The Lost Orphans of Los Angeles
By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)
This article is dedicated to The County of Los Angeles' Office of the County Counsel, and RAYMOND G. FORTNER, COUNTY COUNSEL, for sending cold, callous form letters to Mac Hall survivors telling us our Mac Hall files have "been misplaced."
Imagine not knowing where you spent parts of your childhood and with whom. That is the fate that I, along with thousands of other children, (some of whom speak out in this article), unfortunate enough to be born into Los Angeles County from the 1950’s – 2003, have suffered. We, as children, were warehoused in an asylum-like institution called MacLaren Hall, for our parents’ serious criminal-level child abuse. Mac Hall was a “child protection institution.” Mac Hall is a hidden atrocity, in the history of a modern U.S. city, and its story needs to be uncorked. I am gathering and presenting the actual testimony of survivors to the public on this matter, and am also pushing the County of L.A. to let us testify on record about this institutionalized child abuse and its entrails left within our social fabric. Survivors of Mac Hall describe horror. “Children with burnt skin, black eyes, arms in slings and legs in casts, were familiar sights.”
One woman who wrote me after reading my own MacLaren Hall story online (http://resist.ca/~kirstena/pagemaclarenhall.html
) described Mac Hall as ”so much nicer and safer than where I came from,” then went on to describe her memories of the place as having “gang beatings, babies crying, girls sniffing hairspray or whatever they could get...” I, too remember gangs of teen girls molesting us as they were left in charge of us in big bathtubs that fit many girls at a time. I remember about six other 8 year old girls in a bathtub with me, with teen girl inmates left in charge of us, telling us how they tried to kill their parents so we had better shut up and let them do what they wanted or they would kill us. They seemed credible as an 8 year old and I shut up.
Another email I got from someone who read my article on Mac Hall had the subject line “MacLaren Hall and their stupid Teddy Bear.” He was referring to the box of toys they give traumatized kids when they leave Mac Hall. All of us were in severe trauma, then they let us out with a social worker, handed us a box of toys, and said, “Be happy.” I remember wanting to get rid of those toys asap as they reminded me of Mac Hall! I wrote a survivor about my recollection of the toy bag, which included a “Shrinking Violet” doll and a perfume doll. She responded, “I remember getting one of those perfume dolls too! Mine was purple and her hair smelled for a long time afterwards.” This may sound weird for adults to be talking about what toys they got when they were released from Mac Hall, but for most everyone I have spoken to who survived Mac Hall, they have had no chance to talk to anyone about this ever, their whole lives. Only in finding other Mac Hall survivors via my online article about it in 1st person, have some of us actually found our brothers and sisters who *know* what Mac Hall really was.
One Mac Hall survivor said he contacted me because he “wanted to meet another person who might have had some experiences at MacLaren Hall.” He sent me a Google aerial shot of Mac Hall as it looks today. I could still see the fences along the perimeter, and the dorms, play yard, and courthouse. I could see the sparkling pools just across the street that I used to watch the “free kids” splash in, through the chain link and barbed wire fences.
Another survivor wrote me about my Mac Hall article and said “As I began to read the story, tears began to fall from my eyes. I could not believe you were also telling my story. I, too was there in 1969, but I was only 3 years old. Here is my story with only a few things to add. I remember the day I got a bad rash and I was put into solitary confinement. A small cubicle, with 4 white walls and a bed. There was also a bathroom with a door which was locked. There was a small window with bars, which was my only outlet to the outside. There were a few trees which I often remember looking at. I didn’t have visitors or human contact for the time I was sick. It seemed like forever. I could not leave that room. When I needed to use the bathroom I had to knock on a glass window where there was a wide long hallway. There were times when I would knock and knock and the staff would just pass me by without coming in to unlock the bathroom door so I could use the restroom. I would hold onto my urine until I couldn’t anymore and scream and cry, hoping someone would hear me from far away. I was so scared what they would do to me if I wet my bed or just let it go. I felt so helpless and asked god, “Why me?” If this was life, let me die. I actually wanted to be dead, it was a nightmare which I still have today.”
