The unwanted: for decades L.A. County has warehoused its most unfortunate kids at MacLaren Children’s Center, an institution that’s as damaged as the young people it cares for. Delinquents bed down beside victims, and the aggrieved b

The unwanted: for decades L.A. County has warehoused its most unfortunate kids at MacLaren Children’s Center, an institution that’s as damaged as the young people it cares for. Delinquents bed down beside victims, and the aggrieved become the aggressors. Violence is the norm, dysfunction the rule. Something’s got to give

Edward Humes

Silence envelops our outdoor picnic table, which is bolted to the ground because Alice’s peers have been known to wrench off the metal legs and use them as makeshift bludgeons. I have to ask the obvious: What’s the one positive thing she has managed to find in the mirror?

“I haven’t hit anybody today,” she whispers. “So far.”

Alice’s story is a familiar one at MacLaren Children’s Center, the much-criticized, little-understood emergency shelter for abused and neglected children–Los Angeles County’s not-so-modern equivalent to the old-style orphanage. Alice (not her real name) tells me of the drug-addled mother who abandoned her in a car when she was four. About her father, who was saved from an addict’s low life by a disabling stroke that left him a willing, loving–but still unfit–parent. She speaks bitterly of the older sister who took her in and cleaned her up, only to toss her back out after Alice confessed to being gay Then followed the inevitable procession of foster homes and group homes, the running away the anger, the fire she set at one placement. It was an accident, she says, but no one believes her. No one ever believes her.

Alice’s mood would have tanked then and there but for another familiar part of MacLaren life that abruptly unfolds before us. I follow her gaze as she squints into the afternoon sun, staring at the top of the ten-foot-high perimeter wall that separates her world from the tract homes and strip malls of El Monte. Standing atop it poised to escape is a teenage boy, the tail of his overlarge green T-shirt snapping like a pennant in the breeze. He smiles down at us and at a nearby MacLaren official, who appears mortified that a journalist should witness such a spectacle.

“You going AWOL?” Alice asks the boy cheered that someone, at least, would be getting out of this place today But instead of fleeing, the boy stands there. Alice grows perplexed. “You should go,” she urges. “Just leave.”

“You should come down,” Diane Weissburg, the MacLaren official, pleads. “I’ll walk you back to your cottage.”

The boy shakes his head and dances a jig on the block wall, a huge cartoon mural below him. The street is calling to him, but his partner in this escapade, unable to clamber to the top of the wall, is stranded a hundred yards away on a giant metal storage bin. He, too, refuses to climb down. The boys were going in jump the wall, “find” a car, and go to Las Vegas to beg and hustle on the streets–a life they were sure had to be better than this.

It would have been a simple matter for Weissburg to blast an alert over her walkie-talkie, summoning a cadre of beefy staffers to wrestle the two boys to the ground and lock them up. But they won’t do it. They can’t do it. The staff is legally barred from using restraints and almost all other forms of physical force on their charges, beyond a few complicated body blocks. So the boy stays on the wall for hours, a metaphor for an institution that has been teetering on the edge of ruin for years.

MacLaren is a shelter for a shifting group of up to 156 of L.A.’s most troubled young people. All have been abused or neglected; the majority are mentally ill or emotionally disturbed. Many are violent, some with criminal records. Yet the doors have no locks (except to keep people out). The kids are wards of the state, sent to MacLaren under the auspices of juvenile court, but they are classified by the law as victims, not delinquents, which means they have certain rights. They can refuse to be searched for contraband. They can refuse medical and psychiatric care, no matter how desperately needed. They can refuse to go to class–one out of eight is truant every day though their county-run school is on the MacLaren grounds. They have what amounts to the right to run away if they insist. And insist they do. Kids go AWOL almost daily, sometimes with disastrous results. Thirteen percent of discharges from MacLaren are classified as “released by runaway”–about the same number sent each month to live with foster families. More children are always waiting to fill the empty beds and start the cycle anew. Dispirited staffers say they often feel helpless to intervene; critics say they hardly try.

What’s clear is that where it really counts the kids have final say, making MacLaren far more dysfunctional than similar emergency shelters in other cougar s and states.

