Ready, Set, Go! is the new mantra of the Los Angeles Fire Department, the LA County Fire Department, CAL Fire, and other fire agencies around the state when instructing California residents how best to keep themselves safe during fire season. That three-step set of instructions translates, basically, as follows: 1. Create an evacuation plan for your family well before fire season starts, and review it, so if an emergency hits and the pressure is on, you already know what steps to follow; 2. If and when a fire breaks out in your general vicinity, get everything packed and ready to follow your evacuation plan; 3. If you are told to evacuate, or if you just think things are starting to look dicey, leave. Don’t hesitate. You have a plan, so put it in motion. Go!
Yet, when it comes to LA County Probation’s youth facilities that are located it wildland fire-prone areas, is that simple but crucial three-step concept now in place? Has the county learned its lesson after the near-tragedy at Campus Kilpatrick a year ago during the inferno that was the Woolsey Fire?
Staff members and others with direct knowledge of what happened a year after Woolsey, when a fire broke out in Sylmar near one of LA probation’s largest youth facilities, say the answer is yes, sort of, but in many critical ways…no.
Fire comes to Sylmar
On Thursday, October 10, 2019, at approximately 9:02 p.m., the Saddle Ridge Fire ignited at the point where Interstate 210 and Yarnell Street meet in Sylmar, California, a location that was exactly .8 miles from Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, also located in Sylmar, which is one of two Los Angeles County Probation’s juvenile halls that are still in operation.
By around 10:30 p.m. Probation higher-ups had concluded that the 278 kids residing at Barry J, as the facility is known, would need to be evacuated along with various staff members and others working with the kids that night.
The actual evacuation began well after midnight, or perhaps as late as 1:30 a.m. on October 11, by which time the Saddle Ridge Fire had arrived at the wall surrounding the youth facility.
In the beginning, the evacuation went quite smoothly despite the close proximity of the fire, according to WLA’s probation sources who were working that night. When they received their orders, the detention officers who were on duty, along with the night staff, operated quickly and professionally to get the nearly 300 kids up, out of their beds, dressed, fed – when possible – then lined up to exit the facility’s various units and buildings. When kids started to panic, or to funnel their anxiety into belligerence, the staff calmed them down.
The bleary-eyed kids, many of whom pleaded with detention officers to let them go back to sleep, were gradually loaded on a series of seven Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department buses and driven to Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, which was located in Downey.
Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, known as LP, had been shuttered during the summer, thus was empty, so could take the Barry J. kids without too much preparation.
Probation made use of the LA County Sheriff’s Department buses because probation’s own transport vehicles were reportedly less easily accessed in the wee hours, plus probation didn’t have a surfeit of large vehicles, whereas the LASD was ready and willing to get the needed number of large buses to Sylmar fairly quickly.
The Saddle Ridge Fire, which burned through 8,799 Acres during its nearly two-weeks of life, ignited almost eleven months to the day after the catastrophic Woolsey Fire of last November came racing toward one of LA County Probation’s other youth facilities, Campus Kilpatrick, with what could have been lethal results.
With the Woolsey Fire, probation faced sharp criticism for not ordering an evacuation early enough for the staff and the kids in their care, causing a delay that meant 22 children and 13 staff were no longer able to evacuate safely, but instead were forced to “shelter-in-place,” as LA County’s most destructive fire in the last 100 years raced their direction.
Yet, in the case of this month’s Saddle Ridge Fire, probation officials began the evacuation process in a more timely fashion and, although there were some glitches, at first this seemed to go comparatively smoothly.
“We will be moving the youth to Los Padrinos,” Chief Terri McDonald wrote in an 11:20 p.m. email an hour or two before the evacuation began, addressing it to various county department heads, including District Attorney Jackie Lacey, Public Defender Ricardo Garcia, Alternate Public Defender Erika Anzoategui, Victor Greenberg, Presiding Judge of the county’s juvenile courts, among others.
“I do not know at this point whether this is for a day or two or longer. The facility is currently safe but very smokey. Will advise as we know more.”
Other emails followed as required.
Members of probation’s command staff were on-site as the evacuation progressed, along with two members of the Probation Commission who drove over to Barry J once they saw the fire was headed its direction, just to see if they could help.
In addition, some of the staff members from Campus Kilpatrick, who had gone through the far larger and scarier Woolsey Fire last year, came to Los Padrinos to help out and to provide moral support for the Barry J staff members, and the kids they were supervising.
The detention officers’ main complaint, as members of Barry J’s line staff would tell WLA later, was that they were distressed at not having any real preparation for the evacuation. They needed training, plus a list of actions and protocols that could easily be accessed, and could have prepared them for a wildfire evacuation.
