Gas leak poses greatest public health risk in Los Angeles history

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Natural gas leaks are common, but the one still occurring in Porter Ranch may become a public health disaster because of how large it is and for the length of time. For that, the event is historical. A report I referred to in my article  (later turned into a larger story), showed how the gas company knew the gas system was rotted.  Here is my story that summarizes the situation as of two months in (Dec. 19, 2015):

The smell came from the canyons and drifted over their neighborhoods in late October, but most residents who live in the gated communities of Porter Ranch thought the northerly gusts of wind common to their area would sweep the stench of rotten eggs away.

Instead, the odor persisted.

It became a phantom that haunted them during their twilight jogs and on their morning walks on dusty horse trails. It was there in their dens where they watched TV and in bedrooms where their children slept. It was even there on the playgrounds of nearby elementary schools.

“It was smelling really bad,” said Susan Gorman-Chang, who along with her husband, George, has lived in Porter Ranch for more than 20 years. Now, the couple has chosen to leave the area. “Our neighbor called the fire department. It was that bad.”

The Southern California Gas Co. knew what was happening a day before the fire department was called. They knew methane was leaking from a 40-year-old well in Aliso Canyon above the Santa Susana Mountains, that it was spewing tons of gas into the air. Several days later, they informed residents through letters that the agency would plug the leak as fast as possible.

DISPLACING A COMMUNITY

Eight weeks after that call was made, the leak continues. It has caused massive disruption in the northwestern San Fernando Valley community of Porter Ranch, an affluent community of nearly 31,000 residents about 28 miles from downtown Los Angeles. More than 1,800 families have been relocated by the gas company and more than 1,000 remain on a waiting list. Some say they can’t remember a displacement of residents this large since the Northridge earthquake in 1994, when 20,000 people were left homeless. Two local elementary schools have been impacted, with nearly 2,000 schoolchildren and staff slated to be moved to other schools in January.

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Enough methane gas is being released to fill the Empire State building each day, state officials have said, and the concern has even reached the Federal Aviation Administration, which issued temporary flight restrictions over the area for small aircraft and helicopters.

The gas company has apologized but has said the leak may take four months to plug and to create a relief well.

“It’s like the BP spill on land,” said environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who was made famous by successfully battling Pacific Gas and Electric Co. over groundwater contamination in the community ofHinkley in the Inland Empire in 1996. “I’ve really never seen anything like this. I think the magnitude is enormous. Its like a volcano, and the gas is like the lava that can’t be shut off.”

LARGEST GAS STORAGE IN NATION

An abandoned oil field with 115 wells, the Aliso Canyon storage facility became the second largest in the nation when it was repurposed in the 1970s, with a capacity to hold 86 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

Gas continues to leak from a narrow pipe enclosed in a breached 7-inch well casing. The affected well, known as SS 25, is 8,750 feet deep.

Aging infrastructure may be to blame. In a report presented to California’s Public Utilities Commission last year, concerns were raised by the gas company regarding well casings that were “further amplified by the age, length and location of wells,” according to the report. “Some SoCalGas wells are more than 80 years old with an average age of 52 years.”

The number of wells that have needed repairs has increased, from three repairs in 2008 when tracking of repairs began, to nine in 2013.

“Without a robust program to inspect underground storage wells to identify potential safety and/or integrity issues, problems may remain undetected,” last year’s report stated.

The affected well passed its pressure tests, including the latest one in 2014, according to the California Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources.

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ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS

The 1,200 tons of methane gas being released daily by the affected well is adding 25 percent more greenhouse gas to the atmosphere per month than normal, said Dave Clegern, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board. Methane is about 9 percent of the total annual greenhouse gas emissions in California, Clegern added.

“You can figure that a million metric tons — which is about the estimated monthly amount — is the equivalent of putting about 200,000 more cars on the road for a year.”

Methane lives in the atmosphere for about 12 years, according to theU.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Unlike carbon dioxide, which can live longer in the atmosphere, methane can be more devastating to the climate because of how well it absorbs heat, according theEnvironmental Defense Fund.

HEALTH FEARS

That may be bad for the environment, but families who live in Porter Ranch are wondering what the gas leak is doing to their lungs, hearts and the health of their children. Residents have reported headaches, nausea and nosebleeds. Even their dogs and cats were getting sick.

The nurse’s office at two nearby elementary schools reported increased visits by children, up to 38 one week. The most common symptoms reported by the students were headache and stomachache.

Earlier this month, county health officials said the gas leak did not pose any long-term health risks but then changed course after as the leak entered its sixth week and gas company officials said it might take four months to plug the well.

Prolonged exposure to trace chemicals, county health officials later said, some of which are known carcinogens, can cause long-term health effects.

However, they cautioned that levels examined so far in Porter Ranch are not believed to be associated with long-term health problems.

“As the duration of exposure increases, these trace levels can produce significant long-term health effects,” county Department of Public Health Interim Director Cynthia Harding wrote in a memo sent to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. “As this incident has moved from a short-term exposure event resolved within days, to now a long-term event potentially lasting months, supplemental monitoring of potentially harmful trace chemicals is warranted.”

What is less understood is mercaptan, or what’s been described as a harmless chemical that contains sulphur that is added to natural gas to make it smell like rotten eggs and so that it can be detected.

But very little is known about the health effects of methyl mercaptan, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The only information available is about a worker exposed to very high levels of this compound when he opened and emptied tanks of this compound,” according to the CDC. “He developed anemia, went into a coma and died about a month later.”

The last report on mercaptan offered by the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, a division of the CDC, was presented in 1992.

“We do not know whether long-term exposure of humans to low levels of methyl mercaptan can result in harmful health effects such as cancer, birth defects, or problems with reproduction.”

Guidelines released by the Occupational Safety and HealthAdministration to workers say that long-term exposure of mercaptan can cause dermatitis.