“Well, I’ve thought of my second positive,” Alice says. She smiles as she glances the frustrated administrator on the ground and the boy walking above her as if on a tightrope, still stepping his aerial dance, still trying to decide if he wants to go it alone on the streets or return and wait for another opportunity with his friend. Again we sit in silence, and then again I ask the question: What’s the positive?

“I haven’t runaway,” she answers brightly. “Today.”

For decades MacLaren Children’s Center has been the object of reforms, investigations, lawsuits, suits, studies, audits, and celebrity volunteerism. Bold pronouncements from county officials that a solution is at hand have become an annual ritual, followed by another ritual: rounds of finger-pointing and firings when little is solved. (Anita Bock, ousted last July as director of the Department of Children and Family Services, is only the latest casualty; MacLaren was considered a major factor behind her forced resignation.) No facility operated by Los Angeles County has been studied, prodded, lamented, or agonized over more than this shelter for society’s youngest and most fragile victims.

And no place spends more on failure: According to estimates from a routine. L.A. County grand jury audit conducted last year, MacLaren costs the county at least $276,000 a year per child. That’s more than ten times what it costs to keep a prison inmate in his cell for a year, seven time the price of 12 months in a California Youth Authority detention center, and at least three times the cost at a comparable shelter in Santa Clara County. For that matter, it’s more than twice the rate for a deluxe room at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, with plenty left over for room service. Other estimates put the annual tab for a single bed at $350,000. Why the uncertainty? The center’s governance is so unwieldy–eight different agencies and departments carry pieces of the pie (it takes a page of figures just to divvy up the electric bill)–that no one at MacLaren knows what the true budget is.

Despite all the money and attention, the equation for failure at MacLaren remains unchanged. The shabby ten-acre campus of brick, cinder block, and trampled grass was, after all, intended to be a temporary shelter for kids entering the state’s “dependent child” system, the term of art used to distinguish victims of abuse from kids who commit crimes. It was designed as a safe haven from abusive parents and neglectful homes. Thirty days is supposed to be the longest any kid stays en route to a more permanent solution–a foster family, a group home, relatives, adoption, emancipation.

In practice, most kids at MacLaren have been in the system for years, moving from one foster family or group home to the next, doing stints at Mac, as insiders call it, in between. Repeat visitors tend to languish in the center’s aging dormitories for three months at a stretch, sometimes more than a year. Second, third, even fourth stays are common, with kids running away from or getting kicked out of other settings for bad behavior. Wendy Weigman, county supervisor Gloria Molina’s former child welfare expert (MacLaren is in Molina’s district), tracked one girl who’s had 23 different placements in and out of the center. The children tend to be so ill, violent, and difficult to control after years of abuse that better-equipped facilities–including mental hospitals, which can use drugs and physical restraints–frequently refuse them outright or bounce them back to the center at the first opportunity. Social workers here are regularly brutalized by their charges: One lost an eye; another had her scalp partially ripped from her skull when a kid yanked out her braid. An average of six assaults are reported every day.

MacLaren is the repository of last resort for these young outcasts. It has been forced by default to become what it was never meant to be: a home, a school, a hospital, a family, and a parent to these children. It does none of these things well. “What we have now,” says social worker Dominique Newby a two-year veteran at MacLaren, “is a recipe for chaos and disaster. That’s what we face here–every day.”

Among the early signs of trouble were claims of drug dealing and child abuse by MacLaren employees in the 1980s. The center was also accused of overmedicating kids, turning them into walking zombies, and of too frequently falling back on a cruel form of solitary confinement in barren, windowless “quiet rooms.” New administrators came and went almost every year in this era, each a scapegoat for a county that refused to fix its broken orphanage. The ’90s saw chronic injuries and overcrowding (as many as 252 kids crammed into a facility then rated to hold 124). As the center tried to solve its problems with more services, multiple county agencies got involved, generating enormous fragmentation. Workers reported to their own department heads. No one at Mac was in charge. If all the psych technicians wanted to go home at five, the administrator of MacLaren could not order them to stay, even when there were new admissions in need of immediate psychiatric care: The techs answered only to the Department of Mental Health, while the administrator came from the rival Department of Children and Family Services.

