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Political Suicide 

Probe of youth's hanging suggests misconduct that could help mayor oust Juvenile Probation foes

Wednesday, Jun 5 1996
No one knew who Aldo Mallorga was, not even Aldo Mallorga. He couldn't remember his parents or which village he was from, although he was pretty sure it was in rural Guatemala. And his exact age was perhaps his greatest mystery.

"We're not even sure if Aldo Mallorga was his real name," says his court-appointed attorney, Patti Lee, as she shuffles through papers in her Mallorga file, a brown folder full of court records and scribbled notes related to his arrest and suicide. Along with her painful personal memories, the file serves as Lee's final reminder of her short-lived client.

Homeless, undocumented, suicidal, and unable to speak English, this 5-foot-2-inch, 120-pound enigma entered San Francisco's juvenile justice system in December 1994, after he sold a small amount of marijuana to an undercover cop. To say he was mishandled by the system would be a gross understatement.

"I don't think anyone is going to get off without blame; everybody is to blame," says Sparky Harlan, a member of the Superior Court-appointed Juvenile Justice Commission. Harlan is helping head up an investigation into the circumstances of Mallorga's suicide-by-hanging in a group home last year. "We all dropped the ball on this one."

If Mallorga's identity was faint in life, the investigation into his death will perhaps give it clearer outlines. At the same time, the probe seems likely to move that vague life into the sharp light of politics. Mallorga will almost certainly become, in the words of Harlan, "a political football" in an ideological war over control of the juvenile justice system.

A source with firsthand knowledge of the Justice Commission's probe says it has uncovered evidence of misconduct by the Juvenile Probation Commission, a body made up of mayoral appointees who are responsible for the policies and management of the juvenile justice system. The source, who requested anonymity, says the investigation also faults the city's chief probation officer, Ed Flowers, who manages the city's Youth Guidance Center, or juvenile hall.

The Juvenile Probation Commission and Flowers, a commission appointee, have been in the political cross-hairs of Mayor Willie Brown since he took office. Four of six probation commissioners are hard-line conservatives appointed by former Mayor Frank Jordan. Because the City Charter says they can't be removed from office before their terms expire -- except for misconduct -- Brown has faced the possibility of dealing with a juvenile probation board distinctly opposed to his liberal tendencies until halfway through his mayoral term.

But now, the source with knowledge of the Justice Commission's probe says, investigators have discovered that probation commissioners and Flowers ignored written policies on the handling of suicide prevention and post-suicide assessment in Mallorga's case. And, the source says, those lapses in management constitute "nonfeasance at the least, and malfeasance at the most."

Asked if the investigation found the kind of misconduct that could lead to the removal of Juvenile Probation officials, the source opined, "Oh, yeah. C'mon, it doesn't get worse than when a child dies."

The source says the mismanagement of Aldo Mallorga began the day he entered the juvenile justice system.

The Juvenile Probation Department's policy requires an intake analysis for every youthful offender entering the system. "For the first 24 hours, every child is considered a suicide risk," the source says. Among other things, staffers are expected to assess drug use history, patterns of aggressive behavior, and past suicide attempts.

On Mallorga's intake work sheet, which has been subpoenaed by the Justice Commission, the areas to be used for analysis of the youth's emotional history were left blank.

But Mallorga clearly had a history of emotional problems.
In an interview with SF Weekly in February 1995, shortly after Mallorga first attempted suicide, Lee said her client had been interviewed at Hospitality House, a homeless program, prior to his incarceration at the YGC. Lee says her client told the Hospitality House case manager that he was suicidal. And, Lee says, that information was conveyed to YGC staff.

Mallorga attempted suicide on Dec. 2, 1994. He tried to strangle himself with a sheet hung from a window ledge at the Youth Guidance Center, according to attorney Lee. When YGC staffers noticed that he had bloodshot eyes and blood spots on his pants, he explained that he had tried to stick a pencil in his eyes. Only later did he tell YGC staff that he had tried to kill himself.

