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Lawsuit Is Foster Center's Legacy

Teenagers who stayed at the now-closed MacLaren facility in El Monte say staff members abused them.

March 15, 2003|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

It happened on a warm July night nearly four years ago, but Jazzmon says she still remembers the sickly pop of her arm breaking and how the searing pain caused her to cry out and curse.

She had been sitting on her cot in a hallway at MacLaren Children's Center, Los Angeles County's home for abused and neglected children, when a staff member came by and told her to "get in position," a disciplinary maneuver meaning that Jazzmon was to stand with her arms extended.

The next thing she recalls is being pinned to her bed by three or four workers, one of whom, she contends, had her right arm pulled against her back like a chicken wing before the bone snapped. She was barely 13.

Jazzmon, 16, is the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit alleging that staff at MacLaren Hall injured scores of their charges while trying to restrain them. The county denies the charges and says incidents of children lashing out at one other and at staff members were far more prevalent than the reverse.

But last week, after years of intense criticism over its treatment of foster children, MacLaren closed with virtually no fanfare, part of a historic shift away from institutional care in the nation's largest child welfare system

Now, in an unforeseen twist of fate, the children's legal battle will outlive the institution they came to know so well and from which they are seeking redress.

The end was hastened by a separate lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other legal groups over treatment of children with emotional and behavioral problems. With MacLaren's closing, the federal suit, which did not seek financial compensation, was settled Thursday.

Jazzmon R. vs. Los Angeles County and MacLaren Children's Center, filed nearly two years ago and scheduled for trial in October in Los Angeles Superior Court, is likely to stand as one of the institution's final legacies. The case seeks unspecified damages for Jazzmon, the five other youths named in the suit, and what it contends are more than 1,000 children physically or emotionally victimized at Mac- Laren.

And even with MacLaren's closure, the lawsuit seeks other reforms in how the county treats foster children, including better mental health assessments and education.

MacLaren opened more than 40 years ago as a temporary refuge for children removed from abusive homes. Over the years, however, the El Monte facility acted more as a warehouse for as many as 300 children at a time. Some stayed years. Allegations of overcrowding, abusive restraint, overmedication and demeaning conditions prompted numerous legal actions and scathing reviews by watchdog agencies as well as children's rights groups.

Jazzmon entered foster care at the age of 4 from a chaotic home, and among her many placements was a year at Mac- Laren. Her bed there was in a hallway, she said.

Recently, she has shuttled among a homeless shelter, a friend's apartment and her grandmother's San Bernardino home.

It would seem that she is anchorless, and she will tell you that is a sensation she has borne most of her young life.

"Right now I feel like the county can't do anything for me that I can't do for myself," Jazzmon said in the Manhattan Beach office of her attorney. She is a tall, imposing girl, who speaks with articulate defiance. She still lacks full movement in her mended arm and said it throbs with pain when it is cold.

On the closing of MacLaren, Jazzmon said: "Thank God."

Jazzmon and the other youths suing MacLaren -- identified in court documents only by their first names -- are poster children for the ills of the system that was supposed to protect them, their attorney said. They were put through a wringer of foster families, group homes, social workers and schools.

While disputing the allegations of staff violence, Assistant County Counsel Ada Gardiner said the county has offered in the past to settle the suit without admitting liability for the sake of the children's well-being. She said the two sides have been unable to agree on a sum. (The children's attorney, Sanford Jossen, said he felt the offers to the children, about $5,000 each, were inadequate but that he remains willing to explore a settlement.)

Gardiner noted that many of the children sent to MacLaren were troubled and brought behavior problems with them. A major task of the staff was to keep them from harming themselves and one another, she said.

The lawsuit alleges that the staff falsely accused many children of assault and that many youngsters, including Jazzmon, ended up in juvenile hall or probation camps.

Excessive restraint was used to control the children, many of whom suffer from mental and emotional disturbances and physical handicaps, according to the lawsuit.

Felicia B., who was 16 at the time and is developmentally disabled, was injured when staff members tried to prevent her from using the bathroom, pushing her face into a table edge "with such force as to knock out one of her front teeth," court documents allege.

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