By Mark Young
Published: Thursday, August 28, 2008 4:51 AM CDT
The North Platte Telegraph
The horror of losing a child is tough enough, but having the child's death incorrectly certified as suicide can only worsen the tragedy.That is the even darker side of the coin when it comes to tragedies related to the "choke-out" game - a potentially deadly activity in which children strangle themselves to achieve a high. It's an activity that recently took the life of 9-year-old Tyler Evan Anderson of Ogallala.If there is such a thing as a silver lining in Anderson's case, it would be the careful consideration of Keith County Attorney Blake Edwards, who saw the case for what it was - an unfortunate accident.But for other families who have suffered similar tragedies involving the "choke-out" game, suicide is often named as the cause of death when there is little evidence other than how the body is discovered.Such was the case for Sandi Stefkovich, of Lincoln, who lost her 14-year-old son Stephan in May 2006.
Stephan, by all accounts, was a happy, normal 14-year-old, but authorities found him hanging in his bedroom. His death was certified as a suicide, and for the next three weeks, his mother not only had to deal with the loss of her son, but also the thought that he took his own life."Only we know now that he didn't commit suicide," Stefkovich said. "Three weeks after Stephan died, his friends came forward and told me that he been playing the choking game."That made more sense to Stefkovich."I searched his room after he died looking for anything, some type of note that would indicate that he was unhappy or hated life," she said. "I didn't find anything."After doing her own research, Stefkovich realized that the signs of the choking game had been there all along."He had bloodshot eyes, was locking his door, was getting more headaches and I saw a mark on his neck one time," she said. "He explained it away as horsing around. The signs were there, but I didn't know what to look for at the time and they were spread out enough that I didn't connect them together."Stefkovich did suspect drug use, but did not find any indication of her son doing drugs through searches of his room."He didn't do drugs," he said. "What I found is that most of the kids playing this game don't do drugs. He was a happy, normal 14-year-old and popular within his group of friends. There were other times when I heard strange noises from his room, but I thought he was doing things a normal 14-year-old boy would do that a mom really doesn't want to see."Stephan's death is still ruled a suicide. His death occurred prior to the release of a report from the Center for Disease Control about the "choke-out" game and the number of deaths that have been attributed to this dangerous activity. Stefkovich said that the numbers in the 2007 report, which indicates 82 deaths from 1995-2007 amongst children aged 6-19, are likely much lower than reality, considering the attitude of authorities up to the release of the report."When his friends told me what Stephan had been doing, I went to the authorities and they told me the choking game was urban legend," she said. "They never asked me any questions about Stephan as to his state of mind. They simply ruled his death a suicide and won't talk to me any more about it."Stefkovich now pleads with other parents to educate themselves about this deadly game."I just wonder how many other parents who are out there that still think their child killed themselves," she said. "I had to face that for three horrible weeks.
There needs to be more education. Parents need to be aware of what their children are doing and check them."
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