There also is little information about whether mercaptan causes cancer in people or animals. Methyl mercaptan has not been classified a carcinogen by the Department of Health and Human Services, the International Agency for Research on Cancer or the Environmental Protection Agency.

The gas began leaking Oct. 23. One day later residents began calling in complaints to the Air Quality Management District. Since then, there have been more than 1,400 complaints.

“We have received a large number of complaints, not unprecedented, but a large amount,” said Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the AQMD. “This is a large number of complaints over a couple of months.”

The delay in communication by the Gas Co. to residents is what has raised distrust and anger in the community, said Alexandra Nagy of Food & Water Watch. The environmental nonprofit has helped Porter Ranch residents organize protests and rallies.

“This is an extreme health crisis and it is an extreme environmental crisis,” Nagy said. “These are real health symptoms. Residents are so fed up.”

THOUSANDS DISPLACED

Susan Gorman-Chang and her husband, George, said they moved into Porter Ranch in 1991 when new homes were being built. They had weathered the Northridge earthquake and even evacuated their home during wildfires that swept into the canyons above them. Last year, residents formed Save Porter Ranch to discourage Termo Co. of Long Beach, which now operates 18 wells in Aliso Canyon, from drilling 12 more within the next six years — a move that could potentially tap up to 200,000 more barrels of oil.

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But the smell that was affecting them from the gas leak was too much. Gorman-Chang said she had trouble breathing after jogs. George Chang said he felt dizzy after morning walks. They were among the first families to relocate after the gas company agreed to reimburse residents who wanted to leave. Since mid-November, the Changs have lived in a two-bedroom hotel room in Chatsworth.

“We’re lucky,” Gorman-Chang said. “There are families that had to relocate down as far as Marina del Rey. And now many can’t find places to stay.”

But they miss their routine. George Chang said he still goes to his Porter Ranch home to pick up newspapers and mail. Gorman-Chang said she went back to their home about 4 miles away to make the Thanksgiving turkey because there is no stove in the hotel room.

Inside their room, there is a small Charlie Brown Christmas tree that George Chang ordered because he said it was important to keep spirits up. Their son, who attends Cal State Northridge, lives with them.

“It’s been a struggle,” Gorman-Chang said. “You have this delicate balance of life, and then all of a sudden it’s gone.”

‘A DISASTER AREA’

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday declared the leak in Porter Ranch an emergency to pave the way for state and federal assistance.

“This is a disaster area,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich said that day. “The financial liability of Southern California Gas Co. has to be to the neighbors who have lost residential properties, the ability to sell. The home valuation has gone in the toilet.”

Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer filed a civil lawsuit against SoCalGas alleging the Aliso Canyon leak has threatened residents’ health and hurt the environment. The lawsuit also alleges a public nuisance and violation of the California Unfair Competition Law from the leak.

“It is the most significant event and potentially biggest health emergency in the history of Los Angeles,” Feuer said. “There’s a huge spectrum of concern out there.”

Brockovich, who is working on behalf of the law firm Weitz & Luxenbergwhich filed a lawsuit on behalf of residents, said monetary compensation won’t be enough for the residents. She said the gas company should have had a contingency plan in place, in case of such leaks.

“There has to be a new plan moving forward,” Brockovich said. “As we move forward, lawsuits are not going to work anymore. There needs to be measures to change what has happened, to prevent it from happening again and to assure total safety to those people. This is, I think, a huge wake-up call.”

Staff Writers Dana Bartholomew, Sarah Favot, Dakota Smith and Greg Wilcox contributed to this report.

5 years after Mitrice Richardson’s remains were found in Malibu her death still raises questions

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Like most people, I was haunted by Mitrice Richardson’s death because I was troubled by the way she was treated by deputies at the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Here was a young woman who had a mental health episode, and she was allowed to leave the sheriff’s station in the middle of the night, on a lonely road, with no phone and no ride. She could have been any one of us, or someone we knew.  Her story  symbolizes unfairness and how dismissing a person simply because of their sex, color, look, last name, or whatever, can have awful consequences.  Thank you to her family and friends for sharing her story with me. Five years after her remains were found, here is her story (Daily News, Nov. 28, 2015):

There were no obvious bullet wounds, no evidence of knife stabs or blunt force trauma.

There was only her skeleton resting atop leaves and brush. About 100 feet away lay her dark bra, a pair of blue jeans and a pink belt.

Almost a year after she had gone missing, Mitrice Richardson’s remains were discovered Aug. 9, 2010, in a rugged part of Malibu Canyon below Piuma Canyon Road. No one knows why she was found in this spot after she left the Malibu/Lost Hills sheriff’s station late at night without a phone, identification or car. Her family and those who support them don’t believe the 24-year-old was hiking and fell to her death, as sheriff’s investigators said.

“The problem that I have with this case is (investigators) were too quick to conclude that it was not murder,” said Ronda Hampton, a clinical psychologist and family friend. “They never put out there that there is a possibility of homicide. There is no way Mitrice could have hiked that canyon.”

The coroner’s report called the cause of her death undetermined. The Sheriff’s Department says her case remains open. But for anguished family and friends, that’s not enough.

Five years after Mitrice Richardson’s remains were found, questions continue to be asked. For that reason, Hampton and others believe Richardson’s case should be deemed a homicide. If so, her death would be added to the 4,862 unsolved homicide cases in Los Angeles County between 2000 and 2010, according to data analyzed by the Los Angeles News Group. Of those, seven homicide cases remain unsolved by the Malibu/Lost Hills sheriff’s station.

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QUESTIONS ARISE

On Sept. 16, 2009, Mitrice Richardson dined at Geoffrey’s restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway, then was briefly detained by deputies for not paying her bill. A few hours later, before her mother, Latice Sutton, could come and pick her up, Richardson was released just after midnight by deputies from theMalibu/Lost Hills sheriff’s station. Her car, which included her purse and cellphone, had been impounded. She had no transportation as she headed out into the darkness of Agoura Road.

