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'Hunting ground for child predators' | Guards at San Diego's juvenile detention centers face claims of rampant sexual abuse

New lawsuits reveal scope of the problem inside juvenile detention centers in San Diego County and beyond.

SAN DIEGO — Six teens who were formerly incarcerated in San Diego's Juvenile Detention Centers say guards sexually assaulted them while other guards either ignored the assault or helped hide it.

In a new lawsuit, the six men, now adults, say they are among many juveniles who suffered abuse by those whose job it was to make them safe. 

Their claims mirror what has been a national issue for more than a decade

“I felt like my innocence was robbed," said one man, who will be referred to as "John" to protect his identity. 

"I was picked out of a group. I was targeted. … it wasn’t random he knew exactly what he was doing." 

John says the brazen manner in which his abuser carried out the abuse makes him believe that in some cases the centers could provide a safe haven for child predators.

"I felt helpless and confused, and that if I told anyone no one would believe me and it wouldn’t matter," said John, before adding, "I wonder who else is going through the same thing."

And while John may never know the answer to that question, he knows other juveniles in San Diego County juvenile detention centers as well as juveniles across the country have, in fact, experienced similar and have for decades. 

"Paul" was 14 years old when he was incarcerated at the Rancho Del Campo Detention Center in 1998. 

Paul says he woke up late one morning. He rushed to shower so he wouldn't get into trouble. That's when he heard the shower door lock behind him.

"He told me to take down my pants. I think there was just one guard that was in the shower area but there was another one that was either watching the door or making sure nobody else came," said Paul.

The guard, says Paul, told him to start masturbating. When Paul became upset the guard responded with anger and began pleasuring himself.

The incident scarred Paul. He was sure it had happened to others but he says no one would talk about it. Paul says the others, just like him, locked it up inside. The impact emotionally, however, seeped out over time.

"I was awful after that. I was angry all the time. I was super defensive. I couldn't let...I didn't like people touching me. I don't know how they could do that. Maybe they're messed up in the head. Maybe something happened to them. Maybe they're just sociopaths. I don't know."

The problem of staff sexual abuse at youth detention centers, however, is rampant.

A 2020 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics finds that 5.8% of incarcerated youth said staff or guards made some type of inappropriate sexual contact with them inside juvenile detention centers.

As John can attest, the number is likely much higher due to the fact many juvenile inmates are silent about the abuse. 

John says, the silence, only emboldens the guards or staffers who prey on juveniles inside detention centers. 

"He acted as if he was allowed to do what he was doing," John said of the guard who assaulted him. 

John told CBS 8 that the guard, whose last name is all he can remember, molested him in the shower and in a utility closet. 

"It was hell, pure hell," said John.

Attorney Doug Rochen represents the six victims.

Rochen tells CBS 8 that he and his firm represent more than 500 victims of sexual assault in juvenile detention centers in Los Angeles County alone. 

He expects more to surface in San Diego County as well.

"Our firm started looking at these cases in August of 2022," said Rochen. "What started out as a handful of cases has skyrocketed to more than 500 cases."

Rochen says juvenile detention centers have been known as a hunting ground for child predators who so often are allowed to carry out their abuse without consequence.

"The juvenile justice system has been a natural safe haven for sexual predators with very little oversight, very little investigation into their backgrounds, very little training," said Rochen. "It's a picking ground for kids that arguably are not supposed to be believed."

This is not the first lawsuit filed against the County over sexual assaults in juvenile detention centers. 

In November 2022, a victim going by the name John Doe SP accused the county and a female guard of forcing him to have sex with her in 2005 during his incarceration at Camp Barrett Youth Correction in Alpine. 

Rochen tells CBS 8 that he expects more lawsuits to be filed. He says they will continue until the system undergoes a complete overhaul.

"Our clients ask that these counties do the right thing and fix what’s broken," says Rochen. "If it means firing every single person and criminally prosecuting those who did wrong to these kids, then that’s a start."

CBS 8 reached out to San Diego County numerous times to ask what it was doing to address reports of sexual abuse inside juvenile detention centers. Despite several opportunities, the county did not respond to CBS 8's questions.

For John, who says he was assaulted a number of times at the Kearny Mesa center, he hopes his lawsuit will prompt others to come forward.

"If a lot of us come forward then maybe we can stop it," said John.

Either way, John says that the trauma that he experienced will remain.

"It's something that’s never going to go away and something that’s never going to stop being there. It's hell."

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