I.T. v. Los Angeles County: Helping children with disabilities ... and in danger

In 2009, Public Counsel in partnership with Disability Rights California and others conducted an investigation of the Los Angeles County Juvenile Halls. What we found was shocking. 

  • Children with severe disabilities, like mental retardation, were at risk of great physical harm while being detained.  
  • The Los Angeles County Probation Department did not have a system in place to identify these vulnerable children, and they were being denied required rehabilitation services. 
  • Children with severe disabilities were remaining in locked confinement for 6 to 18 months longer than other non-disabled children.

Our 2010 case, I.T. v. Los Angeles County, led to a groundbreaking change for these children.

In December 2010, after exposing these conditions, we reached a comprehensive and groundbreaking settlement with the Probation Department to bring about system-wide reforms. The National Center for Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice lists over 25 system reform lawsuits in various states focused on enforcing the rights of youth with disabilities to appropriate education and habilitative treatment. The I.T. v. Los Angeles County settlement incorporates many of these best practices and more.  

Public Counsel and Disability Rights California now act as the monitors to bring about full implementation of the settlement.  Our settlement monitoring efforts include regular visits to the Juvenile Hall and to children with developmental disabilities placed in communities and in other facilities, review of individual records, quality assurance logs and data systems, plans for rehabilitation, and interviews with Probation staff.

We believe children with severe disabilities who have been incarcerated deserve strong protections and a strong chance at successfully making it once they are released. 

How can this help children with developmental disabilities in LA and beyond?

The failure by our criminal and juvenile justice systems to identify, protect, and provide effective services to youth with developmental disabilities is endemic both in Los Angeles County and throughout the nation.  At least 37% of youth in state juvenile correction facilities nationally are developmentally disabled, as opposed to 9% of youth in the general population*.   Failure to improve the treatment of these youth results in a continued vicious cycle of recidivism and incarceration.

Our experience in obtaining and monitoring class action settlements, as well as the experience of other advocates around the country, has taught us that meaningful change requires lengthy and intensive monitoring.  

Key outcomes for settlement implementation include that youth with development disabilities in the hall will:

  • Be immediately and effectively identified so they can be protected from harm and provided appropriate services; 
  • Not be detained longer than others because of the lack of available, appropriate community placements; and 
  • Be provided with appropriate services and effective supports to successfully transition back to the community and avoid recidivism and violence.  

If successfully and fully implemented, the system for identifying, serving, and tracking youth with developmental disabilities in the juvenile halls of Los Angeles County may become a national model for children who often end up in our juvenile justice system on account of the failure of other agencies to provide for their needs. 

Because Probation currently lacks an effective data tracking system to follow the outcomes of youth as they move in and out of the juvenile justice system, we are hopeful that the data tracking system and outcomes collected through this work can be used to improve the overall data system and inform practices for other vulnerable youth in the juvenile justice system.

This critical work would not be possible without the support of the W.M. Keck Foundation.

Pam Stenhjem, “Youth With Disabilities in the Juvenile Justice System” National Center on Secondary Education and Transition Issue Brief 4.1 (2005) p. 1.



Mistreated and too afraid to eat

IT v Los Angeles Settlement

Investigators met one child with a severe disability who had been badly beaten and bullied by other youth. He was afraid to eat because he thought other children would beat him up if he did not relinquish his food to them. Hungry and unable to sleep, he became depressed. He was also verbally abused by a Department staff person in front of his mother such that he became terrified and began to tremble and cry uncontrollably.


Investigation in 2009 by Public Counsel, Disability Rights California and others revealed significant issues with the treatment of children with severe disabilities in Los Angeles County Juvenile Halls.

In 2010, Public Counsel with co-counsel Disability Rights California, Disability Rights Legal Center, Traber & Voorhees, and Hunton & Williams LLP sent a demand letter to the County for reform.

In December 2010 we reached a sweeping settlement with best practices for identification, protection, and treatment of children with severe disabilities.

Public Counsel and Disability Rights California are now monitors to implement the settlement. 


If you would like to read the Directives developed to reform the system, just click on the links below.

Directive 1283

Final Signed Directive D-1280 - UPDATED 3.7.12 Part 1

Final Signed Directive D-1280 - UPDATED 3.7.12 Part 2

Placement Coordinating Memorandum