Except for a brief appearance on the front lawn of a nearby residence, Richardson was never seen or heard from again. Search parties formed. Family and friends became worried. Questions arose: Why didn’t deputies hold Richardson longer for a mental health evaluation, especially after they were told at the restaurant that she had made several irrational remarks, and she was found to be sober? How could they let a young woman walk alone into the night?

During one of the searches, volunteers found a freshly painted mural along a culvert wall in Malibu Canyon. It depicted a nude African-American woman in various graphic scenes. Was it a clue? Did the painter know what happened to Mitrice? Hampton said investigators told her it was unrelated. Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Department met with criticism and anger.

Eleven months after she disappeared, Richardson’s remains were discovered about seven miles from the station. Park rangers who were patrolling the area to check for illegal marijuana farms found her near a creek bed where few traveled. Deputies arrived and removed the bones, to the dismay of Los Angeles County Coroner’s officials, who were on their way to the scene.

Again, questions arose: Did someone pick her up as she walked the dark roads, kill her and dump her body in the canyon? Were deputies indirectly involved since they released her? Why did they remove her remains before coroner’s officials arrived?

“The Sheriff’s Department moved her remains without our permission,” Ed Winter, Los Angeles County assistant chief coroner, said last week. “I don’t think we’ll ever know what happened to her unless someone comes forward with additional information.”

Former Sheriff Lee Baca told reporters he believed his officers followed procedures and that deputies had asked her to stay in jail until her mother arrived, but Richardson refused. The Office of Independent Review, which oversees the Sheriff’s Department, agreed with him. In the meantime, Richardson’s parents, who are not married to each other, filed separate wrongful death suits and in 2011 were awarded $450,000 each by Los Angeles County.

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But Hampton pressed on. She and the family pushed for the department to conduct an internal investigation of the deputies. A request was made for the FBI to look into the department. A spokeswoman said last week that the case did not fall in federal jurisdiction. In October, Hampton sent nearly 500 pages of documents and reports about the case to Attorney General Kamala Harris’office hoping she would find cause for criminal action against the department.

Harris spokeswoman Kristen Ford said this month the documents were received and reviewed but no action will be taken.

“This case had a lot of attention at the time and we’ve been following it as well,” Ford said. “We determined there was no cause for criminal action.”

OPEN CASE

Despite the disappointments, the roadblocks, the lack of information, Hampton said she will continue to work to find answers. She said she remains hopeful that Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who replaced Baca and has pledged transparency and accountability in the department, will re-evaluate the case. Hampton said she and Richardson’s parents have asked to meet with him, but so far no such meeting has taken place.

A request by this news organization for an interview with McDonnell to answer questions relating to how his new policies affect the case, his position on the procedures by deputies that night, and if the Sheriff’s Department is improving its response for those with mental illnesses while in custody could not be accommodated, according to the department’s spokeswoman.

But in a response about the status of the case, Cmdr. Rod Kusch, who oversees the Sheriff’s Department’s detective division, said past leads have been exhausted.

“The case is open, and any new leads will be pursued when they are received by the Sheriff’s Department,” Kusch said in an email response. “It is a death investigation at this time, as the coroner’s office has not ruled it a homicide.”

The department also declined to answer questions about the mural or the reassignment of the Malibu/Lost Hills sheriff’s captain who oversaw deputies at the station at the time.

Hampton said while she doesn’t know who killed Richardson, she believes the department remains indirectly culpable and is covering up evidence.

“I think some people were negligent,” she said. “I think some are willfully involved in a cover-up, protecting their own.”

Michael Richardson, Mitrice’s father, noted that the recent deaths of five black women while in police custody across the nation show what can happen if law enforcement isn’t questioned. Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old woman who was pulled over in July by a Texas state trooper for a minor traffic violation, was found hanged in a jail cell and her death ruled a suicide. The Texas trooper was found to have acted inappropriately while he was questioning her and lied about it.

“I want the world to know that if we don’t do something, if we don’t fight for these lives in a diplomatic matter, they’re going to keep growing and keep increasing,” Richardson said. “You have people that are mean, tired and irresponsible and don’t care.”

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NEW SPOTLIGHT ON MITRICE

Mitrice Richardson had graduated with honors with a psychology degree from Cal State Fullerton. She had become an intern for Hampton.

“She really wanted to work with children and had wanted to go to graduate school,” Hampton said.

Michael Richardson said he didn’t raise Mitrice but when she visited him, he didn’t notice any signs of mental illness. Hampton said she did see some subtle signs when Richardson worked for her as an intern but nothing alarming. On the night she was arrested, she may have been having a bipolar episode, the family said in published reports.

Richardson spoke some Spanish and was raised by her mom in the San Gabriel Valley and “was not streetwise,” Hampton added.

Some in the Monte Nido community, near where her remains were found, are still haunted by the young woman’s story.

“There’s an uneasiness about how it was mishandled,” said Doug Dilg, a Monte Nido resident of 25 years. “For me, I think there’s been a lingering bad feeling about this that people haven’t talked about. What happened to her and why haven’t they solved this or attempted to solve this? It’s still an open wound.”

Richardson’s story will be told in a documentary called “Lost Compassion” as part of the 16th International Malibu Film Festival. The film, directed by Chip Croft, will be shown for free on the festival’s opening night, Thursday, at 7 p.m. at the Regal Cinemas Malibu Twin, 3822 Cross Creek Road, Malibu. The subtitle of the film is “Someone Knows.”

“I want justice, whatever that would mean,” Hampton said. “It’s not likely she killed herself. It’s more likely someone killed her. People don’t murder once, not in the way she was murdered.”

IF YOU GO

What: Mitrice Richardson’s story will be told in a documentary called “Lost Compassion” as part of the 16th International Malibu Film Festival.

When: The film will be shown for free on Dec. 3 (2015) at 7 p.m. at the Regal Cinemas Malibu Twin, 3822 Cross Creek Road, Malibu.

