Children lived in a “house of horrors” at one of the nation’s largest and most troubled shelters for foster youth, according to a lawsuit filed against Los Angeles County Tuesday. At least a dozen former residents were sexually abused by staff at the now-shuttered facility, lawyers allege, including children as young as 5.
The lawsuit, filed in the L.A. County Superior Court on behalf of eight women and four men, is described as the first in a series of similar cases attorneys plan to bring against the county. Their plaintiffs include “hundreds of former residents” who claim they were repeatedly sexually abused by employees of MacLaren Hall, also known as the MacLaren Children’s Center, located in a suburb of El Monte. The facility shut down almost 20 years ago, but many of the people who stayed there as children are still haunted by their time there.
The plaintiffs, all now in their 30s, are not being identified by name in the lawsuit. But court documents show they were as young as 5 years old at the time of the alleged abuse, which ranged from groping to rape. One plaintiff became pregnant by her abuser and gave birth to his child while living at MacLaren Hall, according to the complaint.
“The County of Los Angeles systematically failed to protect the welfare of the children in its care at MacLaren Hall for four decades,” stated plaintiffs’ attorney James W. Lewis of Slater Slater Schulman LLP in a press release. “It was overcrowded, dirty, and inhumane. Through a total lack of supervision, and by failing to respond to reports of abuse, the County stood by as hundreds — if not thousands — of society’s most vulnerable children entrusted to its care became victims of sexual assault.”
A spokesperson for the county’s Department of Children and Family Services, which managed MacLaren Hall at the time of its closure in 2003, said in a statement that they would not comment on pending litigation, but that “the allegations leveled in any civil claim should and will be thoroughly examined.”
“Our department has many safeguards in place to protect children in our care and to hold accountable those who violate laws and policies,” the statement said, adding that the department’s nearly 9,000 employees are “held to the highest standards.”
The lawsuit lists the County of Los Angeles and more than 150 unnamed county departments, officials and employees as defendants. They include alleged perpetrators as well as individuals who had a legal responsibility to ensure the care and safety of children in the county’s custody. The defendants “failed to properly screen, hire, train and supervise the County’s employees and agents that worked with and around children at MacLaren Hall,” the lawsuit alleges.
According to the complaint, dozens of staff members who worked at MacLaren Hall during the four decades it operated had criminal histories. The county did not routinely run background checks on staff there until 2001, two years before the facility closed. When it did check employees’ histories in 2001, at least 17 current staffers had backgrounds that disqualified them from working with children.
The 10-acre MacLaren Hall, which housed children from 1961 to June 2003, was shut down following a class-action lawsuit led by the American Civil Liberties Union. The facility was originally designed as a juvenile detention center and run by the county Probation Department, but in 1976 control was transferred to the Department of Social Services, and it became an emergency shelter for children entering foster care or changing placements.
Attorneys said even after transitioning to a shelter for abused and neglected children, the facility was still run like a prison. They described its locked doors surrounded by “sky-high walls” and “tall, barbed wire-topped fences,” with guards stationed at each exit. The environment was monitored, the lawsuit alleges, by the threat of physical force to keep residents “orderly.”
“It was a literal house of horrors for the children who were brought there, often taken from an abusive home only to be re-abused at MacLaren,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Adam P. Slater, founding partner of Slater Slater Schulman LLP, in a press release.
The abuses detailed in the lawsuit complaint are harrowing.
Several plaintiffs said staff members would regularly pull them out of their bedrooms at night and lead them to secluded locations where they would assault them. Another victim who was forced to sleep in a hallway reported an employee crawling into her bed beside her and forcing sexual acts. Others described their caretakers at MacLaren molesting them in the name of “punishment.”
The litany of terror alleged was not limited to older teens — most of the victims were 13 or younger when the abuse occurred. Two victims said a staffer abused them while pretending to help them bathe, and a male victim who was 5 years old at the time of the abuse said a male staffer repeatedly fondled him “under the guise of providing him with assistance using the restroom.”
Several of the victims say they reported the abuse to their social workers and employees at MacLaren. Most times the reports went nowhere, the lawsuit alleges. On one occasion, the accused staffer was transferred to oversee another housing unit, and the child who reported her says they were subsequently beaten for “snitching.”
MacLaren has been the subject of numerous lawsuits and abuse allegations in the past. Public outcry over the Probation Department’s treatment of children there led to the facility being transferred to the control of the child welfare agency in 1976. In 1984, several MacLaren employees were arrested for crimes committed against children in their care. The following year, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors convened a grand jury to investigate abuse allegations at the center.
Large-scale facilities that warehouse abused and neglected children have long been proven to be harmful and inappropriate. MacLaren Hall once housed as many as 300 kids, according to a 2003 Los Angeles Times story. And although stays were supposed to be temporary, some lived in the emergency shelter for years as allegations by watchdog groups of overcrowding, abusive physical restraints and overmedication mounted.
Then, in 2002, the ACLU and other public interest groups sued the county for failing to provide foster children with proper mental health services. Katie A., the young woman at the center of the class-action lawsuit, experienced 37 different foster care placements, including 19 trips to eight psychiatric hospitals. In 2003, MacLaren Hall was closed as part of the settlement to the landmark Katie A. v. Bontá lawsuit that promised sweeping changes to mental health services for children in foster care.
Under the terms of the agreement, the county was charged with improving access to intensive home-based mental health services with the goal of preventing placements in institutional facilities like group homes. Los Angeles County spent 17 years under a federal consent decree before exiting in 2020. It has pledged to significantly increase the use of foster homes and community-based mental health services for children with significant mental health needs.
But legal reckoning over alleged past wrongs has continued. In March, Los Angeles County was sued by 20 women who alleged they were abused and sexually assaulted by probation staff at a juvenile detention camp from 1996 to 2008.
The legal action of late was made possible by a 2020 state law that established a three-year window in California for victims of childhood sexual abuse to seek redress for past incidents.
County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who oversees the district that MacLaren Hall was located in, said that since its closure, social services providers have moved into the space and now offer resources to youth and families. The property is slated to become a county park in 2023.
“The history of allegations of abuse at MacLaren Hall is not lost on us and drives me every day to see through critical reforms for the over 30,000 children in our child welfare system,” Solis said in a statement emailed to The Imprint. “I hope to continue to move forward in serving our most vulnerable under the County’s care, which extends to transition-age youth and families who are often involved in the foster care system.”
But attorneys for the plaintiffs said justice still needs to be achieved for the children who suffered at MacLaren for decades. The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages for the plaintiffs and requests a jury trial.
“Hundreds of children who lived at MacLaren are still suffering from the unimaginable trauma they experienced within its halls,” said attorney Slater.
Jeremy Loudenback contributed to this report.