“Just like you have fire drills,” said one detention officer, “we should have had evacuation drills. Because we didn’t have that, it made things more chaotic than they needed to be as we worked to safely evacuate close to 300 minors. Because we had to figure things out as they went, and things were slower as a result.”
Nevertheless, the staff and their supervisors coped with most issues with competent efficiency, as the flames moved closer.
It was only when the seven sheriff’s buses that had picked up the kids at Barry J, began to unload their teenage charges between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. at Los Padrinos in Downey, that evidence of far more serious problems began to surface.
Accounts of assault & trauma
During the first days following the evacuation, probation staff who had had not been present that night at Barry J, plus others with ties to the kids in the county’s care, began to hear some unsettling stories.
On Tuesday afternoon, for example, Samantha Buckingham , who is the Director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic Center for Juvenile Law and Policy Loyola Law School, got a weird voice mail from a stranger who said they needed to talk to somebody about the evacuation at Barry J.
The person left their name and phone number but asked that neither be revealed.
(We’re deliberately not using gender designations to protect the caller’s privacy, hence the odd use of plural pronouns, et al.)
Although Buckingham was busy, and realized this might be a crank call, on instinct, she called the person back. The two talked for 25 to 30 minutes.
The source said they’d tried calling several officials but never got through. So they began Googling to find someone who might listen. Hence the call to Buckingham who, by the time the conversation ended, concluded that the call sound credible.
Shortly after she hung up, Buckingham composed an email describing the conversation, which she sent immediately to a list of juvenile defense attorneys and other colleagues.
The email (that WLA has obtained) read in part:
The anonymous caller told her, Buckingham wrote, that “when the kids were taken from Sylmar and evacuated this past weekend due to the fires that some children were harmed. According to the caller, probation was not on the transport along with the kids taken from Sylmar to LP. The buses were driven by the Sheriffs and apparently, kids were not screened for getting along with one another (or gangs). The caller reported that kids arrived at LP having been abused en route.”
According to the caller, some children “arrived at LP injured and even some naked…”
Buckingham specified that she could not “vouch for the veracity of the information,” but thought it “worthy of passing along to everyone who represents kids who were at Sylmar and are now at LP so that you can check in with your clients to see if they are ok.”
There was more to the email. But that was the heart of it.
As lawyers who received Buckingham’s email checked with other lawyers, some of whom had clients among the kids who had been evacuated, an alarming story began to emerge of at least four boys having been attacked and beaten during their rides on the sheriff’s buses from Barry J to Los Padrinos. Startlingly, there were reportedly no probation staff members present to intervene on the LASD bus in which the main attacks took place.
One of the boys who was attacked was fourteen-years-old and was in juvenile hall for the first time. The boy was, it seems, placed in one of three holding cells on one of the sheriff’s buses with 15 other boys, who reportedly taunted and ultimately assaulted him, breaking his glasses, and kicking him in the head and elsewhere repeatedly, plus stripping him of his clothing, then continuing to assault him for an extended period of time, with reportedly no adult on the bus who was able to supervise the teenagers in the three holding cells in the bus, except for the sheriff’s department driver who, when he heard the commotion, thought it wise to keep driving.
We have been told by probation command staff and others who were present during the evacuation that there were two probation staff members on each of the buses including the bus where three of the assaults allegedly took place. Yet we are told by other probation supervisors that neither the LASD driver nor anyone who might or might not have been in the passenger seat in the cab area, had any way of supervising the youth due to this particular bus’s configuration.
Furthermore, we continue to hear from our probation sources that, for some reason or another, there were no probation chaperones on the bus in question.
Yet, we will continue to work to get to the bottom of that question.
At least two of the boys seemed particularly traumatized by the experience, one of whom sobbed on uncontrollably his attorney’s lap when he saw her.
In ensuing days, two or more of the injured boys reportedly wound up in the courtroom of Judge Christina Hill, who was reportedly upset enough about what she saw and heard in relation to what the boys had experienced, that she called some of the judges above her to report what had happened, including Judge Victor Greenberg, the presiding judge at LA County’s Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court.
On October 16, Chief McDonald sent an email to the LA County Board of Supervisors to warn the board about the brewing storm around the evacuation assaults.
“I wanted to alert you to an investigation that we opened concerning several youth who may have been in a fight or hazed while in transport in two separate bus transports,” McDonald wrote, in the email that WLA has also obtained. “While there were no reported or observed serious injuries to youth and they received medical attention upon arrival to LP, we are taking this issue very seriously.”
Probation was already getting inquiries about the incidents from the LA County Office of Education, McDonald wrote, plus probation commissioners, and also from “court partners.” Presumably, “court partners” refer to the growing list of concerned lawyers and judges.
