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L.A. County approves $3.9-million settlement for minor assaulted in juvenile hall

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a $3.9-million settlement Tuesday in a federal civil rights lawsuit involving an assault on a minor at one of the county’s juvenile halls.

The minor, identified in court records as J.M.M., suffered a head injury during a fight with another youth at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar in July 2013. In a lawsuit filed on his behalf in U.S. District Court, attorneys argued that Probation Department workers knew J.M.M. was at risk of being assaulted, failed to protect him and failed to provide him with appropriate medical attention.

The county, former probation chief Jerry Powers, four probation officers and a contracted mental health therapist are named as defendants in the suit.

In 2013 J.M.M., then 15, was being held at the Sylmar facility as a juvenile offender charged with a sex-related crime. The complaint states that probation officers beat and taunted him because of the nature of his offense, threatened to disclose it to other wards and ultimately did so “with the intent to incite a fight or physical attack.”

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A minor who was in juvenile detention with J.M.M. at the time testified in a deposition that officers disclosed the nature of the charges to him and other minors, and that J.M.M. had been bullied as a result.

On July 23, 2013, J.M.M. was struck twice in the head before probation staff broke up the fight. He was examined by a nurse and a doctor, but left without further medical attention in a “special handling unit” before being found unresponsive and unconscious hours later, the complaint says. He suffered severe brain damage.

According to Vicki Sarmiento, J.M.M.’s attorney, J.M.M. is now a quadriplegic who needs round-the-clock care, including help bathing, going to the bathroom and getting dressed. She said his family has described him as a kid who used to make everybody laugh and wanted to go into construction with his dad, but is now just barely learning to speak again.

Corrective action plans provided to the board state that a lack of protocols and training for what to do after a client suffers a head injury and the absence of cameras in living quarters were among the “root causes” of the lawsuit.

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“The Probation Department has ... greatly improved its staff training to increase awareness and monitoring of youth who have sustained head trauma,” spokeswoman Kerri Webb said in an email. “Staff are now more educated as to what the medical warning signs are and how to respond more effectively.”

Webb said that there was no misconduct by staff in the case and that the officers named in the suit are still employed by the department.

Sarmiento said she hopes the lawsuit will spur policy changes, including the segregation of juvenile sex offenders from the general population and a focus on rehabilitation over punitive measures.

“The policymakers of the juvenile delinquency system have to train their staff that the foremost obligation is to protect the minors — and that this is a rehabilitative institution,” Sarmiento said. “Instead, they’re treating them like adult inmates if not worse.”

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Tuesday’s settlement caps a long, troubled history at the Probation Department, which has been plagued by abuse allegations and other scandals.

In 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice began an investigation into whether youths at the department’s probation camps were adequately protected from harm. Two years later, it entered into a settlement with the county that led to six years of federal monitoring. The county has also settled other cases involving youth-on-youth violence.

“The fact that supervision is lacking is well known to the policymakers within the juvenile system,” Sarmiento said.

nina.agrawal@latimes.com

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Twitter: @AgrawalNina

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