Foster children at a Los Angeles County emergency shelter have been physically abused and arrested on unjustified charges as ways of controlling them, according to a class-action lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of six current and former foster children at MacLaren Children's Center in El Monte, alleges that employees of the Department of Children and Family Services "routinely engage in a course and pattern of conduct whereby minors in residence at [MacLaren] are intimidated, controlled, threatened, assaulted, battered and physically injured."
And, the lawsuit alleges, at least 20 department employees have either injured foster children in their care or improperly used the criminal justice system to "control and subdue dependent minors rather than provide them with appropriate care and treatment."
Over the years, according to the suit, the number of foster children subjected to such abusive treatment at MacLaren "exceeds 1,000 and may number far more."
Anita Bock, who heads the county agency, referred calls about the lawsuit, which was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, to the county's administrative office.
County spokeswoman Judy Hammond said department officials had not yet seen the lawsuit and would not comment until they could review it.
Patricia Curry, who chairs a county committee that oversees MacLaren, said she had not seen the lawsuit. However, she said there are ongoing efforts to improve conditions at MacLaren.
"MacLaren has had a lot of problems," Curry said. "But recently there has been tremendous focus on MacLaren and [Chief Administrative Officer] David Janssen has taken a leadership role in implementing some very important changes."
Among the proposals is to develop alternative placement sites for youths, she said.
Court records show that the lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit is a 15-year-old girl whose right arm was broken two years ago.
Though a Dependency Court attorney's report questioned the use of "unreasonable force," county staff at MacLaren said in a separate report that they were trying to stop the girl, then 13, from running out of the center late one night.
"You don't have to break a kid's arm to restrain them," said Manhattan Beach attorney Sanford Jossen, who added that his six juvenile clients in the lawsuit suffered injuries ranging from multiple bruises to broken arms.
The lawsuit says the shelter's mission is "to provide safe, supportive, temporary care while providing multi-disciplinary assessment, diagnoses and treatment services for abused and neglected dependent children of the Juvenile Court."
However, it alleges, many minors remain in MacLaren for six months or more, do not receive appropriate mental health evaluations, and are monitored by employees who are not trained to provide such health services.
State licensing regulations prohibit the use of physical force, except to prevent injury to a child, but physical restraint is common at MacLaren, the lawsuit alleges.
In a 12-month period, MacLaren staff used physical restraints more than 1,500 times, an average of more than four times a day, the lawsuit alleges, citing statistics drawn from another lawsuit filed against MacLaren by the Youth Law Center in San Francisco.
"Even more egregious," the lawsuit alleges, "is that thereafter [county staff] further retaliate against minors by . . . filing [a] police report" that leads to youths being removed from MacLaren and designated as "delinquents."
Although she declined comment on the lawsuit, Maggie Brandow, an attorney long involved in the treatment of foster care children at MacLaren, said she and others have been concerned for the last two years about the pattern of juvenile arrests at the facility.
"Most of the kids who are arrested at MacLaren are kids with serious mental and developmental disabilities for whom the county has been unable to come up with a placement," said Brandow, an attorney with the nonprofit Mental Health Advocacy Services Inc. "They shouldn't be in that environment in the first place, so it shouldn't shock us that this is how they react."
Since early June, a group of county officials and advocates have met in an effort to deal with the issue of arrests at MacLaren.
A hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for Monday.
Times staff writer Henry Weinstein contributed to this story.