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Hammond family broken by son's suicide

HAMMOND — Despite the sounds of small children running through the house and playing together, there is an air of sadness in the Cardoza/Moreno household. 

The neat brick family home sits on a corner lot in Hammond's Robertsdale section. On a sleek, dark brown wood table in the kitchen, there is a makeshift shrine to the couple's second-oldest son, Maynor Barrientos.

There are three photos of him, one showing him holding his beloved dog, Chiquis, as the family cat, Ash, slithers along the floor. Candles surround the pictures because his stepfather, David Moreno, said Maynor will need light on his way to heaven. There is a cup of water for him to quench his thirst during his travels.

Moreno said that's part of the family's culture following a death. Moreno is from Mexico. His wife and Barrientos' mother, Mildred Cardoza, is from Guatemala.

Maynor, 16, was a junior at East Chicago Central High School, though most of his school history was in the School City of Hammond. The teen killed himself Dec. 3.

Moreno and Cardoza sit side by side at the table with Moreno holding his wife around the shoulders or touching her hands as tears roll down her cheeks. Cardoza's mother, Milagros Escamilla, who lives with the family, looks on saying nothing as they talk.

The family is working through their pain.

"It's sad. It's really painful. We just want people to be aware of what's going on with their kids," Moreno said.

"They need to watch out for the signs, watch out for their kids. It's a pain that we don't want any other parent to go through."

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Maynor Barrientos

A memorial in the family home of Maynor Barrientos, 16, who committed suicide Dec. 3.

Suicide a local, national concern

According to the federal Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2015, Indiana had the third-highest rate of high school students among most states, who have seriously contemplated suicide, or 19.8 percent. Indiana had the 10th-highest rate of high school students attempting suicide at 9.9 percent.

The 2015 Youth Risk Behavior survey was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC surveyed high school students in 37 states; not all 37 states responded to every question.

According to the Indiana State Department of Health, in 2014 there were 119 people ages 15 to 24 who committed suicide. In 2015, the number was up to 129 for the same age range. Lake and Marion counties lead the state for the highest suicide rate.

Indiana Youth Institute's Vice President of Advancement Glenn Augustine said experts say it seems like there are more issues today with anxiety.

Augustine said parents sometimes can't afford the cost of mental health care, and insurance will only cover so much before the parent has to begin making payments, which can become expensive. He said there's also a stigma about suicide.

Augustine said early signs of potential problems could be withdrawal, a change in a child's behavior, change in appearance, a change in friends, depression or moodiness.

"One of those changes by itself may be something kind of temporary, but if you see them compounding, that's when you really need to talk to your child," he said.

"Oftentimes, there are suicide hotlines that are available, a trusted friend or a counselor who can put you in touch with a mental health professional," Augustine said. "Or go to a social worker at school who can get resources to help the student."

Experts say families should be active participants in their youngster's life.

Lisa Brattain is the Indiana/Ohio director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Her son took his life, which sparked her mission to help other young people. She said people always should seek professional help when they become aware that someone they love is in mental distress.

"Think of it in terms of how you would respond if your loved one had a potentially fatal illness — like cancer or diabetes," she said.

"It would be the hope that family members would do their best to be informed about their loved one's illness and seek knowledge on how to best support their treatment."

Brattain said there is training to teach people what resources are available in their immediate community. She said depression is the leading cause of suicide, but other conditions such as anxiety, borderline personality disorder, bipolar depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and others also are contributing factors to suicide.

Brattain said suicide is a national health concern that should be a priority for everyone in the community.

AFSP in partnership with the Trevor Project, the American School Counselor Association and the National Association of School Psychologists, created A Model School Policy on Suicide Prevention that is research-based and easily adaptable for middle school and high school, Brattain said.

Schools also can make suicide-prevention training for their staff a priority, rather than waiting for legislation to mandate training, she said.

Indiana currently requires new teachers seeking licensure to have training, but does not require already licensed teachers to be trained.

"It is important that all staff, bus drivers and coaches be trained, because we can encounter a student in crisis anywhere," Brattain said. "If we are prepared to respond appropriately, we can save a life."

Action at the state level

Indiana Department of Education spokeswoman Molly Deuberry said since 2013 state law has required teachers to complete education and training on preventing suicide and recognizing signs of suicide to get a teaching license.

Deuberry said the requirement can be met in several ways, and IDOE has resources on its website for available evidence-based suicide-prevention training. In addition, some teacher preparation programs have incorporated this training into college/university pre-service programs so college students meet this requirement by the time they graduate.

The Indiana House of Representatives on Feb. 14 approved state Rep. Julie Olthoff’s proposal that would require school employees to attend or participate in two hours of youth-suicide awareness and prevention training every two years. Olthoff is a Republican from Crown Point.

The law would require at least two hours of youth suicide awareness and prevention training every two years for each teacher, administrator, counselor, nurse and specialist who provides services to students. The training will qualify for professional development credits.

The bill is patterned after the Jason Flatt Act, Olthoff said. 

“Jason Flatt was a student and sports lover who committed suicide at age 16," she said.

"His father started a foundation and later helped create the act that was first adopted in Tennessee in 2007. It has now been passed by 19 states in all, and I hope to add Indiana to that list.”

Olthoff said it's heartbreaking to hear the statistics on youth suicide. She said more training for school employees on how to identify students who are contemplating suicide can potentially save lives.

That bill now moves to the Senate for consideration.