In 1997, a disturbed 12-year-old boy died after huffing a can of aerosol hair mousse. The board of supervisors did what elected officials do when a long-brewing scandal erupts: It commissioned a study. From that came a blueprint for fixing, and ultimately replacing MacLaren. The plan called for a network of smaller, smarter, cheaper shelters and long-term mental health facilities, along with stepped-up community-based efforts to keep problem kids with their families whenever possible. Although this approach has been successful in pilot programs–and costs much less than MacLaren–the child welfare bureaucracy has been unable or unwilling to undergo such a fundamental change in its methods. Those recommendations, made in 1998, have gone nowhere for the most part. The county’s principal response was to hand Mac over to a multiagency consortium, a kind of unified command of all the departments involved with the facility, that meets twice a month downtown in the Hall of Administration. The consortium was supposed to solve the interagency turf wars at the facility, but to the surprise of few, governance by a committee of bureaucracies has offered little improvement.

A lawsuit filed in 2001 by attorney Sanford Jossen on behalf of seven Mac children claims they have suffered broken limbs and teeth or other serious injuries at the hands of MacLaren staff. Another lawsuit, forcing belated background checks on MacLaren staff, uncovered past Criminal convictions (for robbery; embezzlement, burglary, drug possession, and other, minor, offenses). Twenty-one staffers have been removed or quit.

This past July the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Law in the Public Interest, and other advocacy groups filed a class-action lawsuit that might finally push the county into more definitive action. It argues that the state and the county are failing to meet the needs of Los Angeles’s 50,000 abused and neglected foster children, and that they are using MacLaren as a harmful dumping ground in the absence of alternatives.

The suit is about more than MacLaren, though. It represents nothing less than a declaration of war on the culture of the modern child welfare system, which tries to stuff damaged kids into whatever programs have vacancies rather than tailor services to the needs of individual children. “It’s that culture that makes a place like MacLaren inevitable,” says ACLU attorney Mark Rosenbaum. “That’s why children who don’t belong at MacLaren end up there. MacLaren isn’t the root problem. MacLaren is the symptom.”

Expected to be settled out of court, the suit may lead to the shuttering of MacLaren. That process could take years, however. The county will have to build replacements for the center, and the state will need to find the money and political will to pay for them.

I am visiting MacLaren on a typical day tinged with the surreal. The sound of live classical music wafts through the K-through-12 school building, where high school kids read at elementary school levels–if they’re lucky–and most are in special education. The music comes twice a month courtesy of Pat Bass, a former singer with the ’60s group the Fifth Dimension, who is escorting concert violinist Marisa McLeod from class to class. In each room McLeod performs for the kids and explains the difference between bowing for the Pasadena Symphony and the studio work she has done for Snoop Dogg and En Vogue. Children filter in and out of the classrooms, unable to stay still for long stretches.

In MacLaren’s dismal front lobby, where the receptionist sits in a Plexiglas cube and the dominant artifact is a giant concrete trash receptacle by the door, a young man with a linebacker’s build storms in and says, “I will hurt all of you if you don’t let me out.” They let him out. A short time later a 17-year-old girl appears at the same door. She is ditching school. Wrapped in a brown plaid blanket, she weeps and gazes outside, unsure if she’ll go AWOL. Having refused her psychotropic medications for several days, she is a wandering wraith, staring at but not seeing the forlorn contents of the lobby’s display cases along the rear wall–an inexplicable mixture of dusty trophies; tired Barbie dolls; faded photos of Mr. T, Henry Winkler, and a young Erik Estrada; an “Outstanding Volunteer” plaque last updated in 1994; and assorted balls and sneakers autographed by professional athletes so long ago that few signatures are still discernible. The autographed soccer ball is flat.

As with most typical days at Mac, the real action began before dawn: Four young children were brought in for temporary shelter after their father set fire to their mother. They had never been in the system, the sort of children MacLaren was built to serve and the sort who, for the better part of the 20th century, were the chief concern of the foster child universe: kids who had lived all their lives with their families, only to be ripped from their beds one night because something terrible had happened. Nowadays this type of case usually lands in smaller foster homes. These four are the exception at MacLaren, and nothing galvanizes the staff faster than the arrival of such kids.

