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When Child Protection Looks Like Jail: MacClaren HallKirsten Anderberg talks about her time in an abusive "child protection" institution.
by Kirsten Anderberg
In 1969, I was an 8 year old child in MacClaren Hall. MacClaren Hall is a notorious child protection custody institution serving Los Angeles county, in California. MacClaren Hall is supposed to be a protective place, a repository for the children police encounter during the day, with dangerous parents, and nowhere to go. You would assume a place you take children to, children who are innocent victims of child abuse, who are coming out of trauma, would be comforting and soft and warm. But MacClaren Hall was an institution, an asylum, really. It was shiny and cold and angular, with guards, and guns at the fences that had turrets and barbed wire. And everything looked the same; the beds, the uniforms we wore, the rooms, the dishes we ate on, the towels we used…It was understaffed and it resembled a jail, or asylum for mentally disturbed children, more than any type of protective custody for minors.
The whole ordeal that lead to police taking me from my parents began at around 3 pm. By the time police drove me down that long driveway into MacClaren Hall, it was about 9 pm and dark out. When I got inside, they took all of my things (my school books, etc. I had with me when they took me) and locked them away in “the locker” until I would be released. I was then taken to a nurse. She looked for lice, weighed me, and basically looked over my naked body like I was cattle being inspected. I was humiliated and scared to death. Alone, in this strange place at night, I was so frightened I couldn’t even cry. But on the other hand, I also knew I could not continue to live with my parents either. As an 8 year old, I was facing HUGE life dilemmas, as 8 year olds cannot just leave out on their own. A guard took me from the nurse’s station down a dark linoleum hallway, and then into a large walk-in closet. She told me to strip. I began to cry and shake, she demanded I strip. She then took my clothing and gave me a uniform, a toothbrush and a sheet. She said my clothes would go in “the locker” and I would get them when I got out. She walked me down the dark halls, and I could hear children moaning and crying, echoing off the linoleum floors, as we walked past doors toward my room. They woke up a guard in the room, and she assigned me to a cot, telling me to go to sleep, with the 20 other girls on their cots, after one of the most horrific days of my life.
I laid in the bed, looking out past the bars and grates on the windows, to the street, past the big fences with armed guards as girls slept around me. Headlights drove on the streets outside, in the rain, and for the first few hours, I watched the cars, each time hoping it was dad coming to get me. I wondered how I ended up there, and where I was. I wondered how long I would be there. Part of me believed my parents would come get me by morning, another part of me worried I would never see my parents again, and was becoming an orphan. But I was in an abusive home situation with my parents too, so I did not know what the options were, but I did not particularly want to go back home with my parents, but they were preferable to this jail. I cried as quietly as I could into my pillow, until I fell asleep. I woke up to a mob of 6 girls beating me up. They were yelling at me to shut up. They said I had been crying in my sleep. I apologized. This went on for a few days until I learned not to cry in my sleep.
Before dawn, we were ordered to get ready for the day. We then were all lined up in the cold dark, hundreds of us, outside, waiting to get into the cafeteria for breakfast. Breakfast was institutional food and service, like school lunches. We then were herded back to the cell blocks. For the first few days I was there, we went to school. But then school was cancelled due to “riots,” they said. They implied our school was shut down by riots outside of MacClaren Hall in Los Angeles, and inside MacClaren Hall by the children. And the children in MacClaren Hall were a tough bunch. There were teens up to age 17 there, along with children younger than me. I had bright orange hair and freckles, which was like a target sign hanging around my neck. Kids beat me up incessantly in there. And kids in MacClaren Hall knew what violence was. One young boy my age said his mom “tried to scrub his face off” because he looked like his dad. Other children had broken ribs, stab wounds, black eyes, etc. from their parents. This was a battered and bruised bunch of children. For some reason, the guards did not intervene during the violence on site either, so I learned early on to lay low. I remember the first day, going to the swings. I was swinging for a second, before someone grabbed me by the hair, and swung me off the swing into the dirt! The guard stood right there and did nothing. I did not even try to swing again. We took baths once a week in huge bathtubs in dark bathrooms. We were left alone without guards, about 6 of us girls in one bath tub, under the care of teen girl inmates there. Those teen girls told us horror stories of how they tried to kill their parents, and then molested us.
