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Youth suicide a major issue raised in PD confirmation hearing

Acting Public Defender Michael White
“A lot of times… parents are simply not aware of what’s going on in their children’s lives”

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Suicide among juveniles was one of the issues raised by Sen. Fonoti Ta’ifa Aufata during the Senate Judicial Committee confirmation hearing as Public Defender for Michael White — a father of four children.

Young people committing suicide is the latest hot topic issue in the community and when White told the committee that the Public Defender’s Office also handles juvenile cases, that opened up the way for Fonoti to ask if this ASG agency deals with suspected cases of juvenile suicide and “what are you going to do to solve that problem of suicide” with juveniles.

White said he personally handles a lot of juvenile cases. “At the initial intake, if we suspect that there’s an issue or a problem the young man or young lady has, I would try to counsel them,” he said, and pointed out that “I’m a father, I have four children.”

“I counsel them and their parents and let them know that somebody is there for them. It’s an issue — suicide — that needs more attention and we refer them to the Behavior Health Services for an evaluation, to make sure that nothing like that happens,” he explained.

Fonoti — who emphasized that it’s the role of the parents to advise and look after their children instead of spending time elsewhere — asked if the parents are also consulted if the issue arises.

White said yes, and that “I bring them to the office and make them aware of it. A lot of times, these parents are simply not aware of what’s going on in their children’s lives. Sometimes it’s easier for someone from the outside, to look in, to help a parent understand what’s going on.”

“It [has] happened to me in my life and my children. They were involved in things that I did not know about,” he said.

“Sometimes an outsider can point out things that parents aren’t seeing — [such as] the signs of drug abuse, mental problems — that I can see being on the outside,” he said.

Fonoti argued that all the good and bad things when it comes to children, starts from the family, the parents.

Another senator interjected there are other ASG agencies that deal directly with this urgent issue.

In a high-priority public health announcement earlier this week, the Health Department pointed out that its Behavior Health Services — located at the Haleck Professional Building — is open Monday to Friday, from 8a.m. to 4p.m.

“Many people have lost their lives prematurely due to suicide and this has affected our community deeply. Even one life lost is too many,” according to the announcement, signed by Health director Motusa Tuileama Nua, as DoH continues its media suicide awareness program.

DoH encourages parents, families, faith-based communities, school and cultural leaders “to show empathy and support for the vulnerable of those at high risk. Call our behavioral health clinic to arrange community outreach services.”

“If you or someone you know is feeling overwhelmed or hopeless and needs someone to talk to, call DoH Suicide Hotline - 220,” the statement says. “Help is available. You are loved and not alone. Talk to someone today.”

Of note, the DoH Suicide Hotline is open to ALL … not just youth to contact, or to talk.


During White’s confirmation hearing, Fonoti queried about the cases handled by the PD’s Office, to which the nominee explained that “we try to make a determination which cases, where people want to admit their guilt and get those cases resolved as fast as we can, through a plea or sometimes negotiations.”

White also said “there’s always a handful of people who say they did not commit” the alleged crime and his office has to “commit more time to those people, to investigate the case.”

“But the ones who admit their guilt, we try to get them out as fast as we can. Unfortunately, the court has suspended all jury trials right now,” he said.

Questioned by Fonoti on funding to operate the PD’s Office, White said that a couple of weeks ago he received a letter from Criminal Justice Planning Agency that “we’ve been awarded a grant” under COVID-19 federal funding for about $120,000.  He said his office is sorting through this grant to see how best to use this money.

“Do you have [Samoan] interpreters in your office?” Fonoti asked and White — who is from the state of Georgia —  responded, “yes”, and that the office has an investigator and the support staff — all of them Samoans — who provide Samoan translations.

See yesterday’s Samoa News edition for other issues during White’s confirmation hearing in the Senate.