A KID'S WORST NIGHTMARE? EXPERTS: PUT MACLAREN CHILDREN'S CENTER OUT OF BUSINESS.
Despite efforts at reform, troubled children housed at MacLaren Children's Center at a cost of nearly $1,000 a day each face continuing neglect and abuse, Los Angeles County audits and reports say.
A Daily News review of 600 pages of records - ordered by the Board of Supervisors after the 1997 death of a 12-year-old at the El Monte facility - and dozens of interviews show how efforts to improve care have been set back by bureaucratic finger-pointing.
Conditions at the center, the county's only shelter for abused and abandoned children, have prompted lawsuits and raised questions about whether it should be closed.
``Unfortunately, I still see MacLaren failing our children tremendously in every way,'' said Supervisor Gloria Molina, whose district includes MacLaren. ``The bottom line is we are not serving our children well.''
The county calculates the cost to care for a child at the center at $923 a day or $336,895 a year. In comparison, the government spends an average of $70 a day, or $25,600 a year, to house an inmate in California prisons and $48 a day, or $17,580 a year, to house inmates in Los Angeles County jails.
Studies ordered by the county supervisors at a cost of $355,531 paint a picture of a failing institution. Among the conclusions:
--Children are staying at the El Monte facility for months and, occasionally, more than a year, even though the county is required to place them in a more appropriate facility within 30 days of their arrival.
--Violent and potentially dangerous children are kept in the same halls as others, such as abuse victims, a dangerous mix.
--Staff members continue to physically restrain children at a high rate, despite policies that discourage that. At least 11 children have had their arms broken and strained or have been slammed into the ground and furniture, according to a class-action lawsuit and two other suits against the county.
Attorneys at the nonprofit Public Counsel Children's Rights Project said they are investigating three recent incidents in which MacLaren staffers allegedly forced children to strip to their underwear and patted them down, looking for contraband.
MacLaren Director John Robbins said strip searches are illegal and that he was unaware of the allegations. He said staff members are not allowed to pat down children, but they do search through clothing for contraband when children shower after entering the facility.
Outside reformers say county officials still don't have a plan to make needed changes at the center, which deals with more than 1,700 children a year and is staffed by nearly 500 people, including 80 on the mental health staff.
``MacLaren is a microcosm of the system's failures,'' said Deanne Tilton-Durfee, executive director of the Interagency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect. ``There are too many children with too many problems, and staff are not trained to manage children with these levels of disturbance.''
Originally designed as a juvenile hall for delinquent youths more than 40 years ago, the campus of brick and cinder-block buildings reopened in 1975 as a temporary holding facility for young children taken from their families before more permanent placements could be found with relatives, foster families and group homes.
The 10-acre campus, with nine cottages, was not refurbished into smaller, more homelike living areas, but remained institutionlike, with large dormitories.
In recent years, the campus - with a school, infirmary, administrative offices and a portable room where upset children go to cool off - has become an overcrowded facility with mostly older children who are often severely emotionally disturbed, mentally ill or developmentally delayed - and prone to violent outbursts.
Youths released from probation facilities and who have no family to go home to are housed in the same place as ones released from psychiatric hospitals, those who are suicidal and those who are developmentally delayed. Children's advocates have expressed deep concerns about the overcrowding and mixing of populations.
While the facility is designed for fewer than 124 children, the number grew to 252 in 1995 and now hovers around 150.
Stays are supposed to be limited to a month, but many children stay for many months - and some for more than a year as the staff struggles to find permanent homes. When children have trouble in those placements, they are returned, making MacLaren the home of last resort.
County officials estimate that 2,000 to 3,000 of the county's nearly 77,000 foster children will end up at MacLaren at some point.
New set of problems
The center's current problems are not its first. In the mid-1980s - when the county had 23,000 foster children - a handful of MacLaren staff members was criminally prosecuted and fired for dealing drugs and abusing children. In 1985, the Board of Supervisors ordered a reorganization that resulted in the resignation of the director of what was then the Department of Children's Services.
After the Oct. 10, 1997, death of Jason Pokrzywinski, an unsupervised, mentally troubled 12-year-old who died after inhaling fumes from a can of hair mousse, the board ordered another reorganization, placing the facility under the Interagency Children's Services Consortium.
The consortium, chaired by Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen since July 1, consists of the directors of the departments of children and family services, probation, mental health, health services and education.
``This is basically a classic example of what agencies do when they don't have real solutions,'' said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Alexandria, Va. ``They reorganize. Reorganization is what you do when you don't have a real idea.
