A now deceased probation officer who worked with young men and boys is at the center of 10 civil lawsuits recently filed against San Mateo County that allege the county was aware of sexual abuse within the probation department but did nothing to investigate or stop it from continuing.
Plaintiffs allege that John Domeniconi, who retired in 2016, used his position of authority as a San Mateo County probation officer to sexually abuse at least 10 victims through acts such as forced oral sex, touching their genitals and anuses, and making explicit sexual comments.
They 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.
According to the lawsuits, the plaintiffs, who were teen boys or young men were allegedly victimized in the 1990s through 2020, have suffered from severe emotional distress, physical pain, emotional anguish, fear, anxiety, humiliation and embarrassment, as well as other physical and emotional injuries as a direct and proximate result of Domeniconi's conduct.
Joseph Goethals, an attorney representing the accusers, said that despite complaints and reports, no investigation was ever conducted by the county, probation department, or anyone in law enforcement.
“This was extremely traumatic for them,” Goethals said. “And, some of them did complain and speak up. So there's documentation, but there was no investigation.”
Goethals said he believes that had an investigation been conducted and witnesses interviewed, it could have prevented other victims from being molested.
Despite raising their concerns, Goethals said, the conduct continued, and the victims were not provided with any advocates or attorneys to protect them. Instead, they learned that making complaints would not prevent the abuse or harassment from happening to them.
In a statement, San Mateo County said that it is investigating the claims but denied that it was aware of any alleged sexual abuse or suggestion that it failed to take action on complaints filed against Domeniconi.
The County also noted that one incident is alleged to have occurred between 2018 and 2020, but Domeniconi was employed until 2016. Domeniconi died in 2020, according to the County.
Juvenile detainees have numerous ways to report complaints, according to San Mateo County. Criminal complaints are referred to law enforcement for investigation, while allegations of non-criminal misconduct are investigated by internal affairs, the County said.
According to San Mateo County Assistant District Attorney Shin-Mee Chang, all victims of sexual assault in San Mateo County have access to a full multi-disciplinary sexual assault protocol, regardless of their custodial status.
This protocol includes access to a sexual assault counselor, a medical legal examination, a forensic interview and other ancillary services, Chang said, adding that victims can go to the Keller Center with their attorney, where the services are performed.
“The protocol is triggered whenever a suspected sex assault victim is identified,” she said. “In other words, the victim need not make a formal report to law enforcement.
"Nor is the onus on the victim to gather any evidence,” she added.
Chang said that sexual assault crimes are prosecuted in the county where they occurred, with very few exceptions, and that she has attended several forensic interviews involving children detained at Hillcrest.
But the plaintiffs' allegations suggest systemic failures within the probation department and the county, which allowed the abuse to continue for nearly 30 years.
Additional defendants possible
Goethals said he believes that the litigation process may uncover additional defendants who are employees of the county and were allegedly aware of the complaints against Domeniconi, but who did not conduct investigations or take any action against him. These individuals may include those who supervised Domeniconi and allowed his behavior to continue, Goethals said.
The San Mateo County Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Commission, a volunteer-led, county-sanctioned advocacy group committed to preventing youth from entering the juvenile justice system, released a statement regarding the civil complaints filed against the county and said it had formed a committee to review policies, practices and procedures at each juvenile detention facility.
According to the statement, the commission said it was unaware of these allegations before the cases were made public and was not informed by the probation department during their monthly meetings or annual inspections. The commission has a memorandum of understanding with the probation department that if incidents such as those in the lawsuits occur, the probation department must notify the commission, according to Johanna Rasmussen, a commissioner.
As for damages, according to Goethals, the plaintiffs are focused on preventing similar abuse from happening in the future.
"None of them are seeking fame or more notoriety," said Goethals. "What they each have expressed to me is that they would like to make sure that this doesn't happen to anyone else."
The plaintiffs' main concern is for the probation department to improve its efforts in protecting children, he said.
"Each of them has expressed to me that they would like the probation department to do a better job of protecting children so that this never happens again," said Goethals.
The lawsuits mark another chapter in the county’s long history of sexual misconduct and abuse scandals involving children in juvenile detention.
In 2013, former Chief Probation Officer Stuart Forrest was convicted of possessing child pornography and sentenced to 10 months in jail.
Dr. William Hamilton Ayres, who died in 2016 while in prison, was perhaps San Mateo County’s most prolific serial sexual offender who preyed on young juvenile detainees. A former president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Ayres was convicted for inappropriately touching numerous children while working with the county.
Ayres was retained by San Mateo County to evaluate hundreds of cases, including sex offenders, in San Mateo County juvenile court going back to the 1970s. He used his position of power to molest young boys during private counseling sessions.