The staff at the Youth Guidance Center did take some suicide precautions; employees managed to get Mallorga to agree not to kill himself, and they placed him on a suicide watch. But, the investigative source says, the Juvenile Probation Commission policy requires every youth who attempts suicide to undergo a detailed interview process conducted by an experienced psychiatrist. That analyst is expected to assess the risk of another suicide attempt and recommend appropriate precautions that could include internment at a psychiatric hospital for 72 hours. "Subpoenaed records show that no (post-suicide attempt) assessment process took place," the source says.

Worse yet, the source notes, records show that the staff had received no training in regard to the YGC's suicide policies since 1993. Ensuring that such training occurs, the source stressed, is clearly a responsibility of Flowers and the Probation Commission.

In the wake of the initial suicide attempt, Flowers denied vociferously that Mallorga had tried to kill himself, contending that political opponents, including Lee, were merely trying to stir up controversy to embarrass him. Flowers called the incident "suicidal ideation" -- in short, an attempt to get attention or win release from the YGC.

Flowers' assessment would prove horribly wrong.
Lee persuaded the court to release Mallorga to a group home under contract to the state on Jan. 13, 1995. Perhaps because the initial assessment of Mallorga at the YGC was incomplete, Mallorga was placed in St. Nicholas Group Home -- a decision that Harlan questions. "The state licensing agency for group homes has 14 levels, with 14 providing the highest-level care for psychiatric needs," Harlan points out. "St. Nicholas was a Level 5 home. That's a pretty low level." Harlan declines, however, to cast final judgment on the group-home placement. "That part of the investigation is still under way," she says.

Whether St. Nicholas was the appropriate placement for Mallorga may be an open question. But it is absolutely certain that tragedy quickly followed the placement.

Lee and Harlan say it is unclear what information about Mallorga's mental state at St. Nicholas was transmitted to the Probation Department and, by extension, Flowers and the commission. "That is where we are at right now in our investigation," Harlan says. But, Lee contends, the group-home director did make reports to the Probation Department about Mallorga's continued depression.

Mallorga's condition rapidly deteriorated at the home, and it is clear that he did not get appropriate treatment. He began sniffing STP gas treatment to get high, Lee says, and running away from the home. He also started smoking marijuana again. Around Christmas, he began pining for the home and family he never knew. In a page straight from Dickens, he was left alone at the group home as the holidays approached. After calling a friend and pleading to be taken back to Guatemala, Mallorga strung up a sheet in his closet and succeeded in killing himself.

It is in the aftermath of the suicide that, the source claims, Flowers and the Probation Commission most obviously failed to carry out their responsibilities.

Probation Department policy requires that a special committee be formed after a suicide occurs in the YGC, or in a group home under the agency's control. That committee is required to determine the causes of the death and probe oversights by staff and administration that may have contributed to it.

"It was never done," the source says.
Flowers rejects the argument that he or the commission did not discharge their duties properly. "We did everything we were supposed to," he says. In fact, Flowers says he had no responsibility for Mallorga's mental well-being at all. In an interview, he says that the mental health of youthful offenders is the sole responsibility of the Health Department, which staffs the YGC with psychiatric staff.

He also says that the requirement that a post-suicide analysis be performed did not apply to Mallorga's case because he had been placed in a group home. "He was not in our custody," he says. "That investigation is done by the police and the coroner."

Lee, however, says offenders released to group homes are still the legal responsibility of the chief probation officer: "It says so right there in the court documents. Flowers doesn't know what his responsibilities are."

Probation commissioners did not respond by deadline to interview requests left with the commission secretary, Don Chan.

When the Justice Commission finishes its investigation, commissioners will vote on its findings, make recommendations for action, and forward the report to the Superior Court. The report is expected to be completed in early July.

If the final report finds that the Juvenile Probation Commission or Flowers failed to perform required duties, the mayor could well seize on the results. Under his charter powers, he could charge the commission and/or Flowers with misconduct. If Brown chooses to make such a charge, the case would then go to the Ethics Commission and, likely, land at the Board of Supervisors, a body dominated by liberals, for final determination. Every step of this process can be expected to include high-pitched political wailing. Whether the process memorializes Mallorga with lasting reforms in the juvenile justice system, or merely serves as an orderly way of staging a political coup, remains to be seen.

About The Author

George Cothran


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