Decades of failures leave L.A. County facing up to $3 billion in sex abuse claims
As California legislators prepared to pass a law providing victims of childhood sexual abuse a new window to file lawsuits, the bill’s chief backer recalls most of the resistance coming from entities with famously troubled histories: school districts, colleges and youth athletic groups, along with some of their insurance companies.
Los Angeles County “just didn’t come up,” said former Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego), who sponsored the Child Victims Act.
But three years after the law went into effect, L.A. County — responsible for facilities meant to protect and rehabilitate the region’s youth — has emerged in court filings as one of the biggest alleged institutional offenders.
Two weeks ago, in an otherwise dry budget document, county officials delivered figures that stunned even some of the most seasoned California sex abuse attorneys. County officials predicted that they may be forced to spend between $1.6 billion and $3 billion to resolve roughly 3,000 claims of sexual abuse that allegedly took place in the county’s foster homes, children shelters, and probation camps and halls dating to the 1950s.
The county is gearing up to litigate the cases, bringing on 11 law firms to work through the claims — many of which they can’t investigate, they say, because they no longer have the relevant records. Veteran sex abuse attorneys are calling for an outside investigation, saying that not even they realized the full scope of the alleged abuse taking place in county facilities.
Experts say the volume is unlike anything they’ve heard of in local government. A spokesperson for Riverside County says it has had 13 cases associated with the Child Victims Act. Orange County says it has had nine such claims.
County officials warned the Board of Supervisors the county may have to spend as much as $3 billion resolving claims of sexual abuse at the county’s facilities.
There is only one apt comparison, attorneys say: the Catholic Church.
“The thing that’s so disturbing from our perspective is they throw this out as a line in some budget document — and, if it’s true, it would be the most massive sex abuse scandal imaginable,” said Stewart Mollrich, an attorney with Manly, Stewart & Finaldi, one of the law firms specializing in sex abuse claims that is suing the county. “It would be on the order of what we’ve seen from the Catholic Church.”
Attorneys say it’s only now — years after the county shuttered many of its juvenile facilities — that the scope of sex abuse across L.A. County facilities is coming into focus, with new lawsuits filed nearly every week.
“It has not gotten the right amount of attention,” said Doug Rochen, an attorney with ACTS Law, who says he represents more than 500 people alleging that they were abused at the county probation camps and halls.
With so many clients, Rochen said he has picked up common threads among the stories of abuse: children threatened with extra time if they told higher-ups about the abuse; those rewarded with McDonald’s or extra commissary items for staying quiet; children groped in the bathrooms and showers outside of camera angles.
One of the most consistent themes: higher-ups turning a blind eye to rampant abuse. He said he is aware of only one of the 20 alleged perpetrators identified by his clients by name facing discipline.
“It only takes one to slip through the system that makes it unacceptable,” he said. “The fact that we have hundreds here makes it repulsive.”
The county declined to comment on the allegations, citing pending litigation.
One of Rochen’s clients, who was a teenager at the now-closed Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in 2004, said he reported an officer for molestation four separate times.
Each time, he filled out a slip detailing the alleged abuse by an officer, who he said groped his genitals, and slipped it into a grievance box. He did not hear back.
“You create monsters out of people like that,” the man said in an interview, adding that he struggled with anger issues after leaving Los Padrinos. “I wouldn’t wish it upon any other individuals.”
The Times generally does not name alleged victims of sexual assault.
Rochen said calls like this continue at his firm, including at least five last week.
The floodgates opened Jan. 1, 2020.
The Child Victims Act went into effect, permanently allowing victims of childhood sexual assault to sue up to age 40; previously, they could sue only until they were 26. The law also opened a three-year window for victims older than 40 to sue.
“The only way this cycle of abuse stops is that everybody in every institution takes it seriously,” said Gonzalez Fletcher, who left the Assembly last year to lead the California Labor Federation. “And the way to get folks to take it seriously sometimes is for there to be a financial penalty.”
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That three-year window was supposed to end Jan. 1 this year, but some attorneys have continued to file lawsuits, arguing that the delays in filing deadlines during the pandemic extended the window.
Attorneys for Los Angeles County say 528 lawsuits have been served as of this past Wednesday and that they are aware of 1,831 plaintiffs alleging sexual abuse. The county says it anticipates about 3,000 plaintiffs “based on representations by plaintiffs’ counsel.”
Many claims arise from MacLaren Children’s Center, a since-closed shelter where former foster children say physical and sexual abuse ran rampant. The Herman Law Firm says it has roughly 500 plaintiffs who say they were abused there. Slater Slater Schulman LLP says it has taken on nearly 1,500 people. Attorneys say not all lawsuits with these plaintiffs have been served on the county.
