A consultant recommended Tuesday that the city of Santa Monica standardize training, policies and procedures to prevent and detect youth sexual abuse across all city programs.
The city hired Praesidium, a company that specializes in preventing institutional abuse, shortly after the October 2018 arrest of Eric Uller on charges that he abused at least 14 boys in the late 1980s to early 1990s while volunteering at the Santa Monica Police Activities League (PAL), a youth program operated by the city. At the time of his arrest, Uller was an employee in the city’s Information Services Department.
Uller’s alleged victims said he groomed them by taking them out for meals and driving them home before taking them to his father’s medical offices and molesting them under the pretense of performing physicals. Uller died by suicide in his apartment last November shortly before he was scheduled to appear in court on multiple child molestation charges.
The city tasked Praesidium with reviewing the policies and procedures of the city’s youth programs and developing recommendations to prevent future abuse. The city also retained Irma Rodriguez Moises and Gabriel Sandoval of the law firm of Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo to conduct an independent investigation of allegations that the city previously knew, or should have known, of Uller’s alleged criminal conduct.
Since the allegations against Uller came to light, 17 alleged victims have initiated litigation against the city on the grounds that it failed to supervise Uller’s interactions with them and ignored children in PAL who told staff about Uller’s criminal conduct. At least one of the lawsuits claims that a PAL employee, Fernando Ortega, also abused one or more children in the early 1990s.
“As much as we might wish to, we cannot change any events from 20 years ago,” said City Attorney Lane Dilg. “But we can take the opportunity to be the best we can be – now and in the future. And we are committed to doing so.”
Since January, Praesidium has visited 38 city programs and departments and interviewed 105 employees, reviewed citywide and program-specific abuse prevention policies and practices, and analyzed hiring, training and reporting procedures.
In a presentation to the City Council on Tuesday, Praesidium president and CEO Aaron Lundberg said the city’s strengths include screening potential hires, requiring that employees report abuse if they witness or learn of it and implementing policies and procedures to prevent abuse in many city programs. He added that the city employees Praesidium interviewed are committed to protecting youth.
But those policies and procedures to prevent abuse varied from program to program, Lundberg said.
“Sometimes we found very strong program-specific policies and procedures, but they weren’t standardized across like programs,” he said.
Lundberg said staff were also sometimes uncertain about appropriate youth to staff ratios and did not know how to anonymously report abuse.
He recommended that the city create a Youth Protection Committee to standardize training, policies and procedures across all city programs and departments. The city’s volunteer coordinator would ensure that volunteers receive the same training.
Lundberg said the new protocol should require staff to report red flag behaviors that don’t rise to the level of abuse and youth-to-youth abuse in addition to adult-to-youth abuse.
“There is no greater priority than the safety of our youth,” said Katie Lichtig, assistant city manager and chief operating officer. “We will expeditiously implement these recommendations to ensure every program and every staff member has clarity and confidence in their role to prevent and detect child abuse of any kind.”
The City Council will vote to officially change policies and procedures in the coming months.