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MacLaren Hall Children's Center: Los Angeles' Dirty Secret
MacLaren opened more than 40 years ago as a short-term sanctuary for children removed from abusive homes. Over the years, however, the El Monte center served more as a warehouse for as many as 300 children at a time. Some remained for a year or more. Allegations of overcrowding, abusive discipline, overmedication and horrible living conditions brought about numerous legal actions and reports by other agencies as well as 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 American child protection system. MacLaren Hall was intended to house foster children for just a few days or weeks. However, MacLaren quickly became overcrowded, blending the mentally ill, delinquent and abused youths with little to no supervision. Children frequently ran away, and violent outbursts were usual. Violent and potentially dangerous children were housed in the same halls as others, such as abuse victims, which proved to be a very damaging combination.
MacLaren Hall was led by inadequately trained staff. Many children were reported to be repeatedly abused by staff and by the other children at the facility. Much of the abuse was even worse as compared to the abuse that brought them there in the first place. In reality, during that time period, Los Angeles County's Emergency Shelter was no different than most County Emergency Shelters in America where abuse was widespread and staff were inadequately trained and not trained to work with youth with mental health issues and special needs.
The facility shut down in June 2003. Jazzmon, 16, is the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit claiming that staff at MacLaren Hall injured numerous children while trying to restrain them. The county denies the charges and says incidents of children injuring staff was much more prevalent. Many of the juvenile records that revealed the abuse at MacLaren Hall were apparently either destroyed or lost. It is hard to imagine a system this corrupt existed for so long in Los Angeles. What is worse is that not only did the county fails the children who were sent there, it refuses to take responsibility. Children who were taken from their homes, many who had already suffered some form of abuse, were then re-abused, but this time with the one who was supposed to protect. Any form of child abuse is unacceptable, but this goes above and beyond. 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.
Children have suffered at the hands of MacLaren Hall for years and years. Children were sexually abused, beaten, and emotionally abused as well. Children were given medication, often times medication that was not even needed. Children were treated like animals and forced to live in conditions that were filthy and unsanitary. Thousands of children were removed from homes that were abusive and traumatizing, only to be abused and traumatized again once they entered MacLaren Hall. The fact that this went on from the 1960s up until 2003 is absolutely appalling. How could this have happened? Currently in Los Angeles County, there are 28,000 children in foster care. Today in Los Angeles County there is a huge lack 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.
Babies and children suffering from abuse is a hard pill to swallow. The fact that this happened time and time again in Los Angeles is absurd. It is hard to believe that this actually happened. Maclaren Hall is a secret that Los Angeles has done a pretty good job of hiding. Many people to this day are not aware of what happened. Many of the abused children, now adults are not able to even recall where they were abused, just as they were indeed abused.
Many of the lawsuits did not seek financial damages, but only change. An investigation conducted by the county of Los Angeles and cost $355,531 revealed that
(1) Children were staying 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 and
(4) Children suffered injuries which included 11 children that had their arms broken or were slammed into the ground or furniture,
(5) unlawful strip searches of children were performed on a routine basis.
Many of the juvenile records that revealed the abuse at MacLaren Hall were apparently either destroyed or lost. Numerous people have requested their records only to be denied. MacLaren Hall housed not only severely abused children, but also juvenile offenders all packed into the prison like setting. In the mid-1980s, MacLaren faculty members were criminally prosecuted and fired for selling drugs and abusing children. In 1997, a 12-year-old MacLaren boy died after inhaling fumes from a can of hair mousse.
Maclaren Hall sat on 10 acres. The facility consisted of a campus, school, infirmary, administrative offices and cottages. Maclaren Hall quickly became overcrowded, which only increased violent outbursts and chaos. Housing emotionally disturbed, suicidal, and violent children with the other children shows the deliberate lack of concern and wellbeing for these children.
There have been numerous accounts by former residents of children being examined, over-medicated, taunted by staff, restrained, and beaten. Many have reported about numerous rapes and molestations by both staff and other residents. PTSD, depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide are just a few psychological maladies these former residents are suffering from today. As adults, they are still haunted by trauma they experienced at MacLaren Hall.
Children released from probation facilities who had no family or anywhere to go, were housed together with children released from psychiatric hospitals, those who were suicidal and developmentally delayed. The employees were cruel. They dragged small children as well as 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 returned. The majority of the children there 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 in 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 they need social workers who will fight for their wellbeing.