YSI: Big Unanswered Question in Death of Kendrea Johnson, 6-Year-Old Foster Youth

In late December, six-year-old Kendrea Johnson was found dead, hanging by a jump rope from the ceiling of her room in a Brooklyn Park, Minn. foster home.

The police have decided it was not a homicide, and that it was either a suicide or an accident. Suffice to say, the Internet was alive with skeptics of the police department’s decision to close the case and leave it at that.

Dozens of people on social media feeds decried the notion that a six-year-old could fathom, let alone follow through with, taking her own life.

Youth Services Insider highly recommends yesterday’s Minnesota Star Tribune report, which highlights some troubling things about Johnson’s life in care leading up to this tragedy. But we did feel the need to chime in with a pertinent question that seems to have gone unanswered and perhaps unasked thus far:

Could psychotropic drugs have been involved here?

First, let’s set aside the collective denial that very young children are capable of and willing to commit suicide. The research is hardly robust, but sixty-eight children under the age of 12 killed themselves in 2003. In 2006, the number was 56. It absolutely happens, and we absolutely need more research on why.

If Johnson did commit suicide in her room that night, she would not be the first very young foster child to commit suicide. Florida foster youth Gabriel Myers, at the age of seven, hung himself in 2009.

One clearly alarming factor in the death of  Gabriel Myers is the fact that, in his short life, he had already been prescribed three powerful psychiatric drugs: Lexapro, Zyprexa and Symbyax. Myers was on two of them at the time of his death.

Zyprexa is an antipsychotic medication, Lexapro is an antidepressant, and Symbyax is a combination of both. All three carry a risk of suicidal thoughts or actions.

So: Did Kendrea Johnson’s treatment include the prescription of heavy mental health drugs? YSI was surprised that information had not surfaced in the weeks since Johnson’s death.

Brooklyn Park Deputy Chief Mark Bruley confirmed to a local NBC affiliate that Johnson had been getting treatment for emotional problems, including suicidal thoughts. The Star-Tribune, using documents its reporters had obtained, reported that treatment providers from LifeSpan – the organization that treated Johnson for her emotional problems – had noted “homicidal and suicidal thoughts every day.”

In the week before her death, LifeSpan noted that the thoughts had decreased to five days a week.

YSI has contacted child protection officials and police involved in the investigation of Kendrea Johnson’s death, and asked whether Johnson was taking antipsychotic or psychotropic medications.

Deputy Chief Mark Bruley has not returned calls for comment. Janine Moore, area director for the Hennepin County Human Services Department, returned an email saying simply, “I am sorry however I can’t help you.”

It is a question that deserves an answer as public officials, the media, law enforcement and others try to figure out what might have gone so terribly wrong for Kendrea Johnson. The reliance on mind-altering drugs to treat foster youths is an issue being discussed at the national level; read here, here, and here for starters.

Florida bucked the traditional “close the ranks” approach to investigating child fatalities and set up a website to update the public about the case and created a work group to assess the tragedy.

On our question and the many others people will have, Hennepin County should consider the same approach. This tragedy is going to be investigated, and written about; transparency is the better route.

Youth Services Insider is mostly written by Chronicle Editor John Kelly.

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