A 12-year-old boy died Friday after inhaling propellant from an aerosol can at MacLaren Children's Center, the first death at the county shelter in more than 15 years.
In a tragic irony, the instrument of Jason Pokrzywinski's death was apparently a gift from volunteers who hoped to improve the life of children at the shelter, authorities said. The boy inhaled fumes from hairstyling foam to get a high, one of his fellow foster children told administrators.
Jason staggered out of a bedroom just after noon and collapsed in front of several other children and staff members who were just sitting down to lunch at the El Monte facility. Paramedics and police responded, but the boy was pronounced dead at 2 p.m. at Greater El Monte Community Hospital.
County officials said the death underscores the need to reconfigure care at MacLaren, which is designed as a short-term shelter for foster children, not for patients like Jason with severe emotional or mental problems.
"This kind of kid presents a problem for us," said MacLaren Director Jerry Watkins. "Our policies and program are really for shelter care."
But county officials stressed that they did their best to care for Jason in the 16 days he was at the shelter.
The child had received one-on-one supervision 16 hours a day since he arrived at MacLaren in late September. At night, he slept in a common area so that counselors could supervise him. A counselor provided Jason with daily therapy, county officials said.
The boy received the special attention because of four previous psychiatric hospitalizations and suicidal behavior, according to Watkins. He had a history of inhaling aerosol fumes to get high, the administrator said.
Jason's personal social worker told administrators that--in the few seconds that he was preparing the boy's lunch inside a cottage of MacLaren's "Tiger" wing--his charge slipped into a bedroom. There, the boy apparently found a bottle of the hair foam that had been given to another child earlier in the week by the United Friends of the Children, a charitable and volunteer group.
Administrators approved the delivery of the gifts to the children, Watkins said.
Several officials, including Watkins, said the death reinforces the need to find a separate facility to house mentally unstable children who fall under county protection.
Despite precautions, the shelter is not designed to house mental health patients and much of its staff is not trained to deal with them.
"We have been working very hard with the Department [of Children and Family Services] to separate out these mental health kids and find a place for them," said Norine Boehmer, a member of the county Commission on Children and Families.
The problem is often exacerbated as children are forced out of psychiatric hospitals when their Medi-Cal or other insurance benefits run out, Boehmer said. It was not immediately known why Jason was transferred out of a psychiatric hospital to MacLaren.
To find space for the growing number of mentally disturbed youths, some alternative facility must be found, officials said.
It was less than a year ago that some employees at the children's shelter and an outside consultant complained about overcrowding and what the consultant called an overly aggressive treatment of children by some staff members.
Now county administrators are trying to institute a system that relies more on positive reinforcement. Those goals have been made more difficult because of the shelter's population problems. With 200 children in the home this week, MacLaren is at least 30% over its preferred capacity.
Pokrzywinski's death is the first at MacLaren since the early 1980s, when a young girl died of a combination of chronic illnesses.