Last year, according to Los Angeles County Probation officials, thirteen kids under the county’s supervision filed what are technically known as PREA grievances against probation staff members.
PREA—just to remind you—is the acronym for the Prison Rape Elimination Act, passed by Congress in 2003. The passage of the law led to the creation of a set of standards designed to “prevent, detect, and respond to sexual abuse in confinement facilities.” This includes youth facilities.
Thus, the fact that 13 PREA grievances were filed against officers at the county’s juvenile halls or camps means that, in 2018, 13 young people filed official complaints alleging sexual assault or sexual abuse by a staff member at one of the county’s juvenile halls or camps.
Out of those 13 grievances, one was considered “substantiated,” which means that there was enough information to launch an investigation. The other 12 were labeled “unsubstantiated,” although we have not yet been able to establish whether “unsubstantiated” means false, or just that there wasn’t enough evidence one way or the other to credibly pursue the grievance, which is often true of sexual abuse allegations. Or perhaps some of the 12 fell into one category, some into the other.**
(There was also a substantiated staff-on-staff PREA grievance during the same period.**)
The information about the allegations of sexual assault—substantiated and not—came up during a Wednesday meeting of PRIT—as LA County’s Probation Reform Implementation Team is known for short. For those unfamiliar, PRIT is a five-person panel, plus an executive director, that the county’s board of supervisors caused to be formed last spring in order to create a permanent civilian oversight body for LA County’s Department of Probation.
PRIT has been having public meetings for the past eight months, the most recent of which was largely focused on a discussion of how grievance procedures for youth probationers and their families should be handled, and the how the soon-to-be-formed Probation Oversight Commission should be involved in the grievance system, which many of those who spoke on the topic described as inadequate at the very best.
“We need an independent third-party grievance system for anyone to have confidence in the process,” said probation commissioner Jacqueline Caster, who is also the president and founder of the Everychild Foundation. Otherwise, kids are afraid to make complaints “about anything serious,” she said.
To further make the point, Caster mentioned the strong recommendation for an independent system that was part of probation’s 2015 settlement with the Department of Justice, after nearly nine years of federal monitoring of the county’s juvenile camps.
ACLU attorney Ian Kysel agreed. Best practices suggest that it helps to be able to make complaints “to separate body,” he said.
A line-up of community speakers concurred.
“I never filled out a grievance form,” said Kent Mendoza, youth advocate and policy director for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, who spent time in the county’s youth facilities as a teenager. “You don’t want to approach that grievance box.” A lot of staff still “encourage that attitude,” Mendoza said.
Luis Dominguez, acting Deputy Director overseeing the county’s juvenile halls, said the department was “working on more confidentiality” in the grievance process.
When nobody listens
As the discussion on probation’s youth grievance methods progressed, several speakers brought up a horrific case of repeated sexual assault of a teenage juvenile camp resident by a staff member, which some at the meeting said illustrated the way the county’s grievance system could catastrophically fail a young person when he or she most needed it to work.
The case—which, in July 2018, resulted in $1 million legal settlement against the county—involved former LA County Deputy Probation Officer, Oscar David Calderon Jr., who assaulted a young female probationer at Camp Scudder, one of the county’s juvenile probation camps, from November 2014 to July 2015.
The assaults included sexual fondling, groping, and “digital penetration,” among other assaultive acts, according to the lawsuit.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the case was the fact that the 5’2″ teenage probationer believed she could do nothing about the regular sexual assaults she was enduring from the approximately 6’1″ deputy probation officer, who had direct control over such privileges as whether or not she could call her family, and had reportedly threatened to delay her release from camp with negative write-ups if she refused to cooperate with his advances.
The helplessness that the girl said she felt was compounded by the efforts she and her godfather reportedly each made to tell someone at Scudder about what was occurring.
The girl told her therapist, yet her confidence somehow did not remain private. Calderon retaliated against her in ways that led her to believe that asking for help would simply make matters worse.
Worried by her letters, her godfather confided his concerns for his goddaughter’s safety to Calderon’s direct supervisor.
The supervisor also did anything to intervene. In addition, multiple co-workers reportedly observed at least some of the officer’s inappropriate attentions, according to the lawsuit. But, instead of reporting what they saw, on multiple occasions, probation officers remarked to the girl, or other youth around her, “You don’t want a snitch jacket on you,” and similar messages of that nature.
(Calderon was eventually 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 a total of four girls whom prosecutors said ranged in age from 15 to 18. But, his lawyer negotiated a greatly reduced plea deal that resulted in only a month in LA County Jail, and no requirement to register as a sex offender.)
With all this in mind, as a part of the high-ticket settlement of the the case, attorneys Justin Sterling and Erin Darling, who represented the main young woman, asked for “corrective actions” by the county to minimize the risk that such sexual abuse would happen to kids in the county’s care in the future.
The non-compliance factor
Among the corrective, actions to which the county agreed, was the stipulation that all juvenile facilities would become “PREA compliant,” with all juvenile facility staff to receive PREA training by December 2018. The agreement (which you can read here) was signed by, among other people, LA County Probation Chief, Terri McDonald.
At last Wednesday’s PRIT meeting, youth advocates and others asked the probation officials present if LA’s juvenile facilities were, indeed, PREA compliant?
As it turns out, the answer appears to be a dispiriting no.
