Sex abuse victims describe horrors at notorious California foster care facility
By SCOTT SCHWEBKE
Jonathan Wright’s chest heaved and he began to sob uncontrollably Thursday, June 9, while clutching a tiny white T-shirt emblazoned with the name of the MacLaren Children’s Center, a notorious and now closed foster care facility in El Monte at the center of a new lawsuit alleging decades of horrific child abuse by staff members.
Wright, 39, stood in the shadow of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse flanked by well-known civil rights attorney Ben Crump and co-counsel Adam P. Slater, and began to describe the abuse he suffered at MacLaren. Quickly he was overcome by emotion and found it impossible to continue.
“I was at MacLaren three times, when I was 8, when I was 9, when I was 11,” he told reporters during a news conference to announce the lawsuit. “I fought as hard as I could. Till this day I can’t be near doctors because I was molested by the doctor. … But I fought. I swear, I fought.”
The lawsuit filed Thursday against Los Angeles County lists 31 victims, while a separate complaint last month covered an additional dozen plaintiffs, Slater said. As many as 500 others have been identified as potential plaintiffs for future lawsuits, he added.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, alleging that many housed at MacLaren from 1961 until it was closed in 2003 were removed from abusive homes and were then subjected to further physical and sexual abuse by employees at the facility.
Officials with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit.
While DCFS “does not comment on pending litigation, the allegations leveled in any civil claim should and will be thoroughly examined,” the agency said in an email Thursday. “DCFS serves more than 29,000 vulnerable children and families in Los Angeles County and each of our nearly 9,000 employees is held to the highest standards. Our department has many safeguards in place to protect children in our care and to hold accountable those who violate laws and policies.”
In 2002, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and other organizations filed a class-action suit against DCFS decrying inhumane treatment at MacLaren.
“Many of the most troubled children, those most in need of therapy and individual attention, had been warehoused for years in a jail-like, Dickensian county facility called MacLaren, where they were so neglected that their care was characterized by ACLU attorneys on the case as ‘amounting to government-sponsored child abuse,’ ” the ACLU wrote in its 2003-04 annual report.
Los Angeles County settled the suit with the ACLU, closed MacLaren in 2003, and has paid settlements to some individuals who were abused at the facility.
Thursday’s lawsuit alleges MacLaren was overcrowded, understaffed and poorly maintained while children were consistently overmedicated, taunted, restrained and sexually assaulted.
“It is very tragic that these children’s trust was betrayed by the very people, whose one duty was to protect (them),” said Crump, who has represented the families of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake. “They went down to MacLaren to have shelter and safety and what they got was a house of horrors. It was literally a nightmare.”
Slater described MacLaren as “medieval” with high walls, barbed wire fences, floodlights and massive gates.
“There was even a room dedicated to solitary confinement, where children were forced to stay there for days at a time,” he said. “It wasn’t episodic and systemic. It was woven into the fabric over generations. Even if a staff member wasn’t accused of participating, it’s clear from the allegations that they turned a blind eye to the suffering reported. According to the complaint, at least one child became pregnant by her abuser. That was not a consensual relationship. It was rape.”
Slater described the new lawsuit as just the “tip of the iceberg,” noting that about 20,000 children were housed at MacLaren over four decades. Prior to 2001, Los Angeles County did not conduct background checks on staff assigned to the facility, he added.
For years, MacLaren victims were denied a chance at justice due to the statute of limitations preventing their cases from moving forward. However, in September 2019, the state Legislature passed Assembly Bill 218, also known as the California Child Victims Act, which opened a three-year window starting Jan. 1, 2020, allowing sexual abuse victims of any age to file civil lawsuits no matter when the abuse occurred, or if their alleged abuser was alive or dead.
On Thursday, in a symbolic gesture of unity and determination, a half-dozen plaintiffs, their families, and the attorneys who represent them joined hands and shouted, “Victims no more.” Then the sex abuse survivors took turns recounting the horrors they suffered.
Armando Flores, 45, was just 7 when he was sent to MacLaren in 1984 after he tried to protect his sister from abuse by their mother.
“That’s when the journey began,” he said. “You know, I started off as a really good kid, straight-A student, Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, spelling bee champion for my elementary.”
Flores recounted that each cottage at MacLaren had a so-called “rest and relaxation room” where children were restrained and where staff watched through a small window inside a door. “That’s where they would observe you,” he said. “You were forced to urinate and defecate in there. “They (staff) would go in there and restrain you. There were kids who got their arms broken.”
Flores eventually was put in a group home, but he ran away and was sent back to MacLaren, where he said he was sexually abused by staff. “At that early age and your first experience, you don’t really understand what sex means, what’s appropriate You have to go with it because you don’t want any more repercussions and punishment. You don’t want to go back into the recreation and relaxation room. You don’t want to get restrained.”
Allesa Willis, 61, said that over two-year period starting at age 6, she was molested by other children at MacLaren while staff members watched.
“I kept silent because of fear for my life until today,” she said. “It started for me (being sent to MacLaren) as an innocent victim of my mother’s mental illness, then an innocent victim of Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services — the very system meant to protect those like me. We were failed because they are simply a broken system.”
Willis added she wasn’t always the “strong, beautiful, brilliant, creative, compassionate” Black woman that she is today.
“As I continue to struggle with those adjectives today, despite ongoing therapy, the monster of that trauma that happened to me at MacLaren Hall has reared its ugly head throughout my life’s journey,” she said. “I have been on the battleground for my sanity for over five decades. And I still have moments of distress as a result of the hell I endured as a child.”
Octavia Evans, 36, said she suffered sexual abuse at MacLaren at age 12 and was initially afraid to report it.
“One day I gathered the courage to tell, and when I did I was put back in the same room with the person who assaulted me,” she said. “I have been through my fair share of trials and tribulations. I just pray our voices will be heard today so other people will possibly find the strength to come forward.”