MacLaren Hall Children's Center: Los Angeles' Dirty Little Secret
MacLaren opened more than 40 years ago as a temporary shelter for children removed from abusive homes and waiting to be placed in foster care. Over the years, however, the El Monte center served more as a warehouse for as many as 300 children at a time. Some children remaining at the facility for a year or more. Allegations of overcrowding, abusive discipline, overmedication and poor living conditions brought about numerous legal actions and reports by other agencies as well as investigations by children's rights groups. MacLaren Hall housed 4,000 children yearly in the 1960s. It was open for six decades. Tens of thousands of children resided at MacLaren Hall over the decades and over a million children have been through the child protection system. MacLaren Hall was intended to house foster children waiting for placement in a foster home. However, MacLaren quickly became overcrowded resulting in the mentally ill, delinquent and abused youths all residing together with little to no supervision. The poorly trained staff and lack of supportive services only made conditions worse. Children frequently ran away, and violent outbursts were constant. Violent and potentially dangerous children were walked the same halls as others, such as abuse victims, which proved to be a very damaging combination.
There are numerous reports of children being repeatedly abused by staff as well as the other children at the facility. During that time period, Los Angeles County's Emergency Shelter was no different than most County Emergency Shelters in America. Abuse was widespread and staff were inadequately trained or not trained to work with youth with mental health issues and special needs.
The facility shut it's doors in June 2003 after a class-action lawsuit was filed by a former resident. There were allegations in the lawsuit claiming that staff at MacLaren Hall injured numerous children, violently restrained children, and denied numerous children basic needs such as food and water. The county denied the allegations claiming the children were injuring staff. Many of the juvenile records that described the abuse at MacLaren Hall were said to have been either destroyed or lost. It is hard to imagine a system with this much corruption existed for so long in Los Angeles. The County failed these children, and then refuses to take responsibility. Children who were taken from their homes, many who had already suffered some form of abuse, were then re-abused, by the one who was supposed to protect. Child abuse is unacceptable, but to then hide it is unfathomable. These children were taken from their homes, stripped of their possessions, and forgotten about. Essentially, these children were robbed of their childhoods and for many never given a chance.
The abuse these Children suffered ranged from sexual abuse, physical abuse, and emotional abuse. Children were many times over- medicated, or unnecessarily medicated. Children were treated like animals and forced to live in filthy and unsanitary conditions. Thousands of traumatized children were removed from abusive homes only to be re-traumatized. The fact that this went on from the 1960s up until 2003 is appalling. How could this have happened? Currently in Los Angeles County, there are 28,000 children in foster care. There is also a huge shortage of foster homes where children can be safely placed. Children younger than 12 are generally sent to the Children's Welcome Center on the campus of the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. This facility is equipped with a large open space, cribs for infants and cots for other children. This facility has the capacity for as many as 29 children sleeping over on some nights. Since there is often times not enough staff to feed and diaper the large number of children who enter the facility, the department recently issued an emergency plea for community volunteers to help. Older children are harder to place in foster homes and are typically sent to a conference room in a high-rise building south of downtown Los Angeles, where they sleep on the floor or cots..
The foster care system in Los Angeles as well as the rest of the country is flawed. There needs to be a change. Children cannot keep being abused. Social workers are overloaded with cases making it impossible to give each family the time or services they need. With too many cases and not enough social workers, children are falling through the cracks. Directors from DCFS demand more thorough investigation from the emergency response social workers who are then too quick in removing children in fear of losing their jobs. Children that need to be removed are either forgotten about or sent to a foster home that's even more abusive than the home.
Many of the lawsuits against MacLaren Hall did not seek financial damages, but only change. An investigation conducted by the county of Los Angeles that cost $355,531 revealed that
(1) Children were placed at the Maclaren Hall sometimes more than a year, even though the county of Los Angeles is required to place children within 30 days,
(2) Delinquent children, and children who were violent and emotionally disturbed were housed with dependent children.
(3) Staff members restrained children, regardless, of a policy that restricts restraining children.
(4) There we're as many as 11 reports of Children's arms being broken by staff members.
(5) Unlawful strip searches of children were performed on a routine basis.
Numerous former residents have requested their records only to be denied. In the prison like atmosphere, MacLaren Hall housed severely abused children with extensive behavioral issues, alongside violent juvenile offenders. This reckless system created much of the chaos and widespread violence. In the mid-1980s, faculty members came under fire as reports were made of staff selling drugs and abusing children. This led to a brief period of improvement at the facility. Then in 1997, a 12-year-old boy died after inhaling fumes from a can of hair mousse as he was unsupervised by staff.
Maclaren Hall sat on 10 acres. The facility consisted of a campus, school, infirmary, administrative offices and cottages. Maclaren Hall was overcrowded and poorly staffed, leading to a constant increase in violent outbursts and chaos. Housing emotionally disturbed, suicidal, and violent children with children in general population shows the deliberate lack of concern and inadequate training of the staff.
There have been numerous reports by former residents of children being examined, over-medicated, taunted by staff, restrained, and beaten. Reports of rape and sexual abuse was widespread. Reports of PTSD, depression, anxiety, and suicide are just a few issues former residents reported suffering from today. As adults, they are still affected by the trauma they experienced at MacLaren Hall.
Children released from probation facilities without a place to go ended up at MacLaren Hall, where they were housed with children coming in from psychiatric hospitals, and those who were suicidal and developmentally delayed. There are reports of staff dragging small children and infants around by their hair, legs, arms, or ears. Babies and small children could be heard screaming and crying throughout the night. MacLaren Hall had become a dumping ground for the most undeserving. Many of the children would AWOL from the facility, only to be found and brought back. The majority of the children were classified as “hard to place”, or “unadoptable”.
Many survivors of MacLaren Hall share similar stories. A man who had been at MacLaren Hall in the 1960’s, has spent close to his whole life incarcerated. Another MacLaren Hall survivor wrote about their partner who had also been at MacLaren Hall. Her partner committed suicide in 2003. The woman shared that her partner spoke about MacLaren Hall often and had a lot of emotional issues and unresolved trauma which inevitably resulted in her suicide. After close to 6 decades of abuse and devastation, MacLaren Hall closed its massive sky-high prison-like doors in 2003. The threatening, demoralizing building remains. Uninhabited. Hauntingly empty. However the memories are still there. For every child who was forced to walk those halls, the painful memories will always be there. Trauma and abuse cannot be reversed. These children have scars, both physical and emotional. There are no words to make any of it go away. Something needs to be done to fix the Foster Care system. We cannot remove children who are being abused just to abuse them all over again. There needs to be less institutions, and more homes to place these broken children. They need more services and protection. There needs to be change and reform. If nothing changes the cycle will only repeat itself.