Much of the problem has to do with a lack of adequate funding, according to Terri McDonald.**
When asked whether staff in the juvenile halls and camps received PREA training by the end of last year, as the signed agreement stipulated, one of the probation officials said that the department really wasn’t yet sure, although they were working on it.**
“It is a process, and it takes partnerships, and it is being addressed,” said Dardy Chen of the county CEO’s office on the general topic of PREA compliance. “But unfortunately, it’s going to take some time,” he said.
“Seven years?!” whispered one of the youth advocates, pointing out that the federal PREA standards for the nation’s juvenile facilities had been laid down in 2012, and it was now 2019.
At some point, PRIT executive director Saul Sarabia tried to move the conversation in a more ameliorative direction.
“So it would be one of the duties of a future oversight body to make sure there is compliance with the federal law that says ‘This is how you prevent rape of minors,'” he said.
But if nothing changes, Sarabia continued, “how do we ensure that a non-compliant county or facility” has adequate mechanisms set up so that, “if kids are a situation where they are facing harm or risk of harm,” they can tell someone about it?
Last year, reporter Lauren Lee White investigated the state of the grievance systems in the county’s various youth facilities for WitnessLA, and her subsequent report described the best practice methods that some other states were using successfully, but that LA was, thus far, failing to embrace.
Meanwhile, probation commissioner and retired LA Superior Court Judge, Jan Levine, noted that when the grievance boxes and forms were available and displayed prominently in facilities—as they often were—“everybody in the unit watches when someone walks over and pulls a form. 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.’”
Attorney Justin Sterling, agreed, explaining that his client didn’t use the complaint box at Camp Scudder “because she was scared of retaliation,” due to the lack of privacy available when retrieving, filling out, or depositing a form.
So what happened to those staff members at Camp Scudder who failed to take action when Oscar David Calderon Jr. was regularly sexually assaulting a girl who was supposedly in his care. Were they sanctioned? Were they fired?
No one we asked at the PRIT event seemed to know.
Near the end of the meeting, which ran overtime, youth advocate Sandra McBrayer got up to take one last stab at few pressing questions. McBrayer is the chief executive officer of San Diego’s Children’s Initiative, which has helped to drive much of the reform in San Diego’s youth system. This year, the internationally known McBrayer has traveled up to LA with some regularity to consult with PRIT.
At first, McBrayer asked questions about the budget, but then she turned to Chief McDonald and came back to PREA.
“Terri, do you know how many of the 28 PREA standards how many have been implemented in probation?” McBrayer asked Chief McDonald.
“Not off the top of my head,” said the chief. “But I can get you that information.”**
That would help, McBrayer said.
“I want to get back to the point that this [law] was passed in 2003, and in September of 2012, there was a final order. And it is actually a federal law,” she said. “It’s not a ‘kinda law,'” she said referring to what someone else had said of PREA, inaccurately, earlier in the meeting.
“The state can have money withheld,” McBrayer continued, meaning that California could have funding withheld by the feds if it fails to match PREA standards. “But that’s not the reason for the law. It’s to protect children and families. So to see the progress from 2012 to today, and how many of those standards have been put into practice, and are ongoing”—and to learn the status of the other standards—“will let the PRIT have a better understanding of which of the RDA recommendations we should prioritize, because we don’t want to prioritize something that’s already been accomplished.
(For those who have wisely not rabbit-holed on all these minutiae, like we have, here’s what “RDA” means. When the PRIT was ordered up by the board of supervisors last spring, it was mandated to make use of the seven main recommendations found in a dauntingly-researched report titled the “LA County Probation Governance Study,” which was commissioned by the county from Resources Development Associates—or RDA. The resulting approximately 500-page tome, which is generally referred to as “The RDA Report,” has acted as one of PRIT’s primary bibles.)
The chief, wishing to be precise, reminded McBrayer, accurately, that “the RDA didn’t make a recommendation around PREA. Just so you know.”
“But there is a recommendation around safety,” McBrayer replied. “And PREA is the foundation of safety.”
And with that, both women seemed finished with the topic, at least for the moment. Within a few minutes, everyone began heading for the door.
A few days after the PRIT meeting, WitnessLA exchanged emails with Justin Sterling about where he thought LA County Probation stood on the corrective actions that the county had promised to put into place as part of the legal settlement on the Calderon case.
“We’ve learned from our litigation on other cases against the county, that PREA compliance remains a huge issue for them,” Sterling told us.
In general, his assessment was not optimistic. The cases he and his co-counsel have seen in the last few years, he said, “demonstrate the county’s deliberate indifference to the safety of female inmates that are in the county’s custody, whether it’s in the adult system run by LASD or the juvenile system.”
(In addition to youth clients, Sterling, and Erin Darling have also represented a string of women who each reported sexual abuse by a staff member inside LA’s jail for women, the Century Regional Detention Facility—or CRDF—which is not doing great with PREA standards either. We’ll have more on that topic early next week.)
“It’s really horrific,” Sterling said about the county’s lack of PREA compliance, “and there’s just no excuse for it.”
These failures, he said, have inflicted “irreparable harm…”
With the kind help of probation officials, we found some inaccuracies in some of our quotes, and related phrases, which—after going over our recordings multiple times—we have hopefully corrected most of these errors. The areas of correction are double starred.**
Update 1, 4:17 p.m., April 22, 2019; Update 2, 4:53 p.m., April 22, 2019
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