Inside an L.A. youth home where a violent clash ended in a counselor’s death
The teenage boy living in a Windsor Hills youth home was enraged. He broke windows, sprayed a fire extinguisher, flipped a refrigerator over.
Staff at the Wayfinder Family Services facility believed he was drunk or high. One of them brought the boy into a courtyard to calm him down, and a group of teens and staff followed. When one of the boys threw a punch, according to police interviews with witnesses and security camera footage, a counselor who had been hired less than a month earlier intervened. A brawl ensued.
A series of headbutts from a teen left 25-year-old David McKnight-Hillman dizzy and struggling to walk. In what prosecutors would later describe as a “mob attack,” several boys descended on McKnight-Hillman, kicking, punching and stomping on him. By the next morning, McKnight-Hillman was dead from head injuries. Six teens were arrested and charged with murder.
The unrest that fueled the January 2021 melee was not uncommon at Wayfinder.
Staff at the facility call the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department hundreds of times each year for help with violent teens, runaways and other issues, The Times found. When they called repeatedly for help that night, an attorney for Wayfinder said, the staff was told by deputies that they would not respond until the situation resulted in an actual fight. By the time that happened, it was too late.
Former employees say Wayfinder long struggled to curb drug use and protect staff from violent residents. One former employee alleged that two of the teens arrested in McKnight-Hillman’s killing had injured him during an attack a month earlier but were allowed to stay on the grounds.
Authorities say the man was trying to break up a fight when he was attacked by seven teenagers.
The persistent trouble at the facility drew concern from state officials worried whether Wayfinder could adequately care for the children Los Angeles County pays it to house and treat.
It also illustrates broader tensions over child-care reforms signed into law in 2017 that established Short-Term Residential Therapeutic Programs like the one Wayfinder was running the night of McKnight-Hillman’s death. Critics say these programs, which house larger numbers of mentally ill and traumatized youths than other types of group homes, pose increased risks to counselors and other staff members.
That concern is reflected in how often sheriff’s deputies were summoned to Wayfinder’s campus, where the nonprofit organization runs multiple programs in separate buildings, including the short-term placement program, a temporary shelter for children in the foster care system and a school for the blind.
Sheriff’s Department figures show it received 600 calls for help from Wayfinder in 2019 and 827 calls in 2020. But three months after McKnight-Hillman’s death, Wayfinder closed its Short-Term Residential Therapeutic Program, and calls to the Sheriff’s Department fell sharply to 278 last year.
Wayfinder‘s president, Jay Allen, declined to be interviewed, and a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Child and Family Services declined to discuss McKnight-Hillman’s death, citing a pending lawsuit from his family. In written responses to questions from The Times, Allen disputed the idea that Wayfinder was unsafe or that the number of times law enforcement was called was unusually high.
“For nearly 70 years, Wayfinder Family Services has provided supportive services to our state’s most vulnerable. Those with disabilities, those without a home of their own, those who have been abused and many, many more,” he said. “Through our longstanding and collaborative partnership with Los Angeles County, Wayfinder provides safe, temporary shelter for children who have been removed from their families due to abuse.”
Records reviewed by The Times contain accounts of myriad assaults and injuries at Wayfinder in recent years. In one incident, a teen suffered first-degree burns, and in another a pregnant staff member was elbowed in the stomach. A staff member also said they were assaulted in a room in 2018 by a group of juveniles while others blocked the door.
Former employees told The Times they often worried they would be physically harmed at work.
“After seeing some of the violence actually take place 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 due to safety concerns.
Dunnick, who left Wayfinder about two months before McKnight-Hillman was killed, said he was not properly trained to de-escalate the frequent violent clashes between residents and said working there was like being “thrown to the wolves.”
“The youth had a lot of power ... dictating what they were going to do, not necessarily what they were supposed to do. Some days it could be very hostile, a youth could be riled up for whatever reason,” Dunnick said. “They pretty much did what they wanted.”
Allen, Wayfinder’s president, said such claims are inaccurate. He pointed to a report by the state’s Department of Social Services that concluded there had been “no deficiencies” in how Wayfinder’s staff handled the fight that led to McKnight-Hillman’s death.
“Wayfinder conducts extensive and substantial training for its staff on de-escalation when children are in distress, trauma and intervention, and must comply with comprehensive licensing and program regulations,” he said. “This is incredibly difficult work. ... We have many successful, long-term employees, but, understandably, this work is not for everyone.”