More information: email info@malibufilmfestival.org or go to http://www.malibufilmfestival.org

 

On Hollywood Boulevard, unruly characters get cut from scene

 

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I’ve written many stories about the costumed characters that walk Hollywood Boulevard and ask tourists for tips. It’s a fun story, but the characters can get unruly. Here’s my latest on the situation, with photos by David Crane, NBC 4, and N.Y. Daily News:  (Daily News, Sept. 7, 2015): 

Holy conviction rate, Batman!

When The Joker ran wild inside La La Land souvenir shop on Hollywood Boulevard in August, no one thought it was very funny.

Not the tourists he tried to scare from behind a floor display inside the souvenir shop.

Not the manager of the shop, who he assaulted.

And certainly not the police, who arrested Jose Luis Garcia, 28, who was dressed as Batman’s nemesis.

Garcia was convicted recently of one count of intentional interference with a business establishment and sentenced to 10 days in jail. In addition, he has to stay a minimum of 100 yards away from the Hollywood Entertainment District. He also became among a dozen individuals who, dressed as popular movie characters, have been prosecuted by the Los Angeles City Attorney Office since 2013.

All were convicted of committing crimes in the Hollywood Entertainment District, according to a statement from Mike Feuer’s office released Friday.

“When I was running for city attorney I heard from community leaders that the behavior of some of the characters on Hollywood Boulevard was a real public safety issue,” Feuer said. “As this recent conviction illustrates, the problem has not vanished, but our message is clear — characters who break the law will be prosecuted.”

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For years, Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe impersonators have worked alongside superheroes near Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, now TCL Chinese Theatre, to pose with tourists for photographs. But those innocent tributes to Tinseltown had evolved into an aggressive competition for tips and turf as more Chewbacas, Darth Vaders, Jack Sparrows and Freddy Kruegers moved in. The result was more fights and complaints. In 2010, the LAPD conducted a sweep on the boulevard and in a few days netted 13 arrests and citations.

Since then, the LAPD has kept up with the crackdowns with one goal: misrepresenting the spirit of Hollywood will not be tolerated, said Sgt. Ben Fernandes, who supervises a unit that enforces the law in the Hollywood Entertainment District.

“It has definitely calmed down,” Fernandes said. “The characters and street performers know we’re out there and we’re there to protect their freedom to be there.”

But the work is ongoing, Fernandes and others noted.

Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell said he credits Feuer and the LAPD for keeping on top of the issue, one that he believes had been ignored by former City Attorney Carmen Trutanich.

“We are still working on creative solutions so that we can really discourage criminal behavior of some of the characters,” O’Farrell said. “But I think the message is out that the city is watching and that anyone puts on a mask or dresses as a character, unless they behave and act as an ambassador of Hollywood, we won’t tolerate them. Hollywood is a very special place, and we need to do all we can to enhance it and improve it and make sure people have a quality experience.”

Even in the sweltering Labor Day heat Monday, several men dressed as Spider-Man mingled and posed with tourists, who then gave the characters money.

Some of those who portray characters say that the tourists can get aggressive too.

“You can only take so much sometimes before you crack,” said Omar Budhoo, who has worked as a character for 10 years.

On Monday he donned a tight green costume and a giant rubber mask to portray a self-created alien zombie. He growled at tourists and held up a plastic machete.

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Budhoo said women have punched him in the stomach, and little boys have kicked him in the groin. He said he tries to stay nice and doesn’t ask for money. But he does tell those who pose for photos with him that he accepts tips.

“There are characters out here that are bad people,” Budhoo agreed, “but the characters have to remember that they’re doing a service to the people who come to visit Hollywood.”

Actor Elliott Bunch said he has seen all types of people on Hollywood Boulevard. Bunch portrays Samuel L. Jackson’s role of Jules Winnfield from the film “Pulp Fiction” and said he does his best to stay in that character.

Even as temperatures reached the mid-90s in Hollywood, Bunch tried to remain cool “in a wool suit and jheri curl,” he said.

But it wasn’t easy. And it’s not always easy to work alongside characters with only one motivation, he added.

“The characters are part of the fiber of Hollywood,” he said. “But let’s face it, some are here simply for the money.”

Just a few steps away was an actor who would only give his name as Tim. He portrayed the Zach Galifianakis character of Alan Garner from “The Hangover” movies, complete with the sunglass-wearing baby in a snugli. Tim said the situation on the boulevard between characters and tourists is better, but he agreed tourists do get aggressive. One woman tried to yank off the sunglasses of the baby he carried. Another tourist from Australia tried to pull off the baby’s head.

“There are people who just act like thugs,” he said. “One of the Starline tour buses got robbed recently by a Spider-Man. With 18 or 19 Spider-Mans running around here, the police couldn’t tell who it was.”

Funding for those with developmental disabilities in California stagnates, causes closures

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“Emily Criss, 29-years-old, who is developmentally disabled, with her mother Elizabeth at Therapeutic Living Centers for the Blind in Reseda, CA, Wednesday, July 8, 2015. Criss is one of 290,000 developmentally disabled in California who relies on state services to help care for her. She lives at home with her mom, who takes her to Therapeutic Living Centers for the Blind. But state funding for people such as Emily have been stagnant for more than 10 years, and agencies such as TLC and others across the state are struggling. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht/Los Angeles Daily News)”

Funding for people with developmental disabilities has stagnated in California for almost 10 years. The result has been a loss of services and group homes which help people gain independent lives. For aging parents of adults with disabilities, the issue is of most concern.  Here’s one story I wrote among a series of stories (Daily News, Sept. 5, 2015):

In Rowland Heights, 77-year-old Sally Milano prepares her last wishes to make sure her son Philip will be cared for, from his health down to clean shirts hanging in his closet and his shoes checked for holes.

In Palos Verdes Estates, 74-year-old Barbara Aranguren and friends organize an annual wine fundraiser so the community care home where her daughter Tina lives can continue to operate.