“We got them out of here in 12 hours–all four of them together, placed in the same foster home,” Diane Weissburg, MacLaren’s residential care director for girls, says. “The last thing we would want is for them to stay here for an extended time with our regular population.” She recognizes the irony: MacLaren is no longer safe for the very kids it was designed to save. “If they had to stay long-term,” she says, “they’d be eaten alive.”

Weissburg serves as tour guide and keeper during my two-day visit, which had to be sanctioned by juvenile court presiding judge Michael Nash. She is plainspoken and somewhat crusty, deeply sunburned and squinting from her weekends captaining a tour boat. Anticipation of those hours on the water gets her through each week; she’d been at Mac less than a year when we met. Three months later she would leave to help manage the county’s child abuse hot line. With a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, a law degree, and two decades’ experience working with troubled kids (including time investigating child deaths for the health department), Weissburg thought she had seen it all. Until she came to MacLaren.

We walk into C-Cottage, which houses the youngest girls. An eight-year-old huddles on a linoleum hallway floor, wailing with stunning volume. Tangled brown hair masks her tear-streaked face, but she does not brush it away Two social workers sit on a couch nearby watching her expressionlessly “What do you want? What can I do for you?” one asks. The girl howls louder, interrupting her crying with a long, drawn-out “Noooooooo!”

It is hard to listen to the unmistakable sound of a crushed spirit; even the other girls, just in from school for lunch and sitting down for spaghetti, wince at her cries. Like all 12 of the inhabitants of C-Cottage, this girl has been in the foster care system for much of her life. “They’re letting her vent,” Weissburg says. “It’s loud, but so many of these kids have never been allowed to express themselves. If there’s nothing else we can do for them, we can at least give them that.”

We walk into another cottage, K, this one for older girls. It is a plain brick building with faded gray curtains that were probably white once. The dormitory has a large dayroom, with couches and a television and tables for meals, but no individual chairs–too easy to hurl. Practically anything at Mac light enough to lift must be bolted down. Even a stray staple in the wall from some forgotten flyer can be pried loose and used as a weapon, Weissburg tells me, which is why all bulletin boards are locked in clear plastic boxes. For the same reason, county work crews are tearing out 156 brand-new dressers in the cottages. Weissburg is apoplectic.

“They were supposed to have drawers that could not be removed. It was in the bid requirements. Next thing we know, the kids are throwing the drawers around. One girl got hit pretty good.” She looks over the solid hardwood furniture, the ship’s captain in her measuring its heft, the lawyer in her measuring the liability. “They can be deadly weapons, obviously So they’re all coming out. We were just sick about it.”

K-Cottage was the scene of other late-night action, when a volatile 200-pound 16-year-old began tearing up the place. “How do you stop her?” Weissburg muses. “Well, you don’t stop her. Unless you have to keep her from hurting the other kids. Then you have to get five staff to sit on her, maybe that will slow her down. Maybe.”

“We had to have her petted out,” says Dominique Newby, a supervisor in K. “Petted out” is the Mac euphemism for emergency commitment to a mental hospital–in this case, Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, where one out of five Mac kids lands sooner or later. The center would send more, but the hospital isn’t always willing to keep the really tough kids, no matter how ill, according to MacLaren staff The absence of locked facilities for violent kids leaves Newby and her colleagues with no other option but to shadow certain children constantly moving with them in lockstep throughout the cam-campus. Newby has one such charge in her cottage today, a sexual predator who attacks other girls. Mac officials wanted her sent to juvenile hall or another secure facility, but a judge ordered to the center to keep her and to assign a staff member to watch her 24 hours a day.

“One-on-ones” these kids are called. You see them all over the campus–a social worker walking a step behind them, or sitting nearby in a classroom, or perched on a stool in back of them in the gym during a Cesar Chavez rally A dozen or more one-on-ones (along with a few two-on-ones) may be in progress at a given time, a manpower-draining substitute for physical restraints and doors that lock. It’s not a form of therapy or counseling; they are simply professional shadows. One assignment entailed months of tailing an HIV-positive 14-year-old girl who had a penchant for fighting and biting. “Can you imagine getting your master’s degree and deciding to work with kids,” Newby says, “and then you get here and your job is follow someone around so they don’t bite?”

