Essential California: Hundreds of 911 calls, then a death, at a home for troubled youth

The Wayfinder Family Services building
A counselor intervening in a fight was killed at Wayfinder Family Services, a Los Angeles group home for troubled youth.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, April 8. I’m Laura J. Nelson, an investigative and enterprise reporter.

David McKnight-Hillman, 25, grew up wanting to help people. As a child, he helped care for his mother, who had sickle-cell disease, his family said. He spoke of wanting to be a social worker or a psychiatrist.

His grandparents said he had “a servant’s heart” and wanted to make a difference.

After graduating from San Francisco State with a degree in sociology in 2019, McKnight-Hillman took a job counseling teenagers with mental health issues in Long Beach. He was laid off during the pandemic and searched for work for months before he found a new position at Wayfinder Family Services, a youth home in Windsor Hills.


Less than a month later, McKnight-Hillman was killed when he intervened in a fight between several boys in the facility’s courtyard. In what prosecutors would later describe as a “mob attack,” several boys descended on him, kicking and punching him. He died the next day. He was 25.

In a new investigation, my colleague James Queally sheds light on the troubling conditions of the group home, where staff members called the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department 1,427 times in the two years before McKnight-Hillman’s death.

Former employees said the facility had long struggled to prevent children from running away, curb the use of drugs brought back to the facility by runaway youth, and protect staffers from violent attacks.

Wayfinder’s persistent trouble drew the attention of state officials, who questioned whether the facility could adequately care for the mentally ill and traumatized children it is paid to house and treat.

“I would actually say to myself ... ‘Is it actually safe to come to work today?’” said C.J. Cormier Dunnick, who quit his job as a counselor, in part because of safety concerns, two months before McKnight-Hillman was killed.

The chaos at the facility also spotlights a debate over California’s use of so-called short-term residential programs, which are used to treat children with severe mental, emotional and behavioral disorders.


Sweeping reforms approved in 2017 have led to an increase in the number of children housed under one roof. Critics say that fosters an environment that endangers workers and fails to meet the needs of the kids in their care.

Children housed in programs like the one at Wayfinder did not have access to enough “engaging activities,” leading to increased aggressive behavior, according to an L.A. County task force report issued last year.

Housing teens together who had experienced different types of trauma — including sexual abuse, abandonment and gang involvement — amounted to a one-size-fits-all approach that left staffers struggling to offer meaningful help, the report said.

[Read the story: “Inside an L.A. youth home where a violent clash ended in a counselor’s death,” in the Los Angeles Times]

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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Safety and sadness: Thousands of refugees who left Afghanistan since last summer are marking their first Ramadan in Southern California. Some are observing the holiday from new apartments, others from hotel rooms, as resettlement organizations struggle to find permanent housing in an expensive market. Los Angeles Times

Ice cream in an air-conditioned movie theater, anyone? Temperatures have hit the triple-digits across Southern California, with a heat advisory in place through Friday night. Several cities recorded record-breaking heat Thursday. Los Angeles Times

Controversy at USC: The LAPD has charged a longtime USC custodian with felony theft, saying she stole a student’s backpack that contained a “substantial” amount of money. Faculty and staff have rallied behind her, saying she locked the backpack in a supplies closet for safekeeping because no one was working at the lost-and-found over spring break. Annenberg Radio News

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Towing is back: After an 18-month pandemic hiatus, Los Angeles will resume towing of campers and RVs next month. The decision follows complaints from residents that some people who live in RVs used drugs and generated human waste and trash. Los Angeles Times

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Help or handcuffs? A Times review of nearly 50 LAPD shootings and hours of associated video found officers routinely wait several minutes before approaching people they’ve shot, then focus on handcuffing and searching them, often delaying medical attention or taking no steps to give any until paramedics arrive. Los Angeles Times

“A small, seemingly innocuous culprit.” In the wake of the Sacramento shooting, which killed six people and injured twice as many, officials are turning their attention to the devastation that can be caused by handguns that are illegally converted into automatic weapons. Authorities say they are turning up at crime scenes across the U.S. with alarming frequency. Los Angeles Times

Five people killed Sunday had gone downtown to dance. The sixth victim — Melinda Davis, 57 — lived there. Her death reminds us of many uncomfortable truths in California: the number of people who are homeless, the lack of mental health services, and the abundance of guns. Somehow, write columnists Erika D. Smith and Anita Chabria, “Melinda became a victim of all these failures at once.” Los Angeles Times

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Vaccination scam: A naturopathic doctor in Napa has been convicted on charges of selling fake COVID-19 vaccination cards and remedies. Federal prosecutors said she sold more than 200 cards saying her patients had received the Moderna vaccine and more than 100 “homeoprophylaxis immunization pellets” to students who should have received childhood immunizations. San Francisco Chronicle

Thinking about a Prius? You’d better hurry: Toyota customers soon won’t be able to get U.S. federal tax credits for buying electric or hybrid vehicles. The automaker expects to reach a 200,000-vehicle cap on the tax credits by the end of June. More tax credits are included in the “Build Back Better” spending bill backed by President Biden, which is stalled in Congress. Los Angeles Times


Sounds fishy: Do endangered Chinook salmon need to be loaded into trucks and driven around the Shasta Dam so they can spawn in cold, spring-fed streams near Mt. Shasta? Leaders of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe say they would prefer to develop a route for salmon to freely swim upstream past the dam. They also argue that the fish have been so altered by hatchery life and human intervention that they’re no longer fit for life in the wild. Los Angeles Times


Well, if Trader Joe’s can do it: Is the $5.99 wine from Grocery Outlet Bargain Market any good? San Francisco Chronicle

A steal at $3.3 million? A five-bedroom Mayan Revival house designed by the son of Frank Lloyd Wright has hit the market in Glendale. The Derby House property has ornamental interlocking concrete blocks that pay homage to the Mesoamerican form. The younger Wright also designed the Wayfarers Chapel in Rancho Palos Verdes. Los Angeles Times

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Los Angeles: 97 and sunny. Can whoever angered the weather gods please apologize? San Diego: 86 and sunny. San Francisco: 69 and partly cloudy. San Jose: 85 and mostly sunny. Sacramento: 90 and mostly sunny. Fresno: 96 and sunny; our sympathies from Southern California.


Today’s California memory is from Sasha Keller:

As a kid, Chico’s summers were endured mostly in a swimming pool. With no air conditioning at home or in our car, the grocery store’s frozen section was a popular destination. But nothing compared to the sustained relief that began on I-80 in Vallejo on our annual road trip to visit my grandparents in the Bay Area. After nearly three hours of blasting oven-hot winds, we’d approach the crest of Hunter Hill with our hands out the windows to witness the heat giving way as we plunged into the cold, wet fog. Gratefully, I’d pull on a sweater.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)


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