National News

Teens reported years of sex abuse by their probation officers. Now they want justice

todayApril 18, 2024


ABC News

(LOS ANGELES) — “Everywhere I look, everything that I see, I just see his face,” said Reanell Hartley, looking through the barbed wire fencing of Camp Scott for the first time in more than two decades.

As a teenager in the early 2000s, she was locked up inside the fences of Camp Scott, a juvenile facility run by the Los Angeles Probation Department in Santa Clarita, California.

Hartley said she had a rough childhood, a victim of sexual abuse who was forced into prostitution when she was just 11. She had hoped Camp Scott would help to get her life back on track.

“I was excited because I was told that I was going to find discipline, I was going to find rehabilitation within the juvenile probation system,” Hartley told ABC News.

“The things that I found here was a total opposite,” she said.

Hartley alleges in a lawsuit that at Camp Scott she was repeatedly sexually abused by Probation Officer Thomas Jackson.

Attorneys for some of the victims say the abuse was common among juvenile detainees who did time throughout facilities in Los Angeles County for more than three decades. Now, thousands of victims are taking action with a lawsuit against LA County.

Camp Scott is now closed, but when it opened as a girls-only juvenile facility in 1987, it was touted as a model “boot camp” style facility, designed to “scare” young women “straight.”

Detainees were told when they could eat, talk, and even when they could go to the bathroom. They showered in groups and were punished with solitary confinement.

But LA County’s juvenile halls and camps came under scrutiny following reports of abuse and unsafe conditions, including by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2007 which forced LA County Probation into federal oversight for six years.

Hartley was bunkmates at Camp Scott with another plaintiff in the lawsuit: Akeila Jefferson. Jefferson was raised by her grandmother who struggled financially to support her and other children.

At times, she and her younger siblings didn’t have access to vital necessities like shoes or clothes that fit. She wound up in juvenile detention for shoplifting shoes and then missing school, which is a probation violation.

According to Jefferson’s lawsuit and as recounted to ABC News, she, too, was sexually abused by Jackson, who had been promoted to Camp Scott’s acting director. Jackson would order Jefferson to his office and force her to perform oral sex, according to the lawsuit. She was 16 years old.

She also says in the lawsuit that he threatened “to make her life difficult” if “she did not follow his sexual demands and orders.”

Dominique Anderson was sent to Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles when she was 13 after she says she poked another student with a pencil.

“When the police came, they said ‘You stabbed the girl with the pencil, and that’s a deadly weapon. And it’s a felony,'” she recalled.

In her lawsuit, Anderson alleges that Probation Officer Ernest Walker picked her up from her grandmother’s house, drove her to a hotel for sex, and then paid her $200. She alleges that Walker, who she estimated was in his 40s at the time, would leave her money in a flowerpot at a gas station.

“I remember him telling me things like, ‘Oh, I love that your breasts are just sprouting.’ He was really interested in the fact that I was so young,” Anderson told ABC News. “And that’s the tough thing about being a victim. You never see it. That this person is abusing their authority. You don’t see it as them preying on you as being a child.”

Anderson alleges in her lawsuit that after she reported her ongoing abuse by another officer, she was approached by a female staff member asking for her silence. 

“She said, ‘He has a daughter. He has a career. He has a lot to lose,'” Anderson claimed the staffer told her.

Hartley said she, too, was pressured to keep quiet about her abuse and said her past experiences of being molested and forced into prostitution were used against her.

She claims that a supervisor told her, “Looking at your file, you can understand why I can’t just take your word for it.”

“It shattered me,” Hartley told ABC News.

But now the three alleged victims and thousands more are seeking justice in court after a long history of systemic abuse within LA County Probation.

In 2006, the Department of Justice began investigating LA’s juvenile halls and camps. The investigation revealed systemic abuse and unsafe conditions and, as a result, they were put under federal oversight for six years.

And, a Los Angeles Times investigation in 2010 found at least 11 probation officers had been convicted of crimes or disciplined for inappropriate conduct with the youth in their care, including having sex with children in detention halls, beatings and molestation.

Richard Winton, the LA Times investigative reporter who broke the story, told ABC News that there has been an unwillingness to fire some of the accused probation staffers.

“There have been numerous occasions when outside bodies and oversight agencies have basically questioned how this place is run,” he said. “And they’ve had numerous management changes, and yet they seem to be still stuck in the same pattern here. The youth aren’t protected.”

The Probation Oversight Commission was created in 2020 to reform and monitor the department.

Esché Jackson is now a commissioner on the Probation Oversight Commission, but she knows first-hand the struggles juvenile detainees face. She was locked up in these same facilities in her youth.

“They get no fair chances and they get no forgiveness because they’ve given up on themselves and the facilities have given up on them, too,” she said.

After California opened a three-year lookback window for anyone reporting sexual abuse, several lawsuits against the city’s probation department were filed.

Courtney Thom is an attorney with Manly, Stewart, and Finaldi, the liaison counsel on behalf of former juvenile detainees. She told ABC News that while several accused officers were recently placed on leave, some are still on the job.

“The county has known about this problem for over three decades,” she said, and only recently were some removed. 

In February, California’s Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC), voted to close the remaining juvenile halls in LA within 60 days unless numerous changes were implemented.

Then, in the final days before the deadline, the BSCC allowed the facilities to continue operating — at least, for now.

After agreeing to an interview with ABC News, the current Chief of Probation, Guillermo Viera Rosa, canceled it twice.

The second time, LA County Probation canceled the interview after ABC News was setting up for the interview, citing the chief had a COVID-19 infection.

The LA County Probation Department wrote in a statement to ABC News that “the vast majority” of the lawsuits against the county predate “the current probation and county leadership.”

The agency noted they “want to ensure no alleged offenders have contact with youth in our care.”

“Of the employees we were able to identify, some are deceased, others retired so long ago their records have been purged and those who are currently with the department have been put on leave pending both internal and external investigations. Three have left the department,” LA County Probation said.

LA County Probation said they “take all allegations of sexual misconduct seriously, investigate each one, and have robust policies and procedures designed to prevent sexual abuse and ensure the safety of our youth.”

The agency acknowledged “such misconduct is absolutely deplorable and we want to do our best to ensure that nothing like this happens.”

Soon after the lawsuits against Probation Officer Thomas Jackson were filed, he announced his retirement after 33 years in the department, according to The Los Angeles Times. A few days later, Ernest Walker also announced his retirement.

Attorneys for both of the accused declined to comment to ABC News, but in court filings they deny all allegations, as does LA County.

Thom said both men are expected to give depositions in the lawsuits.

Anderson said the fact that her alleged abuser was able to retire with a pension after she brought the allegations to light showed “how broken the system is.”

“The fact that he was able to retire a decorated person within the juvenile probation system as he preyed on me. It’s just ridiculous,” she said.

In the meantime, Anderson said she is trying to move forward with her life and is studying for a master’s degree.

Jefferson now works for the nonprofit Advocates for Peace and Urban Unity, which helps kids from her neighborhood get the support she wishes she had as a kid.

“If you need some shoes, you need some clothes, I want my organization to be able to provide that for you,” said Jefferson in an interview with ABC News.

She said that she is hopeful that by sharing her story she can prevent others from suffering as she has.

Referring to her probation officer, Jefferson recalled, “I can remember him on top of me and I [was] literally crying. And he’s upset because I’m crying. Because that’s messing with him. Getting off…And I don’t want nobody else to experience that.”

Hartley has left Los Angeles and the pain she associates with it, but is still hoping that the department will apologize to her and the other survivors.

“I would like for them to admit that they failed us,” she said.

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