Such cases pose a constant dilemma: A judge or a social worker outside the center dumps a kid at MacLaren because it’s easier than finding a more appropriate placement. “This girl cannot be allowed to come in and out of a facility as she pleases,” Wendy Weigman observes. “She has to be restrained. She has to be treated. If you can do none of the above at Mac, why are they putting her in Mac?”

“That’s our biggest problem,” says Weissburg. “We have kids who don’t belong here. And then we get blamed when things turn out badly But the problems are way bigger than Mac.”

“One-on-one,” says Newby, “is a Band-Aid.”

“Band-Aid” is a term you hear frequently at Mac. Newby surveys the girls in her cottage, then says, “You can’t mix together this group of kids and do anything more than slap Band-Aids on all day.” She pauses. “You don’t put kids who have been actively abused in with probation kids with serious offenses, with developmentally delayed kids, then mix in mentally ill and attention-deficit-disorder kids. But here we do. Half my kids are on lithium. Eighty-five percent were born victims of crack. A lot are volatile. We have kids who were forced into prostitution at an early age. And then we throw them all in together and leave the doors open. You spend all day doing conflict resolution and breaking up fights.”

Sometimes they end up going to funerals, too. A week before my visit, Newby and others at the center were devastated by the death of a 17-year-old resident named Misty, a sad, angry teenager born drug addicted and in the system ever since. A diabetic, Misty had to be monitored to make sure she took her four daily doses of insulin. She had gone AWOL many times and should never have been in an open setting like MacLaren, Newby says. But she had run away from or failed everywhere else. Overruling Misty’s social worker, who was concerned the girl would run away the judge supervising Misty’s case granted her a day pass for a family visit. She turned up at the county hospital days later, saying she had been sexually assaulted. Then she fled mid-examination, before authorities arrived. Misty was eventually discovered in Lancaster in a diabetic coma. She died within two days, her MacLaren social worker at her hospital bedside.

“It’s not our fault,” Newby says, “but it’s MacLaren that gets tarred and feathered.” The strain is evident on her face as she recites Misty’s case. She is considering a career change (she says many among the newer staff are). She’d left the California Conservation Corps hoping for more challenging and satisfying work. “I never thought my biggest challenge would be trying to be effective as a social worker.”

When I ask her what she means, the bitterness in her voice is jolting: “If breaking up a fight is the measure of our efforts, then yes, I’m effective. But am I effective in being a guide to this population of girls so they can evolve into something more than is expected of them in life? If they come in and all they aspire to is to continue being a prostitute, and they leave three months later still not feeling they can rise above that, how can any of us feel we’re being effective?”

IT WASN’T ALWAYS THIS WAY. Long before the car lots and fast-food outlets popped up along what would become the San Bernardino Freeway, FDR’s Works Progress Administration built the Ruth Home where MacLaren stands today Named after Ruth Kerr, who donated the land in 1930, it was a shelter for girls with venereal disease–a quiet place to keep a different sort of outcast out of the way.

In the ’40s, Sister Elizabeth Kenny (an Australian nurse) converted the facility into a polio treatment center. One building was given to the county as a branch of juvenile hall to house 50 nondelinquent children who needed homes. It was called MacLaren Hall, for William G. MacLaren, who founded public and charitable child-protective agencies throughout his life. L.A. County took over the entire campus in 1961 to provide temporary shelter for all the county’s foster children awaiting placement, removing them from Central Juvenile Hall, which they shared with youths detained for crimes. Separating the two types of kids was a major and long-awaited reform. The new MacLaren Hall even had a nursery for infants and toddlers.

In 1974, the campus’s original Spanish-revival cottages and administrative offices were leveled in favor of the current institutional buildings, but the center was already outdated. Just as the advent of antibiotics ended the need for the Ruth Home and the Salk vaccine rendered Sister Kenny’s anti-polio nostrums obsolete, so did events outpace MacLaren. The ’70s and ’80s witnessed a radical shift in mental health law and medicine: a drastic cut in psychiatric hospitalizations nationwide, both in the number of patients and the duration of their hospitalization, brought a whole new population of deeply disturbed kids to Mac’s doorstep. In recent years concern has mounted that too many kids with criminal histories are remaining in the foster system and landing at Mac instead of receiving the care they need. The facility used to be limited to nondelinquents. Today one out often kids enters with a criminal background. The center hasn’t been able to cope with this changing demographic.