McDonald told the board that two young people “exited the bus in restraints but with their pants off while holding their clothing in front of them.”
The two kids whose clothing was stripped off of them came from “different transportation tanks in the bus,” McDonald wrote, adding that one of the buses in question “had three large individual holding areas” for group transportation.
“We are treating this as PREA investigation,” she wrote, “although there was no evidence of sexual abuse.”
Of course, having one’s clothing forcibly stripped off would likely be considered sexual abuse, but nevermind. We understand the point. And both kids who arrived without clothes have reportedly denied they were sexually abused.
According to sources among the juvenile defense attorneys, at least two of the minimum four kids who were injured, were bruised and lacerated badly enough that they were not able to sleep at all, and at least one of the two reportedly didn’t see a doctor until two days after the fact, although probation officials told us that every one of the injured kids saw appropriate medical staff right away.
According to McDonald and other probation higher-ups, all of the Barry J kids were loaded on their respective buses wearing “flex cuffs,” which are the “temporary plastic handcuffs used for emergencies,” but that kids on several of the sheriff’s busses managed to break or remove their flex cuffs.
The transportation deputy who was driving the bus where three of the kids were attacked, said later he did not feel it was safe for him to pull over once the assaults began, as he was alone, “so he drove to the LP facility for assistance,” Chief McDonald’s email confirmed.
It was not clear how it came about that there were no probation staff members present as chaperones on one of the sheriff’s buses that transported the Barry J teenagers, while there were probation staff members on the other six buses.
It turns out that, in case of the reportedly unchaperoned bus where, incidentally, the majority of the assaults took place, it seems that only a single probation staff member would have fit on those particular bus models, and only at the very front of the bus next to the driver, with no access to the kids. Why buses that could not properly accommodate adult chaperones would be used to transport kids from a detention facility, who were already in a high-stress situation, is not at all clear.
The way various groups of kids might have been mixed together on the buses may also have added to the problems, according to probation sources.
“The one thing they did that should not have been done,” said Jim Schoengarth, president of SEIU 721, the Association of Probation Supervisors of Los Angeles County, “was mix kids from different security levels. Even the sheriffs should have known not to do that,” said Schoengarth. “You don’t mix your low-level kids with your high security. They never should have been mixed no matter what.”
There are reports that part of the problem was that the sheriff’s deputies directed what groups of kids got on which buses, although this is not something that WLA was able to conclusively verify.
Yet the mixing together of different groups of kids was an issue that various probation sources brought up with concern.
“You bring down the kids from the compound and you put them on one bus,” said one probation supervisor, referring to the area of Barry J where many of the highest risk kids are housed. “And honestly,” the source continued, “I wouldn’t even mix the units within the compound, because they’re separated with gangs in mind. And the staff are very cognizant of making sure they have the right balance.”
So, in the rush to get out in time, lacking a protocol with which the line staff members were familiar, were the wrong groups mixed when the buses were loaded, just due to expediency? Maybe, maybe not. Yet, it is our understanding that one or perhaps two of the kids who were assaulted were known to be vulnerable, and should definitely not have been mixed with the kids they were mixed with.
Missing emergency plans
LA County Probation is reportedly developing a brand new, department-wide, emergency management protocol, which is supposed to be very well funded. Yet, this new, state-of-the-art system, while it sounds very promising, likely won’t be ready for another year, or possibly more. Thus, given the county’s lengthy wildfire season, which seems to worsen yearly, and given the fact that LA County Probation has several youth facilities situated in or directly adjacent to fire-prone areas, distributing an interim emergency plan, which includes staff training, and some written material that anyone could access and quickly review when emergency strikes, might be wise.
At least that’s what the Barry J detention officers and others who were part of the evacuation, told us they felt was critically lacking.
“Just as they train us in how to manage conflict,” said an officer, “we need the same amount training in evacuation techniques. It is imperative that Chief McDonald and the Board of Supervisors are aware of how unprepared we were at Barry J. And after what the staff went through at Kilpatrick during the Woolsey Fire, that was inexcusable.”
The management of Barry J, said the staff member, “pulled off a miracle. And they deserve the credit for that, and the staff deserves credit because, the truth is, there was no plan. Not that any of us could see, anyway.”
And while we’re on the subject, when WitnessLA reported on Campus Kilpatrick and the Woolsey Fire this past summer we requested evacuation plans for Kilpatrick, and/or any other general evacuation plans or protocols that pertained to probation’s juvenile facilities located in high fire areas. Although we were told they existed and that we indeed could have copies, after many delays and excuses on the part of County Counsel, we were told, in fact, we could not see any evacuation plans of any kind, after all, California Public Records Act notwithstanding.