'Imposter' performs COVID tests on kids after security breach at a juvenile hall

James Queally
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
The Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, photographed in 2019 in the Los Angeles community of Sylmar. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

LOS ANGELES — An "imposter" pretending to be a medical professional got inside a Los Angeles County juvenile detention facility last week and swabbed the mouths of several children, according to an email obtained by the Los Angeles Times and a former county official.

The breach occurred Jan. 29 at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, according to an email exchange between several employees of the L.A. County public defender's office, as well as a former probation official with knowledge of the situation. The former official requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from probation officials.

The Times reviewed a copy of the email, which urged attorneys representing children housed in the facility to check to see if the youths had encountered the intruder.

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The person walked past armed security to gain access to the facility, according to the former official, who said seven youths were approached by the "imposter."

Details of the incident were first reported by LAist earlier Friday.

In a statement Friday, the L.A. County probation department confirmed that there had been a security breach by someone pretending to be a "health care worker." No juveniles were injured, and an internal investigation had been launched, according to the statement.

"It is reprehensible that an individual would impersonate a health care worker and take advantage of one of our most vulnerable populations," Chief Deputy Probation Officer Karen Fletcher said in a statement. "It is disheartening, disrespectful and criminal."

The incident comes a few months after the California Board of State and Community Corrections deemed L.A. County's juvenile halls unsuitable to house children. The board threatened to remove from the county's custody children housed at Nidorf Hall and Central Juvenile Hall in Boyle Heights unless the problems were rectified.

The state board found lapses in the way county officials conducted health assessments of children taken into custody and a lack of proper documentation to justify placing juveniles in solitary confinement.

Last November, the board deemed the halls suitable to house youths again but leveled criticism about children being held in confinement for excessive periods of time.

Typically, visitors to a juvenile facility must show identification and a professional credential validating their reason to be there, according to Brooke Harris, director of Loyola Law School's Juvenile Justice Clinic.

"It's distressing. The safety of youth and kids who are separated from their families is paramount, and in this situation, it sounds like it was compromised," she said. "I hope probation is able to address this; I hope they can figure out how and why this happened."