She continues, “I didn’t understand anything. I just cried the whole time. I forgot how long it was for, but it seemed like forever. I also remember I got to change my clothes once a week and all the children would go running for the drawer to find pants or a shirt that might fit. Sometimes you just had to take whatever, even if it didn’t fit. I also went back when I was around 8 years old for the same torture. Our stories are so much alike. I’m interested to know how this affected your adult life. Thank you for sharing your story and allowing me to share with you. This is the first time that I have been able to let this out. I hope all of the MacLaren Children that were able to survive through their childhood are now good and strong and those that did not make it, may god be with them and bless them. They are now in peace at least.”
I was in Mac Hall when I was 8 in 1969. I remember hearing children and babies shrieking in terror all night long, all day long. It was creepy and horrific as you wondered, alone inside bars, what was going on down the halls to have all this tortured screaming echoing off all the linoleum. There was so much violence that led these tortured children INTO Mac Hall and there was so much violence from guards on down to other inmates in Mac Hall, that I also asked god to kill me at age 8 in Mac Hall. I also came very close to just jumping off a bridge right in front of my dad within 6 months of being released from Mac Hall too, as I was not able to just sweep Mac Hall under the rug and go on as if nothing had happened. Most Mac Hall survivors addressed the suicide issue in Mac Hall as kids, and once out, as well. What haunts most of us is not only the abuse we suffered as children, and the sick view of the world that gave us, but the real thing that won’t give us peace is WHY. *Why* did society leave thousands of kids for dead in L.A. County? Was it just about money? No one wanted to care for us? Many of us wished ourselves dead. The woman above said she was wishing for death in Mac Hall at age 3. I was wishing for it at age 8.
People do not understand how much Mac Hall trailed its victims well into adulthood. I had a woman write me about her lesbian partner who had been in Mac Hall. She wrote me in 2003, when I was 42 years old. She said, “I saw your posting about MacLaren Hall kids. I personally was not in MacLaren Hall, but my partner and lifemate was. She would have been 42 in Jan., but she took her life in 2001. She had told me so much about MacLaren Hall that I feel I lived there. In addition...she also kept detailed journals each day of her life since she was a teenager and I am in possession of those journals and I know her thoughts and feelings about MacLaren Hall and her stay there...If you’d be interested in her story of MacLaren, I’d be happy to oblige. It’s one more way of keeping her memory alive.”
To be honest, I have not yet met a Mac Hall survivor who has not contemplated suicide during childhood, nor have I met one who is not passionate about what happened there as having a life long impact on them. Another survivor wrote me and said, “It’s sad to admit to myself that I am a Mac Hall alum...I don’t talk about it, and I try so hard not to think about it. Because of Mac Hall and being one of the *lost children* of L.A. County (i.e. CPS lost track of thousands of children in the 1980’s), I went into social work...because I wanted no other child to be put in that situation. I finally left CPS work and went into a non-profit because the thoughts of Mac became overwhelming and I had to see a therapist. It was his suggestion I leave CPS work, for my own sanity...They cannot ever pay for what they have done. But I want a PUBLIC-nationally televised, dammit- apology, and I want restitution for those who want or need it and will support that cause!”
I met a man who said he had been in jail for years as an adult after coming out of Mac Hall. He said the night he came to Mac Hall, his dad had beat him, broken his bones and he had tried to stab his father. He said the reason so many of the children themselves were so violent in Mac Hall was they had just come straight from severe violence at home. And were dropped into an unknown place, in an unknown situation. He said any child who came into Mac Hall with any innocence left, would have it quickly consumed by the other children in there as if it were candy. He described Mac Hall as “a facility where children wait for a vacancy in a foster home. Children with burnt skin, black eyes, arms in slings and legs in casts, were familiar sights in that place. My ribcage was wrapped and my fractured elbow was in a cast. At night the counselors comforted the children who sobbed and cried out, “I want to go home to my mommy and daddy.” In the scary, lonely night, the anxiety of changing homes and schools and parents in one drastic swoop was a powerful uncertainty which made the sheltered children tremble and cry for the security of a bondage they were familiar with...Those nights at MacLaren Hall disgusted me. I felt myself stronger than the other children. But when I was paroled three years ago, there were several times when the desire to go rob a bank again was so strong that I finally sought counseling...I considered myself a stranger in this “free world” and longed at times to go back to prison, the world I was most comfortable in.” I fear many Mac Hall survivors ended up in jail like this man, due to this feeling of never being at home in the “free world,” due to past experiences.