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Maynor Barrientos

A memorial in the family home of Maynor Barrientos, 16, who committed suicided Dec. 3.

Local agencies seek to help

A variety of agencies in Northwest Indiana are available to assist people, including Regional Mental Health in Merrillville, Edgewater Systems for Balanced Health in Gary and Porter Starke Services in Valparaiso.

Todd Willis, Porter-Starke Services director of prevention and education, said Porter-Starke regularly works with schools and offers parent workshops on how to look for warning signs of suicide.

"If you can catch folks that are suicidal and get them help, there is a high success rate" of survival, he said.

Ted Westerhof, spokesman for the Bowen Center, a comprehensive mental health center headquartered in Warsaw, Indiana, which provides services to 10 counties in northern Indiana, said it offers training to school districts. 

"Young people experience high levels of anxiety and other issues," he said.

"There are underlying mental health issues, and we try to identify those. We believe in the system-of-care approach. We go in and educate everyone at the school including the athletic coaches, bus drivers and food service staff. It has to be all-hands-on-deck. We put in a systematic approach where children have support," Westerhof said.

He said he's talked to teachers, and they want the training. He said he hopes schools will overcome suicide's stigma and institute a plan to train staff to be prepared. "We do so much better when we have a trained response," he said.

Experts said statistics show that more females attempt suicide but don't complete it. Fewer males attempt, but their rate is much higher because they use more lethal methods such as hanging and guns.

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Maynor Barrientos

A family photograph of David Moreno, his wife, Mildred Cardoza, and their children.

Family tried to cope

The Moreno family said Maynor was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, in elementary school, and doctors prescribed Adderall. He also received special education services for reading comprehension and language at Franklin Elementary School in the Hammond school district, but those services didn't continue through his middle and high school years.

His parents said he began having problems at George Rogers Clark Middle/High School, and those problems intensified as he got older.

Things really changed for Maynor in the fall of 2015, while a sophomore at Clark.

Through her tears, Cardoza said there was an incident at home where Maynor began breaking things and destroying the house, which caused the couple to call the police.

"We called the cops and they told us they could arrest him, but they pretty much said that if there were charges against him, we'd have to deal with the court system and get a lawyer and everything," Moreno said.

"We decided not to do that. They told us to reach out to the school system and to other agencies for help."

A month later, the parents learned about a major incident at Clark High School: Maynor was being held at the Hammond Police Department.

Hammond Police Lt. Richard Hoyda said a police report indicates that on Sept. 24, 2015, a 15-year-old juvenile was arrested at Clark High School for battery, criminal mischief and resisting law enforcement.

"The incident alleged is that the juvenile had attempted to remove the handgun from an off-duty police officer working security at the school. No one was injured and the juvenile was taken into police custody. We did not release the name of the person arrested as it was a juvenile (delinquent act) incident," Hoyda said last week in an email.

Cardoza said a teacher took away Maynor's cell phone, and he became angry. "He pushed the teacher, and the cops came and were fighting with him. He tried to take the officer's handgun," she said.

Moreno said he told school officials repeatedly his son needed to be tested for special education, but it wasn't done until he got into trouble. He said everything then was put on hold until the testing was completed.

Hammond schools Superintendent Walter Watkins said whenever a parent requests an evaluation, by state law, it must be done within 50 days.

"His problems were evident while at Clark High School," Watkins said.

"The things that were going on were behavioral issues. He had been suspended several times. There was evidence of aggressive behavior. In response to the aggressive behavior, he would be suspended."

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Maynor Barrientos

A drawing made by Maynor Barrientos's younger brother after Barrientos committed suicide Dec. 3.

Watkins said an evaluation was completed following Maynor's arrest. "The expulsion hearing was paused while he was tested. He did not qualify for special education services," Watkins said.

Maynor was sentenced to two weeks in the Lake County Juvenile Detention Center in Crown Point. While there, he was cut on the arm with a piece of glass by another teen and treated at a local hospital for his injury, his family said.

His mother said he didn't like the detention center and was scared. "He was scared of the police. He was scared about growing up," she said.

After the detention center, Moreno said Maynor was placed on probation, and he saw a therapist who came to the house. The couple said that lasted for about six months. Cardoza said Maynor seemed to do well and be happy.

"He really liked group therapy, too," she said. "He was better with the therapy. He finished that school year with an online program through Hammond High School."

In the days before Maynor Barrientos took his life, his family said he hadn't been attending school for several weeks, and had told his older brother that he was sad. Moreno said he tried to encourage Maynor to go to classes, and he turned off his Internet access in hopes Maynor might get bored. Instead, the teen played with his little brother and sister most days.

"That Saturday, he had been in the house most of the day, and he said he was going to visit a friend from Clark High School," Moreno said.

"He's a nice boy. He makes good grades so we thought that was fine. We had no idea Maynor never left the neighborhood."

Moreno said that Maynor and his older brother were close, and the older boy has been destroyed by this event. 

Hammond Superintendent Watkins said the school brought in grief counselors for students at Clark Middle/High School on Dec. 5.

Maynor's funeral was Dec. 8. The family said dozens of students attended the funeral. The family passed out yellow ribbons in Maynor's memory.

Moreno said the traditional school system works for some students but not for others.

"What about all of the kids that don't fit that system?" he asked.

"What do you do with them? How do you help them? We tried to reach out and get help. I failed him. We are not trying to blame the school, but we want them to understand that they also failed. We failed. They failed. The system failed."

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Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.