An attorney for Wayfinder, Manuel Abascal, said in a letter to The Times that despite repeated 911 calls for help on the night of the brawl, sheriff’s deputies told Wayfinder staff they would not respond until things turned violent. At the trial for one of the teens charged in McKnight-Hillman’s death, several former Wayfinder employees made the same claim.
A Sheriff’s Department spokesman said deputies were dispatched to Wayfinder after “the first call for service” that night, but would not say when they arrived on scene.
More than half of Wayfinder’s contacts with police from 2017 to 2020 involved residents leaving the grounds without permission, according to Sheriff’s Department call logs reviewed by The Times. Facilities like Wayfinder are required to notify law enforcement when that happens.
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Former Wayfinder employees said runaways contributed to an undercurrent of instability at the facility and often left residents in dangerous situations. One former counselor, who asked not to be identified to protect their future employment prospects, recalled a teen who fled in 2020, got drunk and then called from a McDonald’s parking lot where he had been injured in a fight.
During the investigation into McKnight-Hillman’s killing, a Wayfinder employee told sheriff’s investigators that the facility had a “chronic problem” with kids using drugs on site that they obtained after running away, according to a judge’s summary of testimony delivered during the trial of one of the teens accused of killing McKnight-Hillman.
Allen said he discussed the frequency with which sheriff’s deputies were called to Wayfinder with county officials and that “there was no suggestion that the number or nature of calls was unusual.”
The number of runaways was a cause for concern at the Department of Social Services, the agency which controls licensing for child-care facilities in California. Agency spokesman Scott Murray said Social Services officials met in 2019 with county officials, law enforcement and Wayfinder staff to address “an increased number of runaway youth and the aggressive behaviors of some youth at the facility.”
As a result of those meetings, Wayfinder stopped housing girls in its short-term placement program, reduced the maximum number of youths in the program from 40 to 32 and had its “direct care” staff receive additional training on trauma-informed practices and risk management, Murray said.
Joice Hillman wasn’t surprised her grandson wanted to help troubled kids. He’d always had a “servant’s heart,” she said, that grew from a young age as he helped care for his mother, Monique, who suffered from sickle cell disease. He often talked about wanting to be a social worker or a psychiatrist, she said.
“Money and riches had its place, and I’m not saying he didn’t desire or want nice things, but I think it’s very important to say David, my grandson, I think he wanted to make a difference,” said his grandfather, David Hillman Jr.
After graduating from San Francisco State University in 2019 with a degree in sociology, McKnight-Hillman took a job counseling teenagers with mental health issues in Long Beach, family members said. He was laid off during the pandemic and spent months scrambling for work until he found an opening at Wayfinder, they said.
McKnight-Hillman was hired in December 2020 and was killed after working just 10 shifts, his relatives said. He shared few details with family about his job at Wayfinder, though he did say it was challenging.
When he joined Wayfinder, McKnight-Hillman walked into a much larger debate playing out across the state over the use of short-term residential programs. The model, implemented in 2017 after the passage of a state Assembly bill, was intended to improve access to mental health services for youths in the foster system and to create more uniform standards for facilities.
But it also often resulted in an increase in the number of youths housed under one roof. Concentrating larger numbers of mentally ill or traumatized youths in the same space, critics said, creates an environment that endangers staff while failing to meet the needs of the kids they are assigned to care for.
An L.A. County task force report issued last year determined that children housed in programs like the one at Wayfinder did not have access to enough “engaging activities,” leading to increased aggressive behavior. 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 staff struggling to offer meaningful help, the report found.
“We told the state, if you’re moving to the [short-term program] model, the number of runaways will go up, the number of incidents will go up. You’re creating this pressure-cooker situation,” said Jodi Kurata, executive director of the Assn. Of Community Human Service Agencies, which advocates for dozens of child-care facilities in L.A. County.
The county’s Department of Child and Family Services and its Probation Department currently have contracts with 29 nonprofit organizations operating short-term residential therapeutic programs at about 72 sites housing nearly 330 children, said Shiara Davila-Morales, a DCFS spokeswoman.
Some of the county task force report’s findings mirrored those of a 2019 survey of 47 programs similar to Wayfinder conducted by the California Alliance Of Child & Family Services. In the nearly three years after the state-mandated reforms went into effect, the providers reported a 56% increase in the number of runaways, a 47% rise in physical assaults between youths, a 38% increase in property damage and an 11% increase in assaults on staff, compared with the years before the switch.
