result in the necessary changes to protect kids and prevent other families from suffering a similar tragic loss."
Drug use at facility
Juan Daniel Lopez-Robles left his home in Ontario, Oregon, at age 16 after being arrested for a string of criminal incidents, including shoplifting, graffiti and unlawful use of a motor vehicle, which is a felony.
According to a $5.79 million lawsuit, Lopez-Robles died early in the morning on Monday, March 16, 2020, after several other youths at Haag Home for Boys pressured the now 18-year-old to take what they said was oxycontin, but which actually was fentanyl.
Haag staff entered Lopez-Robles' unit at least four times in the hours after the drug use, but failed to notice anything amiss as the teen sprawled unconscious on a couch with a nose bleed, the suit alleges, despite a previous overdose requiring hospitalization at the for-profit facility less than a year before.
Lopez-Robles' did not use opioids prior to arriving at Haag, but was warned by his OYA parole officer, Alex Contreras, that drug use was "blatant" at the facility, per the suit.
"Juan repeatedly complained to his family about rampant drug use by other residents but his family had no way to protect him," the lawsuit reads.
Lopez-Robles died in a hospital in Springfield, the cause of death a cardiac arrest triggered by fentanyl toxicity, according to the litigation filed in Lane County court.
The Junction City center provides residents with "apartment style group living quarters" and encourages residents to seek out jobs in the community while also offering counseling services provided by its 11 full-time employees, according to its website.
The facility, which was paid $2.8 million by Oregon Youth Authority last year, did not respond to a request for comment.
A DHS investigation into Haag is set to wrap this month, according to the Eugene Weekly.
Lopez-Robles had an infectious laugh that matched his easy-going demeanor — loved kickball, bike rides and videogames — and was never too busy to play outside with his niece and nephew, or help his mom by mowing the yard or trimming trees.
"Every time he entered the room it was just ten times better," recalled his sister, Jasmin Lopez. "He got along with most people, and that made him special."
"He was really close to our sister, always messing around with each other, and a good kid in general," said brother Rafael Omar Lopez.
But beginning at age 15, Juan Lopez-Robles' was gradually enmeshed into the criminal justice system; he was first arrested on Nov. 2, 2017, alongside several friends, for spray painting the ball field outbuilding at Beck-Kiwanis Park in Ontario.
Lopez-Robles was handcuffed and charged with second-degree criminal mischief. Officer Scott Phelps also spoke to the youth, who had grown up at a local mobile home park, about respect.
"I told him that I know gangs each want respect but they are not willing to give it. I told him that when they damage the property that citizens of Ontario work hard to pay for, then they are being disrespectful," Phelps wrote later. "(Juan) advised that he had never thought about it like that."
The police department believed Lopez-Robles was part of a gang because he and his friends wore matching blue bandannas, records show.
In 2018, the Ontario High School assistant principal, Melissa Judson, alerted police that Lopez-Robles was suspected of carving his nickname, Stomper, into a classroom desk. He was charged with second-degree criminal mischief for damages estimated at $75.
After Juan and several friends shoplifted $100 worth of candy, snacks and beer from Walmart, a school resource officer identified him based on surveillance footage that same year.
In another complicated incident, Lopez-Robles apparently was standing by as several teen girls began brawling in the street. A 39-year-old neighbor arrived to disperse the fight, but instead Lopez-Robles and the man appeared "to throw one punch at each other," according to a police report. Lopez-Robles was charged with fourth-degree assault. The neighbor was not charged.
On Nov. 7, 2018, Lopez-Robles was charged with unlawful use of a motor vehicle and shoplifting from Walmart again after police said he and another teen stole "a shopping cart full of clothing and hygiene items." A 15-year-old runaway named David told police he had helped shoplift the clothing "because he didn't have any."
Lopez-Robles entered the custody of the youth authority two weeks later.
"Multnomah County tends to use OYA as a last resort," noted Portland attorney Elizabeth Levi, speaking in general terms. "Other counties … have fewer non-OYA treatment and placement resources."
Lawyers for Lopez-Robles mother, Carolina, allege Oregon Youth Authority exacerbated the circumstances surrounding Juan's death by approving a "do not resuscitate" status and allowing his organs to be medically donated without the family's approval, as well as not mentioning that OYA is required to pay funeral costs if the family could not afford them.
"Moments after Juan's death, OYA staff member Priscila Hasselman approached the family and pressured them to agree to cremate Juan by badgering the family about the cost of a traditional funeral," according to the suit. "To this day, nobody from OYA has told Juan's family what happened to him."
Carolina Robles is left waiting for answers.
"He was such a happy person throughout his life," she said. "We love and miss him very much."
Help is available:
Those suffering from dark thoughts should call Lines for Life, a Portland-based suicide prevention hotline available 24 hours a day.
Call 800-273-8255 or text "273TALK" to 839863.
Oregon Youth Authority deaths:
State data shows four deaths have occurred among the youth under supervision by the Oregon Youth Authority in the past decade:
• Sept. 3, 2011: A death by suicide was reported at the J Bar J Boys Ranch residential program in Bend.
• Oct. 18, 2012: A death by suicide was reported at the Homestead proctor home in Pendleton. Similar to a foster home, proctors have a formal connection with a service provider.
• Dec. 4, 2019. Brett Bruns dies by suicide after running away from Looking Glass Community Services in Euguene.
• March 17, 2020: Juan Lopez-Robles dies a drug-related death at the Haag Home for Boys in Junction City.
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