PHOENIX — The search for two mentally ill missing teens who ran away from an advanced behavioral health facility may be over, but the search for answers and accountability now begins.
The mother of one of the juveniles who escaped has now hired an attorney and plans to take legal action against Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health for negligence in allowing her son who has autism to escape from their care.
Shannon Edwards says her 16-year-old son was also severely depressed and was supposed to be on suicide watch. Edwards is also questioning how police responded to the case, asking why it took officers five days to alert the community the teens who were out on the streets after escaping from a locked facility.
Edward's attorney Benjamin Taylor is demanding the Arizona Department of Health Services and Child Protective Services look into the facility to ensure all vulnerable youth in their care are kept safe and secure so something like this does not happen again.
"That was the most devastating, traumatizing time of my life. I felt like my soul left my body," said Shannon Edwards, the mother of 16-year-old Gregory Edwards who ran away from Devereaux Arizona with another teen, Chazz Durfee who also suffers from a long list of mental illnesses including bipolar disorder, severe anxiety, and depression.
After six days on the streets, the boys were finally found by Gregory Edwards' mother, Shannon who drove around the Metrocenter mall area after getting tips of a sighting.
"These children were traumatized. They were cold, they were disoriented," said Edwards.
She says she tried to hold on to Chazz who was trying to run away as she approached him, and he kept telling her,"no stranger danger, no stranger danger."
Edwards says Chazz was childlike in his behavior and did not seem to realize how long they had been out on the streets on their own.
Now that their sons are safe at home, Edwards has turned her attention to seeking justice for her sons and all other mentally ill youth out there. She says no one seemed to care the boys had escaped from a facility tasked with caring for children with special needs, not even the police.
"There has to be some change. There has to be something done about the response from both the police department and these facilities. This is unacceptable. Unacceptable," said Edwards.
She realized it was not uncommon for children to run away from home and that police agencies are burdened with many reports of both adults and children missing every day, but Edwards said what heightened her concerns, in this case, was the fact that these juveniles suffered from mental illnesses.
"There was zero sense of urgency for my child and for that other young man. Zero sense of urgency. I even tried to spin the wheels on the police and say hey, for the safety of the public, even if you don't care for my "sunshine," for the safety of the public, find these children. They are not okay. They are ill, and it was like, 'oh okay, they are just runaways,'" said Edwards.
ABC15 reached out to Phoenix police last week, asking them why no public alerts or flyers had been put out informing the community to be on the look-out for two juveniles who escaped from an advanced behavioral healthcare facility. A police spokesperson told ABC15 the boys were considered "high functioning" cases of autism and that they ran away from the facility willingly.
Taylor says he takes issue with that response. "It's sad that they talk about mental health, but when it comes to actually doing something about mental health and doing something about children being protected, they really didn't take action here to try to find Ms. Edwards' son," said Taylor.
"If anything had happened to these children out there, what was going to be their response? Sorry? We told them he was autistic... I don't care if he was high functioning, no functioning, whatever. Does that negate the fact that he's autistic?" added Edwards.
Taylor said that Devereaux Arizona too needed to be held accountable.
"That's their only job here, is when you put your son in the care of a healthcare facility, their job is to watch and care for them. They breached their duty and didn't do their job," said Taylor.
ABC15 reached out to Phoenix Police to find out how they planned to handle cases involving missing mentally ill juveniles in the future. In a statement police say:
The Phoenix Police Department understands the sensitive nature of cases involving juveniles, and works with families in an effort to locate their loved ones. Officers responded to Devereux Behavioral Health on December 12, 2020 for two teenagers jumped a fence and ran away. A missing person report for the 15 year-old and 16-year old was taken and both teenagers were entered into the missing person database as they did not meet the requirements for an Amber or Silver Alert. Once the report was taken, the Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit conducted follow-up, including interviewing multiple people and checking locations. As the investigation progressed, flyers were created and shared internally as well as with external law-enforcement and public safety partners. Additionally, pictures and information were shared on the Phoenix Police Department’s Twitter page.
Police did not answer our questions about how such cases would be handled in the future.
"I think it was day 5 when they put out their bulletin, and even still, when the Phoenix police department finally showed up after we found the boys, the two officers who showed up didn't even realize these kids were missing. I'm like didn't you get a bulletin in your vehicles? That is what I was told. They didn't even realize who these two boys were," said Edwards.
ABC15 has also reached out to Devereux Arizona to find out what steps are being taken to prevent youth in their care from escaping again. In a statement they say:
“We are extremely grateful for the broad and urgent response from the community and law enforcement in helping to locate the teen boys. There is nothing more important to us than the safety and security of those in our care, and we remain in contact with the families to offer further assistance. As a private 10-acre school, we have significantly enhanced our safety and security protocols over time, including overhead campus fencing, key-fob secured entrance and exit doors, and more than 65 video cameras positioned throughout our campus. We will continue to review every aspect of our programs to find new and innovative methods to keep the populations we serve as secure as possible.”
Taylor said he was also demanding an investigation by the state Department of Health and children services. He added their goal was to ensure measures were put in place to prevent this from happening in the future, and a lawsuit would be filed against the facility in the near future, if deemed necessary.