Editor's note: If you or a loved one is in crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK).
FARGO — A couple has sued the Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch, alleging the south Fargo facility is responsible for the suicide of their 12-year-old daughter.
Attorneys for Manda and Alfonzo Roberson filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of their daughter, Aliana, against the residential treatment and education center for children. Defendants named in the lawsuit also include staff members involved in Aliana's care.
The family is asking for $5 million in damages and compensation.
“Defendants deliberately ignored all of the explicit warnings (Aliana) provided to them upon her arrival to — and throughout her stay at — the Ranch,” a civil complaint said. “Defendants also failed to ensure that (Aliana), who was suffering from a mental health crisis, did not have the means and opportunity to (take her own life) during her admission at the Ranch on October 2, 2018.”
The complaint, filed Jan. 7, details the events leading up to Aliana’s death. She was diagnosed with several mental illnesses and previously attempted to harm herself, the complaint said.
The Robersons asked that their daughter's name be included in this story. They said they wanted people to know Aliana's name, that her story isn't over and that they are her voice now.
The Robersons' attorney, Kathryn Bennett, said that “most of our clients come to us not wanting this to happen to anyone else.” Bennett stressed the importance of raising awareness of suicide among children so people can recognize signs of mental illness in youth and seek help early on.
The Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch referred questions to its attorney, William Behrmann. The facility works with children who have "the most difficult of traumas, psychiatric issues and behavioral challenges," he said.
"Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch works to treat each child and family with respect, professionalism and compassion," he said.
While Aliana's death is tragic, Berhmann said, the ranch and its staff are not responsible for her death.
"This incident was investigated by law enforcement, multiple agencies and accrediting bodies," he said. "Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch fully cooperated with the investigations and it is my understanding that in all instances the investigations were closed without further action."
In May 2018, Aliana became a ward of the state, the complaint said. She was admitted to the Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch on Aug. 20, 2018, for psychiatric care, according to court documents.
A doctor classified Aliana as “very high risk,” the complaint said. At first, staff were required to observe her at all times until Aug. 21, 2018.
A treatment plan that expired Sept. 12, 2018, indicated Aliana could not have items in her room, her door had to remain open and she must return to “line of sight” monitoring if she “expressed any suicidal ideation or self-harm,” according to the complaint.
Despite the girl making comments about harming herself and showing other signs of depression, a second plan was created in mid-September 2018 that listed her as low risk, the complaint said.
Staff cited behavioral issues on Oct. 2, 2018, that led to them physically restraining Aliana and putting her into the “Hope and Healing Room,” which triggered her and made her cry, the complaint said. Aliana was eventually allowed to return to her residential pod, according to the complaint.
Other behavioral problems prompted a staff member to tell Aliana she would not attend school the next day and that her “studio privileges were suspended,” the complaint said.
"The news of these punishments greatly upset (Aliana) and she became very quiet," the complaint said.
That night, when staff opened the bathroom door for her, Aliana propped it open and returned to her bedroom to grab a fitted sheet, the complaint said.
Staff said they saw Aliana grab something from her room and conceal it before entering the bathroom, according to the complaint. Staff did not try to determine what she took into the bathroom, nor did they try to stop her, the complaint alleged.
Employees checked on the girl while she was in the bathroom “but made no further attempt to decipher what (she) was attempting to conceal,” the complaint said. At one point, Aliana said something to the effect of “I don’t want to live anymore,” the complaint said.
While Aliana was in the bathroom, staff found a suicide note on her mattress, the complaint said. One staff member “attempted to explain away the importance of such a note — stating such statements are not uncommon” for Aliana, according to the complaint.
The complaint alleged that staff saw the fitted sheet was missing from the mattress. Staff later discovered Aliana hanged herself with the sheet in the bathroom, where staff couldn't see her, the complaint said.
The complaint said staff members had a duty to protect Aliana from herself but acted with indifference toward her medical needs, including her risk of harming herself. The complaint alleges the facility also bears responsibility for permitting practices that failed to prevent the suicide.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for children ages 10-14 in the U.S., according to 2018 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
From 2000 to 2019, North Dakota lost 156 youth ages 18 and under to suicide, and 51 of them were 15 years old or younger, according to the North Dakota Department of Health.
The youngest was 11 years old, said North Dakota Suicide Prevention Coalition Chairwoman Kora Dockter.