Decades later, former foster children allege abuse at MacLaren Children's Center

Los Angeles, CA, Monday, May 16, 2022 - Un unidentified person who alleges she was sexually assaulted as children at the former MacLaren Children's Center in Pasadena. The person is photographed at their attorney's office. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
A woman who alleges she was sexually assaulted as children at the former MacLaren Children's Center is photographed at her attorney's office. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

When she was a teenager, the woman spent three weeks at MacLaren Children's Center in El Monte. On many of those nights, she said, an employee at the long-troubled facility for foster children crawled into bed beside her.

The woman, who is 37 now, recalls how she reported the sexual assaults to another staff member, who threatened to put her on "lockdown" if she spoke about the abuse to anyone else.

Terrified, she reached out to her older sister, who had also spent time at MacLaren.

“I remember crying to her and telling her, 'I’m at this place in El Monte and the staff is feeling on me and touching on me and stuff,'" the woman said in an interview. "And her response was, 'Oh my gosh, I know who you talking about! He did it to me too!'"

Two decades after Los Angeles County officials shuttered MacLaren, the sisters are among a group of about 200 women and men now coming forward with accounts of the unchecked sexual abuse they say they suffered at the hands of MacLaren staff. The Times generally does not name alleged victims of sexual assault.

The MacLaren Children's Center was closed in 2003.
The MacLaren Children's Center was closed in 2003. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

On Monday, eight women and four men, including the sisters, filed the first of what is expected to be a series of lawsuits against the county. In it, they describe being assaulted, drugged and forced to perform sex acts on MacLaren employees between 1988 and 2001. One victim said he was abused when he was just 5, according to the lawsuit. Another girl, 13 at the time, said she was beaten by employees in retaliation for making an allegation of sexual abuse, the lawsuit alleges.

A spokeswoman for the county's chief executive declined to comment because the lawsuit is pending.

James Lewis, an attorney representing the former foster children, called MacLaren "virtually a child prison."

"It was a house of horrors for the children that lived there," he said.

Lewis, a partner at Slater Slater Schulman LLP, said the allegations of abuse among the roughly 200 former foster children represented by the firm date to the 1970s. They are able to file the lawsuits because a change to California law in 2020 granted victims of child sex abuse a three-year window to bring claims of assault in incidents in which the statute of limitations had expired.

Opened in 1961 as a temporary shelter for children awaiting placement in a foster home, MacLaren Children's Center originally operated under the direction of the L.A. County Probation Department. It was a campus with "sky-high walls and tall barbed wire fences, floodlights, and massive gates and doors," Lewis wrote in the lawsuit.

The facility was taken over by the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services in 1976, but lax oversight of staff created an environment ripe for abuse, Lewis said.

A 2001 L.A. County civil grand jury report found the facility's managers did not conduct criminal background checks of their employees for decades. As a result, people who had been convicted of burglary, robbery and drug trafficking were hired to care for children.

During a review of staff that was required for a state license, MacLaren officials identified 17 employees who had disqualifying convictions on their criminal records, according to the grand jury report.

Lawsuits and the grand jury report also said children frequently ran away and fought with one another, creating a chaotic and violent atmosphere.

MacLaren was shuttered in 2003 after a pair of lawsuits alleged that staff had physically abused dozens of residents and that the facility routinely failed to properly care for children with emotional and behavioral problems.

The 2001 grand jury report also found the Department of Children and Family Services was failing to conduct timely investigations into misconduct allegations against staff, leaving dozens of claims of child abuse unchecked. Internal investigations by MacLaren officials were "perfunctory, at best," according to the grand jury report.

A DCFS spokeswoman did not immediately respond to questions about the agency's management of MacLaren or the backlog of investigations. Lewis said the county seemed to be willfully ignoring the deteriorating conditions at MacLaren.

"With this particular facility ... there was overwhelming knowledge by the county," he said. "They knew this type of behavior and abuse was going on and literally they did nothing about it.”

Making complaints against staff members at MacLaren was futile, said the woman who alleges in the lawsuit that she was abused during her three weeks there in the mid-1990s. The woman said she was sent to the facility in her mid-teens but cannot recall the exact year.

After the first attack, the woman said, she reported the abuse to a supervisor who was in charge of handing out medicine to children at MacLaren. She recalled the employee replying that no one would believe her because of how much medication she was on.

The woman said she was being given powerful antipsychotic medications meant to treat schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder — mental illnesses she has not been diagnosed with by psychiatrists who have treated her since. The woman said she suspected at the time that she was being prescribed the drugs to keep her complacent, and began pretending to ingest them only to spit the pills out later when staff members were not watching her.

“I basically knew that I was never going to be protected as long as I was in DCFS care," she said. "I had been in and out of so many foster homes that my mind was trained to sleep with my clothes and shoes on and live out of a bag.... The system didn’t love us. We got tortured, just like we got tortured at home.”

While the allegations of abuse at MacLaren stretch back decades, they echo recent complaints made about facilities overseen by the county's probation department or DCFS.

This year, 20 women alleged they were sexually abused by probation officers between 1996 and 2008 at Camp Scott, an all-girls detention facility in Santa Clarita. Last month, a Times investigation also found a DCFS-contracted facility in South L.A. had for years struggled with hundreds of reports of violence between youths and against staff members, culminating in the killing of a counselor on the grounds in January 2021.

“This type of conduct by the county of Los Angeles continues to go on. I’ve had other lawsuits against the county of L.A. and I’ve seen the pattern," Lewis said. "Time and time again, when they have a situation like MacLaren Hall or Camp Scott, frequently, there’s just not a lot done before there’s public outrage about it.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.