And in North Hills, 68-year-old Eva Domnicz visits her son Roberto each morning before she heads to work, to see him smile, to make sure he’s happy in the residence he shares with five other people.

Milano, Aranguren and Domnicz are all mothers of adult children withdevelopmental disabilities. The trio are among thousands of California parents who raise money and awareness to help keep group homes and other living options for their adult sons and daughters operating at high standards.

But their fears are growing for their children’s continued quality of care. Since the 2007 recession, providers estimate $1 billion in state money for services to the developmentally disabled has been cut, including funding for programs that provide job training and skills to 270,000 Californians. Since then, state funding has stagnated while the cost of living in California soared.

And state lawmakers have stalled on acting on a proposal for funding increases. A special session that began in June has yet to include any formal presentations on more funding for the developmentally disabled. The special session ends Friday but can run longer if regular session bills need more discussion.

FRAGILE PROGRAMS

In the meantime, programs for those with developmental disabilities remain fragile, especially residential services, said Eileen Richey, executive director for the Association of Regional Center Agencies.

“What’s so sad about it is the most important question parents have is, ‘What is going to happen to my child when I’m gone? Where are they going to live?” Richey said. “Right now, our system is so unstable.”

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“Destry Walker works in the workshop at New Horizons. North HIlls, CA 6/4/2015 (Photo by John McCoy Daily News)”

Her organization released a report earlier this year called “On the Brink of Collapse.” The report’s authors found that the Golden State spends the least in the nation on people with developmental disabilities but has some of the highest caseload ratios in the country. One survey found that 435 beds have been lost due to program closures and 1,300 day programs and work options are gone.

Of the nearly 270,000 Californians with special needs, almost half are 18 and older. Of those adults, 30 percent live outside their parents’ homes, according to data from the state’s Department of Developmental Services. Living options include group homes, Section 8 housing or community care licensed residences

In June, legislators agreed to include a 5 percent rate increase in the budget effective immediately that would have funded Supported Living Services, In-Home Respite Services and Supported Employment Services for the developmentally disabled.

In addition, there would have been a 2.5 percent across-the-board rate increase for all provider categories beginning in January, among other adjustments. But when California’s budget was approved, no added funds for special needs were included. Instead Gov. Jerry Brown called for a special session to discuss options. No proposals have been filed, only place holders.

CALLING ON THE GOVERNOR

The inaction is surprising, Richey and others said, especially in a year when Los Angeles hosted the Special Olympics.

“We all were hopeful that the person we would really get this message to is this governor,” Richey said. “We were hopeful that having the Special Olympics here in California would get that message to him. It’s unclear if that has occurred.”

Under California’s Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Services Act, passed in 1977, people with intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy and epilepsy and their families have a right to receive the services and support they need to live like those without disabilities.

California formed 21 nonprofit regional centers that coordinate services for people with developmental disabilities. Those regional centers distribute pay to the agencies.

• Video: Protesters press for funding for disability programs

Those with developmental disabilities, their parents and advocates came together statewide this year and launched protests, visits to Sacramento and a letter-writing campaign to raise awareness. Aside from support from lawmakers, little else has happened.

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“He’s hard-nosed when it comes to disabilities,” Milano of Rowland Heights said of the governor.

“We have a responsibility for our children,’ she said. “We want to give better to our children then we had growing up.”

Milano is past board president of the San Gabriel Pomona Regional Center. She said she became active in the regional center because her son Philip had trouble socializing with others. He was born at a time when the word autism wasn’t used.

“I took him to Children’s Hospital in 1968 and the psychologist who worked with him said, ‘He will never be a mental genius,’” Milano said. “All of us (parents of children with special needs) have a big heartache because in a way, our children have not grown up.“

PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE

Philip Milano, now 49, lives in independent housing in Temple City. Since he was a teen, he has worked and sought out his own employment, his mother said. He worked in food service at the University of California in Santa Barbara, at restaurant chains, in hotels and most recently in Vons for 10 years before it shut down and became a Haggen grocery store. That’s when he was laid off by the company. But as he ages he has had some health problems.

When her husband became ill several years ago, Milano said she sat down, wrote a letter of intent and drew up a master trust so that Philip would be cared for after she passes.

“I’d like people who look after him to look at the bottom of his shoes, to look in his drawers to see he has enough underwear, like I do,” she said. “I want them to look to see if he has shirts in the closet with buttons on them.”

Milano said she knows care at group homes has come a long way since she once visited one decades ago. That’s when she noticed men with ropes tied around their waists instead of belts.

“I saw that and cried,” she said. “I would say, ‘That can’t happen to my son.’”

GROUP HOMES

Many groups homes for the developmentally disabled began with families who wanted their children to live in a home setting rather than state hospitals. One of those is Peppermint Ridge, a nonprofit founded in 1959 that operates homes for 94 adults with developmental disabilities.

The Corona campus has five homes, an administrative building and a swimming pool. The nonprofit also operates six individual homes nearby and offers activities on weekends and evenings.

Yet despite its longevity, it too is in a fragile financial state, said Aranguren of Palos Verdes Estates. She and her husband discovered Peppermint Ranch about 25 years ago and liked what the homes offered. Their daughter Tina, now 46, has lived there ever since.

“We are doing everything we can do to help it survive,” Aranguren said. A few years ago she and her friends formed South Bay Friends of Peppermint Ridge. The group has planned a wine-tasting fundraiser for Sept. 20 from 3 to 5 p.m. at the WineShoppe in Torrance.

“State reimbursements fall really short, and they need thousands of dollars to bridge that gap,” Aranguren said.

STAFFING SHORTFALL

At other group homes, keeping staff remains an issue as regional centers can only afford to pay the minimum wage.

That’s the case at a group home operated by New Horizons, the San Fernando Valley’s oldest agency of its kind.