Misty is a perfect example of how the system has gone awry, says Dr. Charles Sophy, the psychiatrist who runs MacLaren’s mental health services. In the old days her story would have been different. “If we could have restrained her, if we could have forced her to get insulin, she’d be alive,” he says. “But we protected Misty’s rights, and she’s dead. If we are going to stand in the place of the parent, we need to go all the way Would a responsible parent have sent Misty on her way?”

Such notions horrify Manhattan Beach attorney Sanford Jossen, whose own experiences as a wayward juvenile have left him deeply sympathetic to the children of MacLaren. The last thing the staff should be given, he says, is license to use more physical restraint. Jossen’s lawsuit alleges that MacLaren routinely uses excessive force to control kids. He asserts that MacLaren staff members falsely accuse the kids of assaulting them first–not just as a pretext to cover up the beatings but also to shift problem kids to delinquency court and juvenile hall. Jossen’s clients include a 15-year-old girl whose arm was broken, an 18-year-old boy who suffered two broken arms, a 17-year-old whose front tooth was knocked out, and other kids with assorted injuries caused by the staff.

After he filed the case 14 more children, among them a 76-pound ten-year-old whose arm was also broken by staff, requested representation. Rather than investigate the allegations, the county sued to have Jossen removed from the case, a move that ultimately failed after several appeals. “It’s really quite ugly,” Jossen says. “I’m trying to do the right thing for these kids, but there are questions they don’t want asked…. I told the appeals court, `Sure they want to disqualify me. You want the dentist to take the drill off the nerve, too.'”

MacLaren officials argue that staff-inflicted injuries are rare and invariably the result of a violent attack or other dangerous act by a child. The grand jury audit seems to support this view. Just under two-thirds of assaults reported at Mac involve children attacking staff. A third involve kids attacking kids. Only two out of a hundred reports describe staff using physical force on children.

Jossen remains dubious, and with good reason. Staff members are far more likely to report and document assaults than are mentally ill residents, who may be too sick or too scared to do anything but take the abuse. Jossen also has a point when he says that the county has long ignored the problem of assaults at MacLaren. The grand jury audit criticized the county for allowing a backlog of internal investigations of these incidents to stretch to 1997–and for conducting “perfunctory” inquiries when it eventually gets around to investigating.

Lisa Nunez says progress is being made. On loan from the County Administrator’s Office while a permanent administrator is sought, she is MacLaren’s second interim administrator in two years. The county is trying to rework its contracts with the hundreds of community agencies and companies that take in foster kids, Nunez says, to discourage them from dumping children at MacLaren when they misbehave. This should, in turn, ease the center’s pressure-cooker atmosphere.

Mac has also received its own team of case managers, to work on placing kids. Before, this task was left to caseworkers rarely saw their charges because they were based outside MacLaren, often many miles away In addition, an emergency counseling program has been established on campus in the past year to reduce the number of kids shipped to mental hospitals, according to Nunez, and mental health workers have been stationed in the cottages–a first for MacLaren Recently the staff has whittled down the daily population of the center from 150, to as low as 82 in October, pressing hard to find other options for the kids, AWOLs have dropped as well, Nunez reports.

“But it still all comes down to voluntary,” she says. The center can’t compel children to assent to even the best-intentioned plans and treatments. “What we need are alternatives to MacLaren.” University of Connecticut psychologist Robert Cole suggested several such alternatives in a 1998 report he drafted at the county board of supervisors’ request following the huffing death. It made no sense, he noted, for L.A. to have a single shelter in El Monte serving abused kids from Long Beach to Lancaster. Cole prescribed a countywide network of short-term shelters and long-term treatment centers for Mac’s toughest kids.

Many of his recommendations could be accomplished with state money earmarked for L.A. County Weigman says funds have been set aside for 50 residential treatment beds. Yet nothing has been done with the money, according to Weigman, because the Department of Children and Family Services failed to apply for it. Moreover, nobody wants packs of disturbed kids transferred to new shelters in their neighborhoods. An attempt to open a small, eight-bed group home in the San Gabriel Valley in 2001 prompted a near riot of Not in My Backyard protest.

