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MacLaren Hall Children's Center: Los Angeles' Dirty Little Secret

Julia is a Los Angeles-based online writer who enjoys sharing her research and experiences with readers.

MacLaren Hall was shut down in 2003 after decades of scandal and reports of child abuse and neglect.

MacLaren Hall was shut down in 2003 after decades of scandal and reports of child abuse and neglect.

Overcrowded and Understaffed

MacLaren Children's Center (more commonly known as MacLaren Hall) opened its doors more than 40 years ago. The enormous property was intended to house children removed from their homes and waiting to be placed in foster care. Over the years, however, the El Monte facility served more as a warehouse for as many as 300 children at a time, with some children remaining at the facility for a year or longer. The overcrowding led to allegations of improper care from staff, abusive discipline, over-medication and poor living conditions. MacLaren Hall housed roughly 4,000 children a year during the 1960s. Over the next six decades, MacLaren Hall would be home to tens of thousands of children. The poorly staffed and underfunded facility quickly became overcrowded. Children removed from their homes due to abuse were housed with the mentally ill, emotionally disturbed and children facing criminal charges. The lack of supportive services and inadequate staff made conditions worse. Children frequently ran away, and violent outbursts were constant. Violent and mentally unstable children dominated MacLaren Hall, which proved to be a volatile and dangerous combination.

There are numerous reports of children being repeatedly abused by staff as well as the other children at the facility. Reports of both physical and sexual abuse were ignored. During that time period, Los Angeles County's Emergency Shelters were no different than most county emergency shelters in the United States. Abuse was widespread, and most facilities were understaffed or inadequately trained, with no experience working with youth with mental health issues and special needs.

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MacLaren finally shut its doors in June of 2003 after a class action lawsuit was filed by a resident. There were claims that MacLaren Hall staff injured and violently restrained children, and staff denied basic needs such as food and water. The number of sexual abuse claims was staggering. The County denied the allegations claiming the children were injuring staff. Many of the juvenile records that described the abuse at MacLaren Hall were said to have been either destroyed or lost. It is hard to imagine a system with this much corruption existed for so long in Los Angeles. The County failed these children, and then refused to take responsibility. Children who were taken from their homes, many who had already suffered some form of abuse, were then re-abused by the caretakers who was supposed to protect them. Children were taken from their homes, stripped of their possessions, and forgotten. Essentially, these children were robbed of their childhoods and for many, never given a chance.

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The abuse these children suffered ranged from sexual abuse, physical abuse, and emotional abuse. Children were over-medicated, or unnecessarily medicated. Children were treated like animals and forced to live in filthy and unsanitary conditions. Thousands of traumatized children were removed from abusive homes only to be retraumatized. The fact that this went on from the 1960s up until 2003 is appalling. How could this have happened? Currently in Los Angeles County, there are 28,000 children in foster care. There is also a huge shortage of foster homes where children can be safely placed. Children younger than 12 are generally sent to the Children's Welcome Center on the campus of the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. This facility is equipped with a large open space, cribs for infants and cots for other children. This facility has the capacity for as many as 29 children sleeping over on a given night. Since there is oftentimes not enough staff to feed and diaper the large number of children who enter the facility, the department recently issued an emergency plea for community volunteers to help. Older children are harder to place in foster homes and are typically sent to a conference room in a high-rise building south of downtown Los Angeles, where they sleep on the floor or cots.

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A Flawed System

The foster care system in Los Angeles, as well as the rest of the country, is beyond flawed. There needs to be a change. Children cannot keep being abused. Social workers are overloaded with cases, making it impossible to give each family the time or services they need. With too many cases and not enough social workers, children are falling through the cracks. Directors from DCFS demand more thorough investigation from the emergency response social workers, who are then too quick in removing children in fear of losing their jobs. Children that need to be removed are either forgotten about or sent to a foster home that's even more abusive than the home.

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An Investigation

Many of the lawsuits against MacLaren Hall did not seek financial damages, but only change. An investigation conducted by the County of Los Angeles that cost $355,531 revealed:

  • Children were sometimes placed at MacLaren Hall for more than a year, even though the County of Los Angeles is required to place children within 30 days,
  • Delinquent children, and children who were violent and emotionally disturbed, were housed with dependent children.
  • Staff members restrained children, ignoring of a policy that restricts restraining children.
  • There were as many as 11 reports of children's arms being broken by staff members.
  • Unlawful strip searches of children were performed on a routine basis.
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Trauma Lives On

In the prison-like atmosphere, MacLaren Hall housed severely abused children with extensive behavioral issues, alongside violent juvenile offenders. This reckless system created much of the chaos and widespread violence. In the mid-1980s, faculty members came under fire as reports were made of staff selling drugs and abusing children. This led to a brief period of improvement at the facility. Then in 1997, a 12-year-old boy died after inhaling fumes from a can of hair mousse as he was unsupervised by staff.

Children released from probation facilities without a place to go ended up at MacLaren Hall, where they were housed with children coming in from psychiatric hospitals, and those who were suicidal and developmentally delayed. There are reports of staff dragging small children and infants around by their hair, legs, arms, or ears. Babies and small children could be heard screaming and crying throughout the night. MacLaren Hall had become a dumping ground. Many of the children would go AWOL from the facility, only to be found and brought back. The majority of the children were classified as “hard to place,” or “unadoptable.”

There have been numerous reports by former residents of children being examined, over-medicated, taunted by staff, restrained, and beaten. Reports of rape and sexual abuse was widespread. Reports of PTSD, depression, anxiety, and suicide are just a few issues former residents reported they are suffering today.

As adults, they are still affected by the trauma they experienced at MacLaren Hall. Many survivors of MacLaren Hall share similar stories. A man who had been at MacLaren Hall in the 1960s has spent close to his whole life incarcerated. Another MacLaren Hall survivor wrote about jrt partner who had also been at MacLaren Hall. The woman shared that her partner spoke about MacLaren often and had emotional issues and unresolved trauma which inevitably resulted in her suicide in 2003. Numerous former residents have requested their records, only to be denied.

After close to six decades of abuse and devastation, MacLaren Hall closed its doors in 2003. The facility sat on 10 acres and consisted of a campus, school, infirmary, administrative offices and cottages. According to a 2021 article by the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, there is a public works project underway called the MacLaren Community Park Project that wants to convert the MacLaren grounds into a public park.

But the memories of MacLaren Children's Center are still there. For every child who was forced to walk those halls, the painful memories will always remain. Trauma and abuse cannot be reversed. These children have scars, both physical and emotional. There are no words to make any of it go away. Something needs to be done to fix the foster care system. We cannot remove children who are being abused just to abuse them all over again. There needs to be fewer institutions, and more homes to place these broken children. They need more services and protection. There needs to be change and reform. If nothing changes, the cycle will only repeat itself.

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