Boston Globe, May 1, 1998

Another youth dead following 'restraint'
By Doris Sue Wong and Daniel Vasquez, Globe Staff

The Middlesex district attorney's office has begun a preliminary investigation into the death of a 16-year-old boy after he was physically restrained by two counselors at a group home for troubled youths.

Mark Soarez was taken to Marlboro Hospital Thursday night after officials from Wayside Union Academy dialed 911 to say he had stopped breathing, authorities said. He was declared dead about 6:40 p.m.

Soarez, originally from Hyde Park, had been placed in a room by himself after an angry fit, and was subdued by the counselors when he began punching walls, said Middlesex First Assistant District Attorney John McEvoy.

McEvoy, who is leading the investigation, said the medical examiner's office began an autopsy yesterday, but the decision whether to proceed with a criminal probe will not be made until the autopsy is finished.

''Right now it is too early to say what happened. But we are trying to find out facts behind Mark Soarez's death,'' McEvoy said. ''We have been interviewing staff and residents of the home and we'll sit down with the medical examiner to see what we have.''

Reached by telephone yesterday, Soarez's family said they were too distraught to talk about him. Meanwhile, reports of the death renewed calls to end the use of physical restraining techniques on young children under state supervision.

Typically, an out-of-control child in such a program will be wrestled to the ground, his arms pinned behind him, and held by staff until he calms down. Wayside does not use any restraint devices.

Yesterday, McEvoy would not discuss early reports that Soarez died of a heart attack.

''All we can say is two counselors tried to calm him down, and they were forced to physically restrain him,'' McEvoy said. Soon after, he said, they noticed the boy had stopped breathing. [Emphasis added]

It was the third time in about a year that a ward of the state in New England has died while being physically restrained. [Emphasis added]

On April 21, 1997, 12-year-old Robert Rollins died at the Devereaux School in Rutland after a staff worker held the boy face-down on the floor, with his arms crossed over his chest, for 10 minutes. The worker, Lori Fisher, did not let up even after the boy began making ''barking noises,'' according to a Department of Social Services report.

An autopsy showed Rollins died of asphyxiation.

''Oh my God, not again,'' said Rollins's aunt, Sheila Ford. Since Rollins's death, Ford has tried to persuade lawmakers to ban restraining practices. Ford said she has sought criminal charges against those responsible for her nephew's death.

''I'm devastated,'' Ford said. ''There's no end in sight to these cases.''

Last month, 11-year-old Andrew McClain died at the Elmcrest psychiatric hospital in Portland, Conn., after being restrained in a hold similar to that used against Rollins.

Yesterday, officials at the Wayside Youth and Family Support Network, the private, nonprofit agency that runs Wayside Academy under a DSS contract, kept the front doors to their Framingham headquarters locked.

Wayside president Eric L. Masi emerged briefly to read a prepared statement about Soarez's death, but refused to answer questions or provide much detail. He confirmed the boy died after staff members physically restrained him, but said no restraint devices had been used.

''Obviously, it is a tragedy any time a youngster dies and our hearts go out to his family,'' said Masi. ''We have been and remain in regular contact with the family.

Masi said Wayside has operated group homes since the 1970s for thousands of troubled teenagers. ''This is the first time we have ever had a circumstance even approaching this level of magnitude,'' he said.

Located on a tree-shaded residential street in the Hickory Hill neighborhood of Marlborough, the Wayside Union Academy is licensed by the state to serve up to 30 youths ages 12 through 18. Girls stay in a large white clapboard house, and boys live in a smaller, gray-shingled carriage house nearby.

Douglas Pizzi of the state Office of Child Care Services, which licenses facilities like Wayside Union Academy, said there have been three verified complaints against the facility since it opened in 1993. Each complaint involved consensual sex between the youngsters housed there.

Department of Social Services spokeswoman Lorraine Carli said Soarez first entered the state child welfare system in 1983, when a child abuse and neglect complaint against his parents was investigated and confirmed.

About a year later, Soarez was placed with his aunt, and seemed to thrive for about 10 years. Believing the youth and aunt were doing well, DSS closed his case in 1994.

But two years later, the aunt sought help from the state. Apparently unable to manage her nephew's unruly behavior, she asked the court to place him in DSS custody.

Because he was hard to control, Carli said, Soarez was transferred to two treatment programs in two years, each more restrictive, before coming to Wayside.

''He's had a history of severe behavioral and emotional problems,'' said Carli. ''He's had a history of verbally and physically assaulting staff in programs other than Wayside.''

''This program takes the toughest of the tough DSS kids,'' she said. At Wayside, she said, youths' time is highly structured, featuring school and counseling on the grounds of the facility, assigned chores and privileges granted for good behavior.

''They've been good neighbors,'' said Cosmo Valente, a retiree who lives in a ranch house next door. ''It really hasn't been a problem.''

Shawn Richardson, 16, of Dorchester, a resident at Wayside for the past two months, described Soarez as a short, burly youth and a ''great kid.''

Richardson said the incident began after Soarez wanted time to himself to shadow box, but was denied. At one point during the struggle, Richardson said, he heard Soarez say, ''I can't [expletive] breathe.''

Yesterday, Richardson's parents had decided to remove him from Wayside Academy after the staff told him about Soarez's death.

''I put him in there for running away. But to me, this is too much,'' said his father, James Gresham, 38. ''I come to find out this place is no better than the streets.''

Globe correspondent Karleen Kozaczka contributed to this report.

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