#MeToo Behind Bars LA County Probation

Will Proposed $1 Million Settlement on Case of Alleged Sexual Assault of Girl by LA County Juvenile Probation Officer Help Push Department Reform?

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

Last September, Los Angeles County Deputy Probation Officer, Oscar David Calderon Jr., then 33, was sentenced to one year in county jail after pleading guilty to two felony counts of assault under the color of authority, for “inappropriately touching” two girls at one of the county’s juvenile probation camps, Camp Scudder. Calderon was not required to register as a sex offender. His employment at LA County Probation was, however, terminated.

The plea deal  was a generous one, since originally Calderon was charged with two counts of lewd and lascivious acts upon a child, and four counts of assault by a peace officer, meaning that Calderon’s victims were four girls not two, whom prosecutors involved said ranged in age from 15 to 18.  The original charges could have resulted in a five-year prison sentence for Calderon, according to the DA’s spokesperson.

On July 14, 2017, one of Calderon’s female victims, a young woman whom we’ll call Michelle (to protect her privacy*), filed a federal civil lawsuit alleging that she was assaulted by former DPO Calderon  from November 2014 to July 2015, and felt she could do nothing about it. The helplessness that the young woman said she felt was compounded by the efforts she and her godfather reportedly each made to tell someone in the camp about the abuse. Yet neither staff member did anything to intervene, while multiple other co-workers observed at least some of the officer’s inappropriate actions, which should have been perceived as red flags, according to the civil complaint. But, instead of intervening or notifying a supervisor, according to Michelle, on multiple occasions probation officers remarked to her or other youth around her, “You don’t want a snitch jacket on you,” and other words to that effect.

Now the Scudder sexual assault lawsuit appears to be very close to being settled by LA County for $1 million, plus legal fees. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors are expected vote on whether to approve the settlement in July.

But juvenile advocates and “Michelle’s” lawyers also hope that the harrowing accounts of sexual assault the lawsuit describes, along with the contention that a therapist, a probation supervisor, and as many as 10 deputy probation officers knew at least something about the abuse and did zero, will trigger reform of the  grievance system used in LA County Probation’s juvenile halls and camps, a system that failed Michelle—and possibly at least three other girls—so badly.


Making “corrections”

As part of the settlement documents for lawsuits filed against the county, there is a section in which the agency or agencies involved are asked to summarize the corrective actions that the agency—in this case, LA County’s Probation Department—intends to take to correct the situation underlying the lawsuit and the settlement.

If what Michelle’s attorneys, Erin Darling and Justin E. Sterling, have written in the amended complaint filed on September 6, 2017 is mostly true, the task of implementing the right “corrections” is as urgent as it is complicated.

According to Michelle’s account, before Calderon graduated to out-and-out sexual assault allegedly on a weekly basis—which he reportedly inflicted on the girl in ten instances during the three month period from April 2015 through June 2015—he engaged in an escalating pattern of inappropriate and…well…creepy behavior during the previous six months, which reportedly would have been difficult or impossible to hide altogether from other staff members.

“For instance,” the complaint states, “on multiple occasions, at night, just before the lights were turned off in the camp wards’ dormitory for sleep, Officer Calderon would call Plaintiff out of bed and have her sit at a lunch bench in the dormitory with him. Officer Calderon would order Plaintiff to remain seated with him after the lights were turned off. Plaintiff had nothing to say to Officer Calderon and the two would sit in silence, in the dark, until Officer Calderon permitted Plaintiff to return to her bed to sleep.”

During these alleged sessions of sitting silently in the dark, Michelle described how various DPOs saw the bizarre night outings, and other forms of inappropriate attention paid her by Calderon, who unfortunately was her case manager.  Yet, they reportedly never said anything to intervene—except to allegedly jokingly remark about Calderon’s actions.  “You,” they would reportedly say, meaning Michelle, “got the juice!

Great.

When Calderon escalated to bouts of forced touching, kissing, and in one alleged incident, choking, Michelle said she cautiously told her therapist that her DPO was touching her in an intimate way without her permission, expecting that the therapist would certainly help her.  Instead, a few days after she’d confided in the woman, Calderon allegedly pulled her out of class, brought up the therapist and said, “What did you tell her?!”