Domnicz said she’s very happy with the care her 41-year-old son Roberto receives. But she’s noticed the staff turnover.

“This is the kind of job you don’t do for money,” she said. “You do it for love. It demands a lot of attention. It’s not easy.”

She said she decided to move Roberto into the New Horizons group home when her husband became ill. Eight years later, Roberto, who was born with brain damage, speaks more than he ever has before, Domnicz said.

“For me it’s a peace of mind to have my son in a place like that,” she said. “I recommend it for any parent who has doubts. It’s not easy to let your son go.”

She said she’s very involved with the group home, visits Roberto regularly and tries to tell parents that they need to plan for the future for their special needs children.

“If I die tomorrow, I know that Roberto is in a good place,” she said. “That is priceless.”

How America responded to a refugee crisis 100 years ago

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The images of the refugees on boats or at border fences fleeing danger for safety is a sad commentary on how the world watched ISIS take over and did nothing.  I believe if more outrage and humanitarian aid had been available earlier, ISIS would have seen that the Western world  cared about the innocent.  A century ago,  the response to genocide was different.  In April, the Los Angeles Public Library carried an exhibit on how Americans responded to the Armenian Genocide.  Americans were able to raise $117 million, or what would amount to $2 billion a day.  Here’s my story (April 18, 2015): 

The children were almost lost to the desert.

They had left their villages under death threats. They saw their fathers killed by swords, watched mothers, grandmothers and aunties die of starvation on the death marches to Syria.

But from thousands of miles away, Americans found them.

Through telegrams, news articles and film reels, the story of how children became orphans of the Armenian Genocide reached America’s shores in 1915. An organization called Near East Relief was founded and a national movement rose. Silent movie stars such as Irene Rich and Jackie Coogan held sandwich boards asking for donations and cans of milk. Churches and community groups raised money and sent clothing while President Calvin Coolidge called for Golden Rule Sunday, when Americans ate modest meals to remember “the starving Armenians.”

“Back then, there was a groundswell of a response,” said Ani Boyadjian, research and special collections manager at the Los Angeles Public Library. “They were hearing that people were being slaughtered.”

The American reaction to the needs of the orphans and those who survived the Armenian Genocide is the theme of a traveling exhibit now on display at the Los Angeles’ Central Library. Called “They Will Not Perish: The Story of Near East Relief,” the exhibit includes 26 panels that show photographs of orphans as well as posters used at the time to raise funds. But at its heart, the whole exhibit is meant to show America’s generosity in the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide, Boyadjian said.

The display is there to say “America, we thank you,” she added.

“Many of us are direct descendents of those orphans and survivors helped by Near East Relief,” Boyadjian said. “Their response is an untold story of American philanthropy.”

Now called Near East Foundation, the nonsectarian, New York-based non-profit organization is also celebrating its centennial this year. It was founded after U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau sent telegrams about what was happening in the Ottoman Empire.

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“At that time communication had been revolutionized by the telegram,” said Molly Sullivan, director and curator of the Near East Relief Historical Society. “It was the first time that communication could move faster than the fastest runner, fastest ship and fastest horse. It meant that the perpetrators of the genocide used the same technology.”

With the help of President Woodrow Wilson, the small-scale relief operation went on to raise more than $117 million — today’s equivalent of about $2 billion — to aid Armenians in the aftermath of the genocide. That money helped save 132,000 orphans, according to the Near East Foundation.

Any orphan of any religion was welcomed, Sullivan said. And the organization still works today to help displaced people in the Middle East and Africa. With the ranks of the Islamic State swelling, thousands of Assyrians, Syriacs, Chaldeans and Armenians whose families fled to Syria and Iraq for safety during the genocide are now being displaced and killed. Sullivan said the American response is different now, again, because of technology.

“Technology has made incredible changes in the last 100 years,” she said. “We have so much information about the news that it’s possible that people have become overwhelmed and they don’t know how to help. With certain aspects of the news, they’re very concerned but they are also fatigued.”

On Friday, Armenians worldwide will observe the 100th anniversary of the start of the genocide. They will gather at memorials to remember the 1.5 million Armenians who were killed by the Ottoman Turks as part of what scholars and historians say was a systematic cleansing of their identity. And they will march in cities to protest the ongoing denial by the Turkish government, which has said the deaths and deportations of Armenians, Assyrians and Pontic Greeks were part of wars and unrest in the then-collapsing Ottoman Empire.

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Many countries and states have recognized the events of 1914 to 1923 as genocide. Last Sunday, Pope Francis even defined the slaughter of Armenians as the first genocide of the 20th century. But Armenians remain disappointed over President Obama’s silence. While a resolution was introduced by 40 congressional members including U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, to call on the president to pressure Turkey to fully acknowledge the genocide, the United States has so far resisted.

The pope said subsequent atrocities such as the Holocaust, the Pol Pot massacres and those in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur could have been avoided if the Ottoman Turks had been held accountable.

Jen Portillo and Marleni Segovia, local visitors to the exhibit, looked over the photographs of orphans and said they thought they were images of Holocaust victims of World War II.

“I knew nothing about the Armenian Genocide,” Portillo said. “We had the same wars, the same killings in El Salvador. It’s like so many cultures have gone through so much.”

“It shows we’re all human, that we all go through struggles,” Segovia added.

Boyadjian said many non-Armenians have been able to relate to the photographs of the children.

“Los Angeles is a city of refugees,” she said.

The exhibit, made possible by the American National Committee of America, is a personal one for Boyadjian. Her paternal grandparents were two of the orphans who were saved by the work of Near East Relief. Her grandmother’s entire family except a sister were killed. Her grandfather lost all of his family members. The two orphans were brought to Lebanon where they ended up in the same orphanage, and they married as soon as they came of age, she said.

“I can still feel their story on my skin,” she said.

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Boyadjian said she will be one of those attending a March for Justice event on Friday that begins in Little Armenia, in east Hollywood. More than 200,000 people of Armenian descent call Los Angeles County home. It is the largest Armenian diaspora outside of the Republic of Armenia.

