As San Mateo County battles a slew of lawsuits alleging it was negligent in how it handled sexual abuse and molestation complaints by boys and young men against a former probation officer for more than two decades, community members have called on the board of supervisors to form an independent body to investigate the claims.
The independent investigative body could thoroughly review the sexual abuse allegations against San Mateo County and the former probation officer, John Domeniconi, who is named in the recently filed complaints, according to public commenters who spoke at the Feb. 28 board of supervisors meeting.
It could also investigate whether county officials, including those in the probation department, were aware of the abuse and ignored the allegations, some said.
Beth Von Emster, a long-time resident of Belmont and a member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, was just one person who expressed concern over the welfare of vulnerable children in the county. She suggested that the board of supervisors initiate a “comprehensive re-imagining of youth justice” to prevent future harm to children in county custody.
“These allegations involving numerous victims and multiple perpetrators and enablers in different professional capacities suggest a systemic corrosion of huge proportions,” Emster said, adding that she was giving the statement solely in her personal capacity. “Children in youth detention could not be more at risk of such predation than when they are incarcerated, alone and separated from family members.
“The County's moral obligation to protect them from harm could not be higher,” she added.
According to the 10 lawsuits filed by John Does against the county, some of which date back to the 1990s, plaintiffs allege they made the County aware “by and through communications, complaints, and/or reports of the abuse and threats” by Domeniconi, but the County failed to take action. An additional lawsuit, filed by a Jane Doe around the same time, was amended and removed the county as a defendant but still accuses Domeniconi of sexual abuse and also implicates the county of negligence.
Domeniconi, who retired in 2016, has been accused of repeatedly sexually abusing boys and young men while working in the San Mateo County Probation Department. He died in 2020.
An investigation into the allegations must be transparent and conducted by an independent party to hold accountable those who may have known of the abuse and to prevent any possible future abuse, according to Redwood City resident Clara Jaeckel, whose comment was read to board supervisors by county staff at the Feb. 28 meeting.
“And the probation system must be improved without delay against any such misuse of authority occurring in the future and to ensure that any complaints are taken seriously and acted on,” Jaeckel said.
Creating an independent investigative body to review the allegations against the County is premature, said San Mateo County Board of Supervisor Warren Slocum, adding that there are ongoing internal investigations led by a team of county attorneys. Slocum said that should the team uncover any “material that might be of interest,” the situation would certainly change.
“People ought to be held accountable if they’ve done something — county employee or not,” Slocum said. “But I do trust the judgment of the attorneys working, and I feel confident that if something came up, they would bring it forward.”
In an emailed statement on Friday, Supervisor Noelia Corzo said she was unable to comment on the legal case or investigation but that she was “profoundly disturbed by allegations of sexual abuse of youth while in the County’s care.”
“I want San Mateo County residents to know I take this matter seriously, Corzo said. “I am listening, and I’m committed to making sure the County protects and supports our most vulnerable in every way.”
Surveilling the juvenile probation department is the responsibility of the San Mateo County Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Commission (JJDPC), a civilian advocacy group formed by the board of supervisors, which is granted power by the welfare and institutions code of the California Constitution. The law requires each county to establish a juvenile justice commission, and one of the key functions of the commission is to inspect juvenile halls and camps, which are in the purview of the probation department, and to issue recommendations to the board based on those inspections.
In a 2022 inspection report, for instance, the commission made recommendations for Camp Kemp to replace its meals service, bring back essential programming and ensure that the youth could sleep in the dorms at Kemp, among other suggestions for improvement. The report also included less urgent changes that would improve the overall cleanliness and security of the facility, as well as suggestions for updating language to be more inclusive.
The commission also recommended a minimum level of funding for Camp Kemp be established, regardless of its population, to pay for services previously cut, such as Star Vista drug and alcohol counseling and Rape Trauma Services. The funding would also address issues affecting staffing, the commission said in its 2022 report.
Johanna Rasmussen, a JJDPC commissioner, called on the board on Feb. 28 to take action on the lawsuits filed against the County.
“We're asking each of you to protect that access so we can continue to go in there,” Rasmussen said. “The community is looking to us. They're asking, ‘Who do we call? Is there a hotline? What's going to be done?’ And so we're looking to you, who appointed me to say, ‘I need your help, join me here.’ We need to get to the bottom of this, and this is a situation that requires urgent action.”
Monroe Labouisse, JJDPC chair, said in an interview with the Pulse that he’d welcome the board of supervisors to initiate an investigation into the allegations.
“If the board of supervisors also wanted to inquire into what are the policies, practices and procedures of probation to prevent this sort of thing from happening, then we would welcome that,” Labouisse said.
Domeniconi is accused of sexually abusing at least 10 victims, either in custody or on probation, through acts such as forced oral sex, touching their genitals and anuses, and making explicit sexual comments. Plaintiffs also claim that, in some cases, Domeniconi watched minors shower without a legitimate reason and threatened them with increased sentences or tougher confinement if they did not comply with his demands.
Although there have been no indications of such incidents in recent inspections, the allegations against the former probation officer have led to increased attention on the matter.
The commission recently formed a committee to review and understand how policies and procedures are preventing such incidents of abuse from happening, he said.
Currently, there are no specific sections of the inspection reports that address sexual abuse, which is a matter of concern, Labouisse said.
“There should be. I am certain there will be going forward,” he said. “We haven't, as a commission, made that change, but I'm certain that that's going to be the case.”
The JJDPC committee met for the first time in a closed session on March 1, the day after the board of supervisors meeting.
Officials at the county probation department did not respond to a request for comment.
When asked to comment on the possible creation of an independent investigative body, Supervisors David Canepa, Ray Mueller and Dave Pine did not respond.
The board of supervisors will be discussing the lawsuits in a closed session on Tuesday, March 14.