Michael Nash, the presiding judge of juvenile court, says something has to give: “The county needs to decide what it wants MacLaren to be–long-term, short-term, or both. The fact is that now it is none of those.” Nash sees a broken system; the county has failed to find alternatives to MacLaren and MacLaren staff often shift blame to the judges, to the children, to other agencies–to anyone but themselves.

“The excuses don’t wash. The situation over there is just unacceptable across the board,” he says. Dating back to 1998, he says, the county has toyed with a simple yet revolutionary idea called wraparound: Kids and families are “wrapped” in veritable cocoon of counseling tutoring job training–whatever it takes to keep families functioning and kids out of institutions like MacLaren But long-standing promises to make this program widespread haven’t been fulfilled only a handful of kids at MacLaren have benefited, even though a pilot program years ago showed dramatic success rates. This is the sort of program the ACLU lawsuit seeks to make universal–not only because it works but because it will be cheaper in the long run. “Even if you’re not a social worker, even if you’re the guy in the green eyeshade, this makes sense,” says the ACLU’s Rosenbaum. “Economic sense.”

Nash, however, seems in no mood to wait. “I’m investigating what my authority is. But, assuming I had the power just to close down the place–and part of me says yes, shut it down–I still have to ask, then what? The then what is troubling.”

With the ACLU lawsuit working its way through the system, then what may be on the horizon. Odds are good that the suit will lead to some sort of agreement to alter MacLaren perhaps an assurance that it will be used only as a temporary shelter the way it was intended to be. That would be a positive development. Despite the good intentions of many of its workers, MacLaren is not designed to be a wholesome home for needy kids. It does not have the tools or the authority or the expertise to save the lives it is being forced to safeguard. The phenomenal sums of money being spent there could be used better elsewhere.

But the county has been down this road before, pushed by deaths and scandals and lawsuits into pronouncing a new day, making big promises, trying new programs–even a privatized version of MacLaren that lasted less than a year in the ’80s. For three decades the problem of MacLaren has persisted. The odds may be better this time that a solution can be found. But everyone involved knows that is a very large if.

DINNERTIME IS APPROACHING at MacLaren, and the boy on the wall has made his decision: to come back in to wait another day:

But his partner, Shawn, is still holding out on the storage bin, telling the staff to kiss his ass and threatening to hurt someone or himself if they try to use force. A second boy has joined him, just for the hell of it.

“Nobody’s going to touch you,” Weissburg assures Shawn (not his real name).

“Yeah, right.”

Later he dangles his feet over the edge and chats with me about what he’s doing. “I can’t be locked up. It’s like it hurts.”

“But there are no locks,” I remind him.

“There are all kinds of locks,” he says.

The breeze is whipping up and Shawn, in a light T-shirt, is feeling the chill, the rumble in his belly

“It’s not so hard to get out, it’s true,” he explains. “But most of the kids are afraid of being on their own. They won’t go over the wall. They even refuse placements so they’ll stay here.” He shakes his head.

He’s a bright and witty kid with a handsome face and prominent ears. His entire family has been incarcerated at one time or another: mother, father, brothers, sisters. He doesn’t see them much, he says with a shrug. He can get As and Bs in school, but he prefers to screw around, to make kids laugh, to make everyone in the room forget, for a second, where they are.

“C’mon, man, I’m cold. It’s dinnertime,” the other kid says.

Shawn nods, and they jump down. He’ll dodge the staff for a while, but it’s only a matter of time now. He’s not going anywhere. Today

“Nobody’s going to read your story,” he assures me. “They have to care about it to read about it. Just take a look around you. Nobody cares about this shithole. Who would?”

The work of Frick Byers (“The Unwanted,” page 64) has appeared in Gourmet and UCLA Magazine. Byers, a graduate of Parsons School of Design in New York, is working on a photo-essay about L.A. parking structures. His images of Santa Monica and Venice beaches ran in the February 2001 issue of Los Angeles.

Contributing writer Edward Humes (“The Unwanted,” page 64) received a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for an investigative series on the U.S. military in the Orange County Register. Humes is the author of six books, including Baby ER: The Heroic Doctors and Nurses Who Perform Medicine’s Tiniest Miracles and No Matter How Loud I Shout: A Year in the Lift of Juvenile Court. He is writing a book about high schools to be published by Harcourt.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Los Angeles Magazine, Inc.

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