Boyadjian said she knows people will be upset that streets will be closed, and others will say the genocide happened 100 years ago, that it’s time to move on. But she said she will march to say thank you.

“If it wasn’t for America’s response, my grandparents would not have survived,” she said. “I would not have been born.”

Robin Williams remembered on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame

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I’ve been on Hollywood Boulevard after flowers were placed on the stars of celebrities who have died, but the flower ceremony that stayed with me the most was for Robin Williams. I covered the ceremony in 2014, a day after he took his own life. It was heartbreaking because Williams was young, funny, and giving.  Today, Aug. 11, 2015 marks the one year anniversary of his death. Here’ my story, (Daily News, Aug. 12, 2014):

HOLLYWOOD >> As a wreath of white and yellow flowers was carried down Hollywood Boulevard on Tuesday morning, an uncharacteristic silence came over the usually vibrant Walk of Fame.

The placement of calla lilies and roses over Robin Williams’ pink terrazzo star was a quiet gesture, one in contrast with the entertainer they were intended for, whose range of characters he created seemed to burst from screens big and small, bringing laughter and smiles. But in the end, news of his suicide brought sadness and tears to those very same fans.

“He could take audiences to different levels,” said Erlinda Fantauzzi, an Arleta resident who came to Hollywood Boulevard to pay her respects to Williams. The 67-year-old woman said she cried when she heard the news that Williams had taken his own life.

“I feel sad that he made so many people happy but in the end, he died sad and alone,” she added.

"Fans have left flowers and memorabilia at Robin Williams' star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Tuesday, August 12, 2014. (Photo by Michael Owen Baker/Los Angeles Daily News)"

“Fans have left flowers and memorabilia at Robin Williams’ star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Tuesday, August 12, 2014. (Photo by Michael Owen Baker/Los Angeles Daily News)”

Based on a preliminary report by the Marin County’s coroner’s office, Williams died alone in a room of his Tiburon home. The cause of death was asphyxia by hanging, Lt. Keith Boyd with the Marin County Sheriff’s Office said during a news conference. Boyd said that Williams, 63, had several cuts on his left wrist and that one end of a belt had been fastened around his neck, while the other end had been secured between the closed closet door and door frame. No foul play was suspected. Williams was found by his personal assistant, in a seated position. Boyd would not say if Williams had left a note for his family.

What was known was that Williams recently had sought help for depression. He had battled cocaine addiction and alcohol before, but it seemed overwhelming sadness still filled him.

“Humor and laughter is a defense mechanism,” said Ildiko Tabori, a licensed psychologist in residence at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles. Depression among comedians is common, she said, especially since many travel frequently and feel lonely on the road.

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“I didn’t know Williams at all,” Tabori said. “But there had to have been some sort of demons inside of him that had gone on for many, many years that were not processed through, and not resolved.”

Tabori said everyone experiences a range of emotions every day, including sadness and depression, but if people don’t receive help or support, those feelings can fester and become detrimental.

While Williams had the wealth to find exclusive support, money doesn’t always help, Tabori said.

“It’s about the desire,” she said. “Sometimes you can’t see past that dark moment.”

She said society still needs to remove the stigma of mental illness so that people are not afraid to say, “I am having a really bad time in my life.” In addition, people need to learn to recognize signs in others: a change in mood, or too much eating or not eating, change in appearance, and isolation.

“We need to reach out,” she said.

Back at the Walk of Fame, media from around the world and tourists crowded around Williams’ star near TCL Chinese Theatre, where Leron Gubler, president of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, quietly placed the wreath. The star in the sidewalk already had been covered with daisies, votive candles, notes and drawings.

A card that hung from the wreath read: “You made us laugh, now we cry.”

Many fans had the same sentiment.

“I got very teary eyed when I walked up to his star,” said Mary-Beth Hempfling of Florida, who was visiting Los Angeles with her husband, Ray. He liked Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” while she preferred the actor in “Patch Adams,” she said.

“I think it was his gift of laughter. It was a God-given gift,” Hempfling said of why so many people were drawn to Williams. “I think his purpose on this planet was to show his heart.”

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Puey Quinones, 31, said Williams is a big star in his native Philippines.

“It’s like losing a family member,” Quinones said. “I love his movies. It’s a big loss for us.”

Mike Ravizza, 47, said he met Williams once, when the actor was leaving the set of the Jimmy Kimmel show, almost across the street from where the wreath was placed.

“I said, Hey, Robin, I’m a fan!’ and he turned to me and said ‘You are? You need Botox!’” Ravizza said. “It made me laugh. I’ll never forget that.”

For the ‘Wizard’ and others, supportive homes are their castles

“Michael Angel, “The Wizard” in his apartment at the Trudy and Norman Louis Apartments in Sunland. Wizard was homeless for more than 20 years before moving into the complex which was built by LA Family Housing for chronically homeless adults. ( Photo by David Crane/Los Angeles Daily News ) “

With more than 40,000 homeless people living on the streets of Los Angeles, the need for permanent, supportive housing is growing, especially for those with mental illness. But the issue is tricky because some neighborhoods don’t want those housing units around.  They say those who are still addicted to drugs may resort to crimes.  Other supportive residences are placed in rough areas where there are high crime rates and temptation is always around.  I met a few people who who were placed in supportive homes in the San Fernando Valley, who said they are grateful and were trying to stay away from trouble, but some neighbors still had doubts. From my story (Daily News, November 2014): 

The man who calls himself The Wizard says he feels as if a magical force pulled him up from years of living down and out on the streets of the San Fernando Valley.

How else, he said one recent day, can he explain how he went from sleeping on a sidewalk in Pacoima  to stretching out on a brand new bed in his own studio apartment.