During this same period, Michelle also wrote to her godfather about her growing fear of Calderon who, had reportedly told her that if she “refused to obey him, ‘I will fuck up your court reports.'”

After he got Michelle’s letter, her worried godfather spoke in person to Calderon’s direct supervisor, a female Supervising Deputy Probation Officer, and told her of his concerns for his goddaughter’s safety. The supervisor reportedly said she could take his complaint but that she trusted Calderon “100 percent.”

Again, reportedly, nothing improved for Michelle after the godfather lodged his complaint either.

Instead, things got worse. In April 2015, Calderon’s conduct toward Michelle allegedly escalated again until it included sexual fondling, groping, and digital penetration, among other assaultive actions, which occurred during her weekly work shift at the camp’s snack shop, where Calderon could reportedly grab her out of sight of others.

Believing she had no where to turn, Michelle reportedly “gave up trying to resist Officer Calderon’s advances.”


Reforming the grievance systems

As WitnessLA reported in January, the Scudder lawsuit has drawn attention to the terrible things that can happen when the system for filing grievances in a juvenile facility is broken, and a bad actor takes advantage of the broken system to victimize a kid.

Thus, in terms of “corrective actions” in response to the reportedly soon-to-come settlement, top of the list would seem to be reforming the grievance system for kids who reside in the county’s various facilities.

Yet, what WLA reporter, Lauren Lee White, learned in January was that, in the view of many familiar with the existing grievance systems used in the LA County’s juvenile camps and halls, the failure was not just at Scudder.  To the contrary, in general the system does not appear to be adequate to protect the kids in the county’s care if a real problem arises, as it did for Michelle.

At a January 11, 2018, meeting of LA County’s Probation Commission, commissioner and retired LA Superior Court Judge, Jan Levine, made the observation that although grievance boxes and grievance forms are supposed to be available and displayed prominently in all juvenile facilities, even if the boxes are present, visible, and filled with the proper forms, they are anything but private.

“Everybody in the unit watches when someone walks over and pulls a form,” Levine said at the meeting. “And I’ve seen probation officers intercept the person who’s going to get a form to say, ‘You don’t want to do that.’”

More recently, Jacqueline Caster, a longtime child advocate who is the founder of the Everychild Foundation, expressed similar observations and frustrations.

“There is not a truly operational grievance system where youth and their parents can voice complaints that will be 1) actually heard and properly investigated and 2) delivered without fear of retribution,” said Caster in an email to us over the weekend.  (Caster, who is also a member of the probation commission, made it clear that she spoke to us in her personal capacity, and not in her role as a commissioner.)

In the summary of planned corrective actions, improvement of the grievance system is, indeed, on the list.  The county states it plans to “expand all the avenues available for concerns to be highlighted by youth and families including an enhanced grievance reporting and tracking system.”

In terms of the details, Chief Deputy Probation Officer Sheila Mitchell, the agency’s second in command and the person in charge of juvenile operations, said that while the department couldn’t comment on “active litigation,” she was happy to comment on the grievance system in general.

“We are committed to providing safe supervision in our facilities as well as confidential and responsive actions when unacceptable treatment of our youth is alleged,” Mitchell said.

To that end, she said, the department is “in the midst of revamping our grievance systems, improving training and working with our county partners to prevent, detect and respond to any sexual abuse of youth in our care.”

Several solutions to improving the grievance system involving technology “take time,” Mitchell said, likely referring to a new system that involves electronic tablets that the county is reportedly strongly considering, and that most experts seem to think would be much easier to use in a confidential manner.

In the meantime,  “quicker solutions such as improved signage to youth and families to make them aware of avenues to report their concerns, updating confidential call lines, and continual evaluation of our response to grievances and complaints are underway.”

But reform does not seem to be moving at lightening speed. Caster said that on multiple occasions she called the Probation Department Ombudsman’s hotline—a non-emergency resource for juveniles to report grievances—to check its functionality. But “nobody would ever answer. I think once I got a return call,” she said.

At a recent Probation Commission meeting Mitchell sighed and said that she left a message for the Ombudsman and never got a call back.


