SANTA FE, N.M. — It seems pretty clear that heroin at least contributed to Santa Fe teenager Desiree Gonzales’ death in May – a friend told police they had been shooting up together the night she died.
What’s less clear are the details of how she was handled or observed as she was shifted between the hospital and a county lockup before the 17-year-old died.
Santa Fe County is refusing to provide any records about an internal investigation of the incident, citing legal restrictions on releasing information about children held in juvenile facilities.
The county “cannot provide you a copy of any investigative report which may exist pertaining to a juvenile held at the Santa Fe County juvenile detention facility,” deputy county attorney Rachel Brown said in an email.
A few days after Gonzales died, county spokeswoman Kristine Mihelcic said that, while she couldn’t discuss details, an internal investigation was underway that generally would look at “overall policies and procedures” at the juvenile detention center. The investigation was expected to take a week to 10 days, she said on May 12.
The county now appears to be taking the position that even an investigation of policies and procedures – not just records about Desiree Gonzales herself – can be kept secret. On Thursday, Mihelcic said she had no comment when asked about that.
Gonzales died May 8 after police were called to a report of a heroin overdose at an apartment, and found Gonzales “unconscious and barely breathing” on the bathroom floor. Responding medics gave her Narcan to reverse the effects of heroin.
She was examined at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, then cleared for release for incarceration at the Youth Development Facility. She was sent to the lockup because of an arrest warrant for a probation violation from an earlier offense, apparently for running away from a residential treatment center.
A corrections officer told police the girl was “out of it” when she was booked into the juvenile center but was responsive and called her mother. Gonzales was later found unresponsive and was taken back to the hospital, where efforts to revive her failed.
Mihelcic said at the time that the center staff “regularly checked” on the girl after she was booked in.
Do records exist?
The county, in email responses to the Journal, now won’t confirm whether any report of the incident now exists.
The Journal, under the state Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA), filed a request on June 6, seeking the results of the county’s investigation of the case.
On June 19, county paralegal Kathleen A. Ortiz, on behalf of county records custodian Robin Gurule, wrote that the information the newspaper seeks is exempt from disclosure under a section of IPRA dealing with juvenile records.
“Social, medical and psychological records obtained by juvenile probation and parole officers, the juvenile parole board or in the possession of the Children, Youth and Families Department are privileged and may be inspected only by authorized persons,” that section states.
Ortiz did not respond to follow-up email queries asking if the investigation had been completed and when.
Assistant County Manager Erik Aaboe said on Monday that he spoke with county attorneys and “they stand behind their positions.” He referred questions to deputy county attorney Brown.
Brown responded by email Wednesday that it’s a misdemeanor for the county to release records under the IPRA exemption for juvenile jail records that the county cites, given “the apparent breadth of the confidentiality provision, which restricts access to all records pertaining to the child.”
Susan Boe, executive director for the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, who reviewed the county’s denial letter, disagrees.
“The confidentiality statute upon which the county relies was designed to protect the child,” Boe wrote in an email. “But this is a different situation and it seems to be protecting the actions of the facility where a child died while in the custody of a government entity.”
She noted that, “If a child dies from abuse, certain information can clearly be released to the public under New Mexico law, including a summary of the investigation. That same analysis should apply here, where an incident report is being sought.”
The county’s denial of records letter also includes a reference to possible future records requests. “Santa Fe County reserves the right to assert other applicable exemptions with respect to individual records in the future,” the letter states.
Dad can’t get information
Waldo Anaya, Desiree Gonzales’ father, also can’t get any information about the investigation into his daughter’s death. “They actually gave us the same answer,” said Anaya, that “‘we are not going to give you anything regarding this’ and that we would have to go through the legal system.”
“I’m somewhat upset,” he said. “They (the county) are just trying to cover themselves. We’ll go through whatever process through the legal system to get what we need to get.”
Anaya’s attorney, Lee Hunt, was in a trial all week but relayed through his assistant that he would keep pushing to obtain any reports.
A spokesman for Christus St. Vincent said at the time of the girl’s death that an emergency room physician determines when someone can be released from the hospital, “based on the patient’s disposition.” No further comment on the case was available from the hospital this week.
The juvenile detention facility may not have been required to accept Gonzales after she was returned from the hospital, according to a law called the federal Emergency Medical Treatment Act.
A patient’s transfer from a hospital depends on whether a patient has become stable, said the website for the act. “Of course, the question of whether the patient has become stable is sure to generate factual and medical issues when litigation ensues, so the prudent hospital is cautioned to tread carefully here,” states the website.
Results of an autopsy on Gonzales are not yet available from the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator.