March 23, 2023

Article at San Diego Union-Tribune

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Before 16-year-old died in custody, staff failed to conduct safety checks, review board finds

The civilian review board that oversees the San Diego County Probation Department voted Tuesday to sustain findings that staff at the Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility failed to conduct appropriate safety checks the night 16-year-old Alan Arguelles died from a fentanyl overdose.

Staff were not conducting “proof of life” checks every 15 minutes as state regulation and department policy both require, investigators with the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board found.

“It was impossible that ‘signs of life’ of Alan in his room were observed by Probation staff during each safety check conducted,” the findings say.

Alan was last seen alive at 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 7, 2021, according to his autopsy report.

At 7 a.m. the next day, when staff entered his cell to check on him, he was already deceased.

A blurry black-and-white selfie photo of a teenaged boy and a woman kissing his cheek
(Courtesy of Brenda Arguelles)

The autopsy report noted that he had “a portable DVD player resting on his chest” and a “large amount of foam” coming out of his mouth — an indication of a fatal overdose.

The findings by the review board stopped short of saying that proper safety checks could have saved Alan’s life.

“Probation failed to identify Alan was in medical distress prior to his death,” the findings say. “However, it was unknown if Alan’s death could have been prevented, even if Probation staff identified Alan was having a medical emergency and administered life-saving measures.”

A lawsuit filed last month by Alan’s mother, Brenda Arguelles, notes that the teen had already overdosed on fentanyl in custody two days before he died, requiring a visit to the on-site ER.

He was treated and returned to his room — but no one contacted his mother, nor was he closely monitored, the lawsuit says.

Days before he died in juvenile detention, 16-year-old Alan Arguelles had already overdosed there, suit says

Feb. 18, 2023

According to the lawsuit, Alan was taken into custody in late May 2021, after being admitted to Rady’s Children’s Hospital for being under the influence of alcohol, marijuana and methamphetamine.

Alan, who struggled in school and had been diagnosed with acute post-traumatic stress disorder, told a juvenile hall psychiatrist that he used drugs “to escape symptoms of hopelessness, insomnia, irritability, and feeling sad more often than not,” the lawsuit says.

His mother’s lawsuit also argues that staff failed to keep fentanyl out of the juvenile hall. His autopsy report notes that he was last seen “leaving cell 404 (whose) inmate was suspected to be dealing fentanyl.”

Review board findings say that a review of probation department documents revealed that “staff did have a concern that illegal substances were present in the Facility where Alan was housed, and subsequently conducted room searches and ‘unit shakedowns.’”

A spokesperson for the county probation department told The San Diego Union-Tribune last month that aside from Alan Arguelles’ death, there were no other instances of suspected fentanyl use in the Kearny Mesa facility in 2020 or 2021.

The review board did not issue any findings against individual probation officers and instead placed blame for inadequate safety checks on the department. The findings also note that of the seven officers assigned to conduct safety checks that night, three no longer work for the department.

A spokesperson for the agency declined to comment on the review board’s findings, citing the lawsuit.

Kimberly Trimble, the attorney representing Brenda Arguelles, spoke at Tuesday’s review board meeting on behalf of the Arguelles family. She thanked the board’s staff for showing Brenda “respect, compassion, and professionalism” during the process of the investigation.

“During Brenda’s interview, it became clear to us that the investigators cared about Brenda’s loss and were determined to get to the bottom of what happened to Alan,” Trimble said. “We are very grateful for their recognition of the systematic failures that resulted in the tragic and preventable loss of Alan’s life.”

Trimble told the Union-Tribune that she hoped the probation department will take the board’s findings seriously “and accept responsibility for the systematic failures that resulted in Alan’s death without requiring Ms. Arguelles to spend years in litigation.”