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Troubled Home for Children May Close

The MacLaren center for abused and neglected youth could be replaced by a group facility to settle a lawsuit that alleges violations.

October 22, 2002|Evelyn Larrubia and Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles County is discussing the possibility of closing MacLaren Children's Center, its troubled shelter for abused and neglected children, and replacing it with a group home to settle a lawsuit alleging widespread violations of federal law in its treatment of mentally ill children, officials said Monday.

County officials said there has been no final decision on the fate of the El Monte facility but confirmed that they are talking about its fate with the public interest law firms that sued them in July.

"As part of the negotiations, we are discussing what to do with [MacLaren]," said county Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen.

Currently, MacLaren houses about 145 children who cannot be placed in other settings such as foster or group homes. Many are older and have psychological problems. Critics say a shelter designed to keep children for brief stints has become a virtual warehouse for the county's most troubled foster youths.

Paula Gamboa, head of the union that represents county social workers, said the plan being discussed is to replace MacLaren with a group home that can provide regular care for a stable population of children. "We're looking at trying to start something that's more geared to abused and neglected kids."

John Oppenheim, chief deputy of the county's Department of Children and Family Services, said his agency is trying to focus increasingly on placing foster children in local homes rather than MacLaren. "It's clearly a better way to meet the needs of children," he said.

MacLaren, which was originally a probation camp, has long been a lightning rod for controversy. This year's grand jury concluded that it costs $270,000 annually to care for each child at MacLaren. It also found that some children had lived there for years rather than the formal 90-day limit.

In July, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and five other public interest law firms sued the county, alleging it had failed to follow federal laws mandating that foster children get mental health services.

"Far too many children with behavioral and emotional problems are bounced between multiple foster placements and group homes that do not meet their individual needs," the lawsuit alleges. "Then, when their conditions predictably deteriorate, they are effectively abandoned by the system, consigned to languish in psychiatric hospitals and secure congregate facilities such as MacLaren Children's Center, under notorious and deplorable conditions."

County officials acknowledged that they had yet to provide adequate services and soon entered settlement talks.

The attorneys who filed the lawsuit said Monday that they could not comment on settlement negotiations.

Miguel Santana, a spokesman for Supervisor Gloria Molina, said that replacing MacLaren with a group home would be the logical outcome of reforms launched last year that reduced the number of children sheltered there.

"It's not impossible given the fact that so many reforms are taking place leading in that direction," he said.

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