``MacLaren is the Titanic of shelters, and all we keep hearing is how to rearrange the deck chairs. It was a lousy institution when the Department of Children and Family Services ran it. It's a lousy institution now. The only way to fix MacLaren is to shut it down. You cannot have a holding tank for children and do it humanely.''
Janssen is expected to present a series of recommendations to the Board of Supervisors on Aug. 21 designed to properly implement the recommendations in the 1998 plan that called for the forming consortium and finding specialized placements so more children can be moved out of the shelter.
Janssen said the county began a pilot program a year ago with 10 children to move them out of MacLaren into community-based homes where they can get specialized services. He said the county is negotiating with eight contractors who can handle 50 children each.
``By the end of this calendar year, we'll have about 400 slots,'' Janssen said.
He said the county has made substantial progress. ``First of all, there is a substantial increase in the mental health staff. There are 51 professionals. There was not much mental health treatment programs before. Our data collection is much better. People understand what the mission is. None of that was going on three years ago.''
Robbins, who was the administrator of the San Diego County children's shelter before he was hired in 1999, said he has tried a variety of programs to help the kids, including yoga, dance, musical and artistic programs.
``You are looking at children with significant mental health issues and whose behavior is often characterized by a kind of explosive behavioral disorder. We are seeing more children who are medically fragile, and so it becomes a very difficult population to manage.''
Robbins said children sometimes attempt suicide and staff members are sometimes attacked, but they use restraints only after following a series of exercises to calm down the child.
``When that is impossible or doesn't happen, then sometimes the child may be a danger to themselves or others,'' he said, adding that restraints are frequently used under those conditions.
Janssen said state regulations allow restraints, which involve holds consisting of ``whatever you can do with your body,'' but not mechanical or other restraints.
Robbins said staff members undergo refresher training on holds, but that he ``didn't institute anything new'' as a result of the lawsuits or allegations by children that staffers had injured them.
Many child advocates call for closing the $51-million-a-year facility. They say taxpayer funds - federal, state and county money - could be better spent placing children in safer facilities that can handle their special needs or in community-based alternative foster care placements.
``Ideally, what would be best is to rid ourselves of a MacLaren hall eventually, but make sure we have built and created safe placements for each of these children,'' said Molina.
Even without tacking on administrative expenses, it still costs the county $710 a day to care for a child at MacLaren. The government pays foster parents $13.31 to $19.10 a day to care for a child and $93.60 to $140.35 a day to care for a child in intensive foster care programs.
Cost too high?
County officials say the cost is so high at MacLaren because the center's employees are paid higher salaries and benefits than those in other settings, their educational requirements are higher and many youths require one-on-one supervision, necessitating 24-hour-a-day care.
Miguel Santana, spokesman for Molina, said the supervisor wants to know why the costs are so high.
``Why should it cost $51 million to treat 150 kids at any given time with a staff of 500?'' he asked. ``That's part of what we are trying to understand. They have 80 mental health staff to treat 150 kids. It kind of defies logic and common sense. We think there are too many people.''
Molina said that since the county is legally required to provide temporary shelter for children removed from abusive homes, county departments need to stop passing the buck over who is responsible and find solutions.
``We need to increase the number of placements. I don't know that we can be miracle workers and change it all that dramatically. But if we can get each department to understand and do their jobs and stop passing the buck ... we'll have a beginning.''
Manhattan Beach attorney Sanford Jossen, who filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of six children who allege they were injured by staff members, said the county has taken no action to prevent injuries and change the atmosphere at MacLaren. He plans to add two children as plaintiffs to the suit, which alleges that staff members used restraints 1,500 times last year.
He said the lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of damages, an order by the court to provide better services and training for its staff, and it includes an option to order MacLaren's closure.
``Studies I've been advised of suggest that kids with certain types of problems do not do well in large, institutional and impersonal settings,'' Jossen said.
The lawsuit also alleges that staff members called El Monte police 339 times in the first six months of 2000, making false allegations against minors when the kids ``acted out,'' as part of a plan to purge the facility of ``difficult children.''
Superior Court Judge Howard Shabo, who hears many MacLaren cases and decides cases involving mentally ill children, said the county ``grooms'' children to become mentally ill or dependent on the government, whether through the prison or welfare systems, by neglecting their needs.
``They don't get the services they need and that creates a lot of anger and rage and acting out, which staff at MacLaren are not equipped to deal with.
``What is being done now is just the beginning of what should have been done a long time ago, Shabo said.''
(color) A resident at MacLaren Children's Center reads a letter.
Sarah Reingewirtz/Staff Photographer
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Article Type:||Statistical Data Included|
|Date:||Aug 12, 2001|
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