Editor’s note • This story discusses suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.
Kirsta Simons was sent away to a place where no one looked like her. No one talked the way she did.
Child welfare officials from Bermuda flew the 17-year-old more than 2,600 miles to a youth treatment facility in Utah, where she died by suicide nearly two years ago.
Her mother, Johnita Simons, still doesn’t know why island officials picked West Ridge Academy. Her daughter didn’t know anyone in Utah and had never left Bermuda before.
“Why was she so far from home?” her mother asked. “Away from friends, family, her culture. I just don’t understand why she was sent there. Why was that determined to be the best place for her to be?”
Police reports show that Kirsta struggled while at West Ridge Academy and was on suicide watch in the days before her death.
On Nov. 14, 2019, she tried to end her life. Kirsta was rushed to a hospital and died the next day.
Now her parents are suing West Ridge, alleging the treatment center should have done more to prevent their child’s death. The parents’ lawyers have tried to get records that might explain why Kirsta was there at all, but the lawsuit says the facility hasn’t handed them over.
The litigation, filed last month in a Salt Lake City courtroom, alleges West Ridge Academy “owed a heightened duty of care” to ensure kids are kept 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 expect to find in the records is that this was a foreseeable event,” said Thaddeus Wendt, the parents’ civil attorney. “Kirsta, we know, was dealing with mental illness. She had depression. She had suicidal ideations. Those were known issues. Ultimately, her taking her own life at West Ridge Academy was foreseeable. And, we think, preventable.”
West Ridge Academy’s executive director did not respond to a request for comment.
Kirsta’s final hours
While at West Ridge, Kirsta shared a room with three girls in one of the nearly dozen multicolored brick cottages scattered throughout the 50-acre West Jordan campus.
In the days before her death, Kirsta hadn’t been sleeping in her room. Staffers moved her to the common area, a police report states, so they could keep an eye on her after she had attempted to harm herself.
But the school allowed students 10 minutes of privacy to shower, according to a police report. When a staffer told her that her shower time was up one Thursday afternoon, Kirsta reportedly asked to go to the restroom. She was given an extra two minutes. That’s when she hanged herself.
Employees told police later that only a few minutes had passed, but police weren’t able to verify the timeline. The recording equipment for the security cameras had been unplugged since September, staff told police.
Police closed the case without taking action, and Utah regulators didn’t discipline West Ridge Academy.
Regulators did find the treatment center violated one rule — that a staff member who was watching the girl should not have been outside the restroom when she attempted to end her life. The school’s policies state the staffer should have been in the bathroom and “maintain[ed] frequent verbal check-ins” with Kirsta.
But no disciplinary action was taken.
Lawyers for Kirsta’s parents allege that West Ridge was negligent. In their 73-page lawsuit, they say West Ridge didn’t communicate a treatment plan with Kirsta’s parents and did not sufficiently supervise Kirsta. They also say the facility didn’t have proper procedures to identify when a “higher level of care” was needed.
Why not transfer Kirsta to a different place, attorney Matthew Feller questioned, if they were not equipped to help her?
“If the issues that this facility, or any facility, is addressing are too complex for that facility, the most important thing is to get the children to a place [where] they can be taken care of,” he said. “And we just don’t see that as something that occurred here.”
Parents and child welfare programs put an enormous amount of trust in residential treatment centers, Feller said. The kids there have complex issues and are sent there for help.
“The reason that parents and guardians place their children in these kinds of facilities is based on a promise that these kids will be no worse off when they leave,” Feller said. “In fact, the goal is to make them better.”
‘A big void in my heart’
Johnita Simons said she didn’t know Kirsta had been sent to Utah and had no say in the decision. Kirsta had been in the foster care system, and Bermudian child welfare officials made the choice.
Bermuda, a British island territory deep in the North Atlantic Ocean, has spent more than $8 million in a five-year period sending Kirsta and 39 other children in its foster care system to Utah “troubled-teen” facilities. 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 youth overseas is not a decision taken lightly and is only done “after all other resources locally are exhausted.” Local resources, they say, include family, counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists and other family intervention programs. They further stated that removing children from their home and placing them in Division of Child and Family Services care, like Kirsta was, is only done as a “last resort.”
Utah’s “troubled-teen” industry has been under intense scrutiny from lawmakers, activists and news outlets for the past few years over accusations of abuse and neglect at some facilities. During that time, Kirsta is the only teen to have died in a Utah center — though other deaths were reported in similar facilities across the country, including in Michigan, where 16-year-old Cornelius Fredericks died while staff restrained him.
Utah legislators passed a bill this year that enhances 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 is self-harming or is suicidal.
Johnita Simons said she hopes her lawsuit brings some accountability and spurs change so that nothing similar happens in the future.
“It’s a big 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. That’s my child. There’s not a day that goes by that my heart doesn’t ache. And even now, two years later, I’m still feeling that loss.”
Editor’s note • This story is part of Sent Away, an investigative reporting partnership between The Salt Lake Tribune and KUER, with support from APM Reports.