Mentoring the nation’s biggest probation department

Mitchell has told us in the past, and Luis Dominguez, Acting Deputy Director for the department’s Detention Services Bureau, reaffirmed recently to Caster, that the reform of the grievance process, among other reforms, is being aided by the fact that the department was awarded an 18-month grant to become part of Georgetown University’s Youth in Custody Practice Model (YICPM), a program that mentors regional leaders in how to “implement or accelerate systemic change to improve outcomes for youth in post-adjudication custody,” using “cutting edge ideas, policies and practices from across the country.”

In other words, the Georgetown folks aim to help regional agencies jumpstart serious, deep-dive reform designed to produce better outcomes for kids in county probation systems like LA’s, which is still the largest in the nation.

When Jackie Caster spoke on Monday to the director of the Georgetown program, Shay Bilchik, and one of LA County’s main mentors from the program, Michael Umpierre, she said that both confirmed that they were working with LA on its grievance process, among many other issues, but that they, understandably, were not specific about the work in progress.

Yet, a quick glance at Georgetown mentor Michael Umpierre’s earlier writing on the topic, published in 2014, when he was the program co-coordinator for the DOJ-supported National Center for Youth in Custody, might at least suggest a direction.

“A grievance procedure is an important element of safeguarding” youth wellbeing, wrote Umpierre. Among the basic elements of “adequate grievance procedures,” he continued, include the “opportunity for youth to present grievances to impartial parties” and making sure that “youth have the right to file grievances without staff retaliation.”

The “impartial parties” piece of the puzzle seems to be notably and crucially absent from LA Probation’s existing system—hence, we are told, in many facilities youth indeed, rightly or wrongly, fear “staff retaliation.”

Umpierre also cited “PREA standards either for kids or adults.” (PREA, in case you’ve forgotten, is the Prison Rape Elimination Act.) The PREA standards, he wrote, require that appropriate grievance procedures, “provide multiple internal ways for residents to privately report sexual abuse and sexual harassment, retaliation by other residents or staff for reporting, and staff neglect or violation of responsibilities that may have contributed to such incidents.”

PREA standards also require that there be “at least one way for such reporting to a public or private entity not part of the agency.” (Italics ours.)

The above does not guarantee that every precept Umpierre wrote about in 2014 will be recommended to LA County Juvenile Probation leaders in 2018, but it suggests a general direction.

And, it is important to note that in the summary of corrective actions, the department also mentioned PREA.

“The Department is working towards ensuring that all facilities are Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Compliant with training, staffing ratios, night supervisors, privacy glass, cross-gender accommodations for supervision and upgraded cameras. Our managers received a PREA orientation training in April 2018 and we plan to complete line staff training by December 2018….” etc.

Okay, we wish the training had taken place sooner, but still, this is progress.

Michelle’s attorney, Justin E. Sterling would also like the reform progress to move more quickly, but still said he is heartened.

“Of course the primary purpose for bringing this lawsuit was to obtain some sense of justice for our client,” he wrote us in an email exchange. “That said, we are pleased that this case and others like it have triggered reform within both juvenile detention facilities run by the LA County Probation Department and the county jail system as a whole.”

(One of Sterling’s other case, is a lawsuit brought against former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy Giancarlo Scotti, who in February of this year was charged with sexually assaulting six female inmates at the LA women’s jail located in Lynwood, California, where he was working at the time of the alleged assaults.)

One of the primary issues in Michelle’s case “and many others like it,” wrote Sterling, “was that the grievance process was inadequate. It is essential,” he said, that both teenage probationers and adult inmates “feel safe and are safeguarded from retaliation when utilizing the grievance process,” especially when the retaliation is likely to come from personnel within the facility.

“When litigation can effect lasting change,” said Sterling,” that is the best possible outcome. “Hopefully that’s what we’re seeing here,” he wrote.

“There’s more work to be done,” Sterling added, but the new measures the county is working to implement, he wrote, are “a step in the right direction.”


*”Michelle,” is now an adult, but she was a minor when many of the actions described in her lawsuit occurred, and WLA has a policy of not disclosing the names of minors in such cases, except in exceptional circumstances.

The photo above is of girls at Scudder looking at the “Wall of Hope,” painted by Scudder probationers under the instruction of Theatre Of Hearts/Youth First and Artist-in-Residence Michael Massenburg in 2009. The photo is courtesy of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission Civic Art Collection.

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