James Lewis, a partner at Slater Slater Schulman, said the case volume is so high in part because this is the first real chance victims have had to come forward. Before the change in state law, Lewis said, foster children abused at MacLaren could sue only if they filed a tort claim within six months of abuse — an implausible timeline for youths with no money who were likely decades from grappling with what happened to them.
“It was almost impossible for these claims to have ever been brought against the county of Los Angeles for what happened at MacLaren Hall until Jan. 1, 2020,” Lewis said. “That’s what we’re looking at now — decades of time that went by before these people could receive justice.”
All the cases involving sex abuse at probation facilities are being “coordinated,” a legal process in which cases with similar allegations are combined so they can be heard by the same judge. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Lawrence Riff is expected to hold a status conference on the cases in June. A similar process is underway with cases involving MacLaren Hall in the Los Angeles courtroom of Superior Court Judge Yvette Palazuelos.
According to the county, one lawsuit filed under the new law has been settled: a woman, identified in court filings as C.F., who said she was sexually assaulted repeatedly by her foster father in the 1980s and accused the county of giving the man “unfettered access” to her. According to the complaint, the girl reported the abuse, but was left in the home.
The lawsuit was settled for a penny less than $100,000, according to the county.
It’s a fraction of what the county estimates it will need to pay to resolve these claims. County officials have said they’re considering taking out bonds, dipping into their rainy day fund or shrinking department budgets as they prepare to pay up to $3 billion — an upper-level estimate that’s bigger than the yearly budget of all but six county departments.
Some attorneys have called on the county to explain how it arrived at the estimate.
“I don’t know how the county reached the number of $3 billion,” said Courtney Thom, an attorney with Manly, Stewart & Finaldi. “If so, that will be the largest child sex abuse settlement in history.”
If the county ends up spending $3 billion on settlements, attorneys say it would dwarf the payouts from any sex abuse case they’ve heard of. Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to a $660-million settlement with victims of sex abuse by priests. USC paid roughly $1.1 billion to former patients of campus gynecologist George Tyndall. U.S.A. Gymnastics agreed to a $380-million settlement with gymnasts sexually abused by former team doctor Larry Nassar.
The county denied a public records request from The Times for an accounting of how county lawyers estimated their liability, citing pending litigation. It’s not clear how much insurance will cover, if anything. The county is self-insured, but says it is exploring whether it had coverage at the time of the alleged abuse.
A host of outside attorneys will add to the cost. The county counsel’s office said it has hired 11 law firms: Carpenter Rothans & Dumont; Collins + Collins LLP; Collinson, Daehnke, Inlow, & Greco; Glaser Weil; Hurrell Cantrall LLP; Kjar, McKenna & Stockalper; Laquer Urban Clifford & Hodge LLP; Lawrence Beach Allen & Choi PC; Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP; Peterson Bradford Burkwitz Gregorio Burkwitz & Su; and Seki Nishimura & Watase LLP.
The county did not provide the rates for these attorneys.
The tricky cases have been complicated by the fact that the county says it does not have records for many of the alleged perpetrators. Typically, cases like this might involve disciplinary records, staff assignment logs, or case files. County counsel said they’re not mandated to retain documents dating back several decades.
Asked about the claims of abuse, Supervisor Kathryn Barger said April 24 on LAist 89.3’s “AirTalk” that the county has no way to investigate the older accusations.
Two decades after the MacLaren Children’s Center was closed, former foster children housed at the El Monte facility are coming forward with allegations of abuse. Lawsuits involving about 200 people are expected.
“We’re behind the eightball,” Barger said. “We have no defense because we don’t keep records that far back.”
Sex abuse attorneys countered that it’s typically their side, which has the legal burden to prove their case, that suffers when large institutions scrap old records.
“One of the common things that a defendant institution will say is: ‘This was years ago. We don’t know anymore. We don’t have any records. People have gotten old. People have died,’” said attorney Mike Reck, who works exclusively on child sex abuse claims in California. “And the response to that is — why is that a burden for the victim of crime?”
Reck, who is litigating the cases against the Catholic Church that were filed under the Child Victims Act, said about 1,860 plaintiffs are suing the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Diocese of Orange.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles said in a statement that it continues to “stand against any sexual misconduct.” Most of these cases involve clergy who have died or left the ministry, the statement said, with most of the alleged abuse taking place in the 1970s or earlier.
Reck said he’s not anticipating anywhere near the 3,000 plaintiffs the county is expecting.
One reason for the difference, he said, is that the Catholic Church has been addressing its sex abuse scandal for two decades, settling cases at a “faster and faster pace.” The county’s reckoning, on the other hand, seems to just be beginning.
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