At a trial for one of the teens charged in the killing, L.A. County Deputy Dist. Atty. Gloria Marin said McKnight-Hillman suffered the most serious injuries when he was head-butted and described what happened to him as a “mob attack.”
An autopsy concluded McKnight-Hillman suffered a “subgaleal hemorrhage” to the back of his head, and the cause of death was determined to be blunt force trauma.
Of the six teens arrested, Nyier Mason and Keith Lewis were charged with murder as adults because they were 18 at the time. Four younger boys were charged in juvenile court.
Lewis was later cleared of all charges after video of the brawl showed he was a “passive bystander” to the attack, court records show.
“Two staff members said, inappropriately, that everybody out there was physically participating in that beating … and that just wasn’t true,” said Lewis’ attorney, Kevin Greber. “The training of the staff was very underwhelming.”
Allen, Wayfinder’s president, said Greber’s description of his employees’ behavior was inaccurate but declined to elaborate, citing the pending lawsuit.
In August, the murder charge against the second adult in the case, Mason, was reduced to assault as part of a plea deal, and he was sentenced to probation, court records show.
Two of the juvenile defendants pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and a third had his case dismissed after he was found mentally incompetent, according to Greg Risling, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office. A fourth defendant was convicted of voluntary manslaughter last month and sentenced to six years in juvenile hall.
Though it continues to run a youth shelter and provide services for children with physical disabilities, Wayfinder, three months after McKnight-Hillman’s death, shut down the short-term residential program where he had worked.
Questions about what Wayfinder could have done to prevent the tragedy remain.
Security officers did not intervene on the night of the killing. Allen said he believed guards are not allowed to physically touch residents, but Murray, the spokesman for the Department of Social Services, said state policies do not bar them from doing so. Told of Murray’s comments, Allen said he stood by his interpretation of state licensing standards.
In interviews, three former Wayfinder employees repeatedly expressed frustration that security guards failed to keep them safe, and the L.A. County report recommended that security guards be given the authority to directly intervene in fights and other incidents.
Two of the juvenile defendants in McKnight-Hillman’s killing had been accused of attacking Wayfinder employees a month earlier. Rasheed Phillips, a former counselor at the facility’s transitional housing shelter, said staff members were attacked and harassed by the two teens multiple times during a three-hour span in early December 2020.
Phillips, 45, said he called the Sheriff’s Department after two youths struck a staff member. Deputies responded and issued citations for battery against two juveniles, one of whom would later be accused of killing McKnight-Hillman, Phillips said.
Less than an hour later, Phillips said, he entered the building that housed the short-term residential program to remove girls who were supposed to be in the campus’ shelter that he oversaw. Once inside, he said, he was attacked by a group of teens. Phillips said he was punched, knocked to the ground and kicked in the ribs. At some point in the struggle, he suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon.
In interview transcripts reviewed by The Times and in court by L.A. County Superior Court Judge Christopher Smith, the teens identified by Phillips were named as being among those who attacked McKnight-Hillman. One of the teens Phillips accused of attacking him was the person who head-butted McKnight-Hillman, according to the transcripts and Smith.
Phillips faulted Wayfinder officials for not having the teens removed and placed by the county in another facility, saying he found them “100% responsible” for McKnight-Hillman’s death.
Allen said the facility “took all appropriate steps” after the attack on Phillips, including trying to get the teens removed, but he declined to discuss specifics because the incident involved minors. If a notice of removal was issued, it would have been the responsibility of the Department of Child and Family Services to transfer the teens to another program.
Davila-Morales, the DCFS spokeswoman, said she could not comment on Phillips’ or Wayfinder’s claims, due to the pending civil suit. She did say that even with a removal order, a county social worker or staff member at a residential program “cannot force children or youth to move to a new placement.”
Law enforcement can be called in as a “last resort” if someone is deemed to be a significant public safety threat, she said.
Leslie Heimov, head of the Children’s Law Center of California, which represents abused youths, said McKnight-Hillman’s death and the high number of incidents at Wayfinder should be a warning to providers throughout the state.
“I think what you’re seeing should be setting off alarm bells for everyone. It’s not a problem that was limited to Wayfinder,” she said. “No child should live in a place where that’s happening every day.”
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