“I’m The Wizard because no one can defeat me,” the 55-year-old man proclaimed, stabbing the air with a stick to simulate a sword fight. “But I don’t want to fight no more. I’m not young no more.”

The Wizard said he earned his name, like his long gray beard, through the street smarts and wisdom he gathered while living on the edges of the Angeles National Forest or on the sidewalks of Pacoima. But he also uses that name because he has no traceable identification: no social security card, no driver’s license. Volunteers and those with L.A. Family Housing saw The Wizard, homeless for years and aging, as the kind of person who would benefit from living at a newly built permanent supportive housing complex in Tujunga.

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Michael Angel, “The Wizard” in the outdoor patio at the Trudy and Norman Louis Apartments in Sunland. Wizard was homeless for more than 20 years before moving into the complex which was built by LA Family Housing for chronically homeless adults. ( Photo by David Crane/Los Angeles Daily News )

Called the Trudy & Norman Louis Apartments, the 45-unit building is one of two opened by L.A. Family Housing in the San Fernando Valley that provides housing to the chronically homeless and the most vulnerable among them. They are the men and women who are most likely to die on the streets. The tenants, mostly single, receive on-site supportive services to help with mental issues, alcohol and drug addiction or chronic illnesses. In return, they pay 30 percent of their monthly government checks and adhere to rules typical of any other housing complex.

Although tenants moved in over the summer, a formal grand opening will be held Monday at 11:30 a.m. at 7639 Day St.

“We made a concerted outreach effort in the community before we did anything,” said Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, president and CEO of L.A. Family Housing, based in North Hollywood. Klasky-Gamer said staff from the agency first came to Sunland-Tujunga to let the homeless know that various services were available to them. While in the community, she said she discovered that the area had its own kind of homelessness, especially in the Tujunga Wash.

‘RURAL HOMELESSNESS’

For decades, men and women and even families have lived along the Tujunga Wash, a rural area at the edge of the Angeles National Forest. Some who live there are part of a cycle of homelessness that has drawn complaints about lawlessness. Others are couples or locals with pets who have no other housing options.

“What I saw here was different than anywhere else,” Klasky-Gamer said. “I call it rural homelessness.”

The two-story garden-style complex on Day Street includes a computer lab and courtyard with planter boxes and a dog run. All units are fully furnished.

“The Trudy and Norman Louis Apartments in Sunland. The complex was built by LA Family Housing for chronically homeless adults. ( Photo by David Crane/Los Angeles Daily News ) “

A similar complex was opened years before in Sun Valley. But before the Tujunga project moved forward, Klasky-Gamer said the community had to be comfortable with it.

“This has been an extraordinary community,” she said. “When they invited us to do outreach in the Wash, they felt very protective of the homeless. They said these are our homeless.”

Cindy Cleghorn, a board member of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council and president of the local chamber of commerce, agreed that L.A. Family Housing was careful when developing the project in a residential neighborhood.

“We had obstacles with some people, because they misunderstood and thought it was a shelter,” Cleghorn said. “But we’re a good-hearted community.”

Cleghorn said most of the issues were addressed by Klasky-Gamer, although the neighborhood council had hoped more people from the area would be residents at the Day Street apartments.

About half of the units are subsidized through a Los Angeles County Department of Health Services program called Housing for Health. It focuses on the homeless who are more likely to be frequent users of emergency services at local hospitals, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars each year. To alleviate that spending, the county diverted some of that funding toward housing.

“We’re really trying to make a dent in this population that comes in and out of the emergency room, and do something that is very effective which is supportive housing, to help them become healthier citizens of Los Angeles,” said Marc Trotz, director for Housing for Health.

The program is still new. So far, 700 such units have been subsidized through the county program. The goal is to have 10,000. Funding comes from various sources, including the Department of Health Services and the Hilton Foundation, which donated $4 million, Trotz said.

“It’s impossible to recover when you’re homeless. It’s heartbreaking,” Trotz said. “People who have been written off as near death spring back to life when they have a home.”

DYING ALONG THE BANKS

That’s how Patrick Piercey came to live on Day Street. Volunteers with L.A. Family Housing found him as he lay dying along the parched banks of the Tujunga Wash, with his 4-year-old pit bull terrier named Blue nearby.

Even in the heat of summer and drought, pneumonia had moved into Piercey’s lungs, and he could no longer walk to the 7-Eleven for food or maintain his tent where he had lived. Bone thin and tired, Piercey thought he was living his last days. He was taken to the emergency department of Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar, but he had nowhere to recover.

“This place is great,” Piercey, 58, said in a quiet voice. “I still have a hard time believing I’m here. When I moved in, they had a lot of people, and they gave me a basket with things I needed. It gets me choked up thinking about it.”

Blue is happy too, he said.

“He loves the air conditioning,” Piercey said.

“Lucille Hawkins-Walker loves the patio in her apartment at the Trudy and Norman Louis Apartments in Sunland. Hawkins-Walker lived on the street before moving into the complex which was built by LA Family Housing for chronically homeless adults. ( Photo by David Crane/Los Angeles Daily News ) “

Lucille Hawkins-Walker, 60, was living on a bus bench in the San Fernando Valley where servers from the local Denny’s brought her coffee every morning. She and her brother lost their home in Apple Valley two years ago, she said, and her family couldn’t care for her. She’s lived at the new complex for three months, but each time she walks through the door, she feels like she’s seeing it again for the first time.

“Did you see how big that bathroom is?” she asked visitors one recent day. “You could have a party in there.”

Klasky-Gamer said there is a waiting list of people who live in temporary housing who hope to move into Day Street, and a similar project is underway in North Hollywood.

As for The Wizard, whose name on his key card reads Michael Angel Ambriz, which he calls himself, he likes that he has his own place, where he can come home, read his world history books in peace, wake up early, take his bike and go out to the streets to collect recyclables for money.

“I think what they did is a real humanitarian deed,” he said of those who built the apartment complex. “This building may not look like a castle. But this room, this is my castle.”