Every Sunday was visiting day. On that day, you got to take off your uniform and wear a pretty dress and ribbons in your hair to look nice for visitors. You only got to do that if you had visitors coming. I was sure the first visitor day my parents would show up. So I convinced them to let me dress up. And I waited in the waiting room all day and no one came. The next week, I convinced them again to let me dress up, and was convinced THIS time my parents would show, but no one did. So, they did not let me go to visitor day and dress up anymore. (I did not know my parents were under a restraining order and were not allowed to visit me.) The fact that my parents literally disappeared off the face of the earth, made me sit and think I was on my own, and had to figure out a way to get out of this prison. As an 8 year old, that was a devastating reality to face.
When I was finally released from MacClaren Hall, I had seen my parents once, on the day of a criminal hearing at the courts on site. A social worker came to the facility, and told me they were taking me to a foster home. I had no idea what that was, but I knew it probably could not be any WORSE than MacClaren Hall was. I was given my clothes I came in, to change into. I was given a big box of new toys. I remember it had a “Shrinking Violet” doll, who talked when you pulled her string, and had a big soft body with huge eyes. They gave me some little doll in a perfume bottle and it smelled like violets. There was a floppy stuffed dog, I do not remember the rest of it all. But it was a bunch of toys. I was unclear why they were giving me these toys, and honestly, at that point, I wanted a home and family, not toys, so I was not really that enthused at the toys. The social worker drove me in her car. I looked out the windows and as she talked, I could not hear her. All I could do was marvel at the telephone poles rolling by, signifying we were driving away from MacClaren Hall. I was in complete trauma and shock. If that is considered “child protection,” then we have a hell of a lot to learn.
When I was finally reunited with my family, my parents told all of my aunts, uncles, cousins, family friends, and me, that MacClaren Hall is a juvenile hall I was sent to for a while. I was thus branded as a criminal, by my own family, at age 8. Up to age 18, I would ask my parents about MacClaren Hall and how I got there and somehow they always were able to change the subject. I could never figure out how I ended up there since I was a kid who did well in school and was nonviolent, etc. No one in my family would or could answer my questions. Finally, in 2003, I met a man who was in MacClaren Hall when I was. He now volunteers there, as it is still open, apparently. He said that MacClaren Hall has never been a juvenile hall. He said if I was ever in MacClaren Hall, it was because my parents were suspected of child abuse to a level that warranted me being taken into state custody. So instead of my parents telling my family, and me, that they were suspected of, and on trial for child abuse, and that I was being held by the state from them, they instead told everyone it was a juvenile hall and I was there because I needed to be taught a lesson, or I did something wrong, but no one would ever say what that was. I always thought I was so bad, that I had to have guns, guards and turrets to protect society from me at age 8. But now I see that those guns, guards and turrets were there to protect me from MY PARENTS! To realize that MacClaren Hall was about my parents’ crimes, not mine, has been very liberating.
I have now met a few survivors of MacClaren Hall and their stories are all quite similar. I met a man who had been in MacClaren Hall in the 1960’s, and he has spent nearly his entire life in jail in the decades since, including several years of solitary confinement. A partner of a MacClaren Hall survivor also wrote me, telling me that her partner was exactly my age, and had been in MacClaren Hall the years I was. Her partner committed suicide in 2003. The woman said her partner talked about MacClaren Hall so often, well into adulthood, that she felt she had been in there too, due to her partner’s disturbances from that experience. I admit I still wake up sometimes, in a sweat, hearing the children moaning at night, echoing down the hall. My lovers have all know about it too. And I wonder if there are children being punished like prisoners, for their parents’ crimes, at MacClaren Hall still. An internet search online shows two articles that MENTION MacClaren Hall and that is it. It is pretty well hidden and off the mainstream radar. I am concerned that generations of us who survived the asylum-like setting of MacClaren Hall are saying we were permanently affected by what we witnessed there, and most of us have had very hard lives afterwards. I am concerned that MacClaren Hall is so bad, that the children who go there, come out even MORE damaged than when they went in. Maybe MacClaren Hall is different in 2004. Maybe they have learned how to treat the trauma and not increase it. Maybe they have learned how to provide a safe, nonviolent, nurturing environment finally. But somehow I am very skeptical of that, knowing about budgets, and how kids without parents come last on lists of priorities.
After writing this article, I have found out that MacLaren Hall, its actual spelling, finally was shut down in May 2003, after too many law suits regarding abuse of the kids by the staff! Apparently kids were abused for 30+ more years after I was in there. I am terribly sad to find that out. Here are some other articles on MacLaren Hall...
http://www.findarticles.com/cf_dls/m1346/1_48/96195433/p2/article.jhtml?term=, a 10 page article by Ed Hume, Pulitzer Prize winner, in Los Angeles Magazine.
Written by: Kirsten Anderberg
24 February 2004