He said he spent 9 years in prison and 2 years in solitary confinement once aging out of the juvenile system. He found it hard to think in ways that were not institutionalized. This is the very definition of “institutionalized oppression,” as well as “internalized oppression.” He had grown up in institutions and later had to do hard work to derail that pattern of thinking institutions breed. He went from a childhood in Mac Hall with his brother, to jail for decades. Then he went back to Mac Hall and began to volunteer there right before they shut it down in May 2003. Most of us have emotional ties to Mac Hall left in us, as unresolved nightmares, basically. And most of us feel we are supposed to *do something* as adults about what we saw in Mac Hall. Each of us tries to figure out a way to do something...I write about it, the one woman above tried to do social work with kids, the other man tried to go back to Mac Hall to help.
I sent away for my records from Mac Hall recently (Spring 2006). I was both terrified of what I would see and yet anxious to get some closure. I wanted to know when I was in there, for how long, how I got there, where I went from there...since my family refuses to speak to me about Mac Hall since it happened, basically. I wanted to know what the police records said led me to Mac Hall. I was scared that I had seen the whole thing through a child’s eyes, and to hear it in adult words now, as an adult, could be really frightening. For instance, once I called an attorney who had taken my mom and me in, 2 years before the Mac Hall mess, while he defended my mom in custody battles, pro bono, from my dad. I called him as an adult, at age 30, to ask him about my childhood, as much of it is a blur. He said he took my mom and me in because she was not functioning and they wanted me to have a chance. So they brought me to their posh home in Tarzana, and let me swim in their pool and ride bikes with their kids for the summer, while, he said, my mom curled up in a fetal position and sobbed like a child most of her days at his house. It somehow felt really shameful to hear him say that. On many levels. And it brought back the image of my mother in a scary, withdrawn, fetal position, when I was alone with her in an apt. as a 6 year old, and I was relieved when he did move us to where other people were. But I had forgotten how sick my mom was. And it was scary to talk to him, to be honest. He only said horrible, scary things about my mom. He brought me back to that dark veil that was my mom. The darkness that led to Mac Hall eventually.
I requested my files from Mac Hall recently because I wanted to see my own records of my own childhood when the state was my parent. But just like my own dad, who handed me his “Kirsten pictures” when I was 33, as if they were cluttering up his other family’s photo album, L.A. County has supposedly “misplaced” my Mac Hall files. They sent a reply to my request to the County recently, and the letter said nothing but “your records have been misplaced.” The letter did not say they were going to look for them, nor did they explain how my juvenile records, which included police reports, court hearings, judgments, and also internment of my body, and placement into foster care, had no records on file. The State of California was able to easily locate my birth certificate in Los Angeles County when I requested it in 2003, but in 2006 when I requested the County’s records of my childhood, 8 years later, in their custody, no records can be found. Just like my dad’s 4th family’s photo album. To me, it feels like malicious destruction of evidence to have just “misplaced” Mac Hall survivors’ records. And for L.A. County to just send form letters out to survivors saying they are not even going to *try* to *find* our records, just infuriates me.
Mac Hall did not close in 2003. It is still fully alive in its survivors and those who did not survive. I feel a sisterhood, a brotherhood, with Mac Hall survivors. I feel a kinship to kids going through similar dehumanization in institutions today. I relate to the *lost children* everywhere. I want society to understand that *lost children* grow up and we do not forget. And we are haunted by what being *lost children* or *living orphans* taught us. Some of us turned into criminals as we had no social connect at all. Some of us withdrew and never did trust humans again, since childhood. Many of us went on, pretending it never happened, but wondering what that was and if it could happen again. Mac Hall needs much more media discussion and exposure as it is a model of child abuse in recent society, in current history, and its survivors are willing to talk. And we must let them talk. And we must listen to what they are saying. There are lessons to be learned about children, and society, within the words of Mac Hall survivors. I honor all my Mac Hall sisters and brothers who read this today. You are not alone.