By Natalie Johnson / email@example.com
A number of allegations against state agencies and Centralia’s now-closed Kiwanis Vocational Home are being spoken aloud and taken seriously for the first time with the filing of four lawsuits by former residents since 2015.
But they aren’t the first reports of child abuse, sexual misconduct and other crimes at the group foster home.
“Amongst us, we always said, ‘Somebody will listen and somebody will understand,’” said former resident Bob Wallace. “It took 30 years.”
The Chronicle has discovered about 40 instances in which KVH or the state Department of Social and Health Services staff investigated or received official reports of abuse and criminal activities that were never forwarded to the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office.
In a number of cases, DSHS incident report forms indicate the case was referred to the Sheriff’s Office. However, no case number was ever generated, nor does the Sheriff’s Office have any record of receiving the reports.
In other examples, DSHS conducted in-depth investigations into allegations of physical and sexual abuse without referring those reports to law enforcement — even when they confirmed instances of child abuse by top leadership at the facility.
“It’s no surprise based on what we know of the Kiwanis Vocational Home operations that the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office was being kept in the dark,” said attorney Darrell Cochran, representing five former KVH residents in four lawsuits filed in 2015, 2016 and this year.
“To have law enforcement looking in on what was happening in the Kiwanis Vocational Home would have resulted in the shutdown of that home,” he added.
Residents at Kiwanis Vocational Home, open from 1979 to 1994, learned early that reporting abuse often meant worse treatment in the future.
“You learn to keep your mouth shut,” said a resident during the 1980s who asked not to be identified due to his family ties to the area.
Soon after moving into the facility, Wallace learned the same lesson. He saw a staff member hit one of the boys, so he told his mom.
She reported it to KVH’s administration. The next day, Wallace was beaten up by another resident.
Wallace learned his lesson.
Boys at the Kiwanis Vocational Home were aged 11 to 17, although some as young as 10 lived there at one point. The boys were wards of the state taken from their families and placed into foster care.
Several former residents told The Chronicle that staff and administrators at KVH used bigger, older boys as enforcers when other residents tried to raise an alarm. In 1985, a concerned KVH staffer reported that boys were being used to “keep order” at the behest of the administration, just as Wallace remembers.
“All it takes is one time,” he said. “When you’re 13 or 14 years old and some 18-year-old comes up and knocks you out, you’re not going to do that too many times.”
Chris Calk, a resident from 1985 to 1989, said he witnessed that firsthand. He said boys earned points for being loyal to staff and for dishing out beatings to those considered “narcs.”
“You lived on a point system. You had positive points and negative points,” he said. “It gives the kids the opportunity to earn the positive points in order to earn the chance to go to the movies or go rollerskating.”
The boys also earned allowances of pocket money to go to the movies or other outings, he said.
Former KVH board member Henry Meister told The Chronicle in a recent interview he believes students would have reported incidents if they had happened.
“These kids were smart. These kids had all been schooled on appropriate and inappropriate behavior,” Meister said. “All of these kids knew to talk about it.”
The former residents’ stories of retaliation for reporting abuse are borne out in at least one series of Sheriff’s Office records dating to the last months of the Kiwanis home’s existence, when it was called the Coffee Creek Center.
On Feb. 21, 1994, the Sheriff’s Office responded to a report that two staff members assaulted a boy at the home. The boy, 14, is described as small for his age.
He told police a staff member assaulted him after he argued about taking away his cigarettes, which were not allowed at the facility, and his stereo. One man allegedly slammed the boy’s head into a table. The other punched him in the ribs.
When deputies returned the next day, the two suspects had already been suspended. A doctor reported the boy had three cracked ribs and a minor concussion.
One of the staff members reportedly threatened to assault the boys if they talked to the police. Both men who were accused were charged.
Days later, the boy with the cracked ribs and concussion shows up in another Sheriff’s Office report — a victim of an assault by an older boy.
He reported being assaulted again two months later, on April 27, according to Sheriff’s Office reports, again by other boys. It happened again two days later, when he was assaulted again, this time by a 16-year-old boy wielding a pipe.
On May 3, the boy was assaulted by other students. As he was reporting that assault to a counselor, the suspects broke through the locked office door and attacked him again.
A month later, the home closed.
Still, caring staff members, parents and determined students reported numerous allegations of abuse and criminal activity over the 15 years the home was open.
However, records obtained by The Chronicle show dozens of instances in which KVH or DSHS staff knew about claims of abuse, sexual misconduct or other criminal activity but never forwarded them to the Sheriff’s Office.
The Chronicle focused on records between late 1985 and June 1994, when the home closed, because of the availability of records from the Sheriff’s Office. Special Services Chief Deputy Dusty Breen, of the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office, who supervises the office’s records department as part of his duties, said cases filed with the office before 1985 are preserved on microfilm. While the Sheriff’s Office has them, records are organized by names of involved parties, making it difficult for records to be located regarding a specific location, such as the Kiwanis Vocational Home.
According to DSHS, its employees, along with doctors, law enforcement officers, and many other professionals, are legally designated as “mandatory reporters,” meaning they are required to report instances of suspected abuse to law enforcement or to Child Protective Services, an office within DSHS.
None of the incidents listed below are associated with a Lewis County Sheriff’s Office case number.
In 1986, KVH and DSHS records show a report of two incidents — a physical assault between students and a report of a sexual assault, neither of which were forwarded to law enforcement.
In 1987, there were eight incidents. A boy no longer at KVH reported abuse while he was there. The young child of a staff member was reportedly molested by a boy. There were four reports of assaults on boys by staff and two of assaults between boys.
In 1988, one report of sexual activity among boys and two alleged assaults by staff never made it to the Sheriff’s Office.
Meister told The Chronicle that, as he understood it at the time, KVH staff weren’t particularly concerned to find boys engaged in sexual behavior, and most often did not report it.
“The fact of the matter is, people have sex,” Meister said. “Do you think anybody who winds up in that situation is sexually inexperienced?”
The boys at the facility were as young as 10 and as old as 17. The age of consent in Washington is 16.
Meister, who never worked at the facility but said he got a good sense of the boys during his visits while a member of the board, characterized the teenaged and pre-teen residents as liars, manipulators and juvenile offenders.
Some were offenders. Some had been identified as sexual predators. Others were already victims of violence — sexual or otherwise — and came from broken or abusive homes into state care. Some had been in foster care their entire lives after being surrendered by or seized from unfit parents.
KVH took in developmentally disabled boys as well, and received extra funding from the state to do so.
“These kids will sit there and tell you the most atrocious stories,” Meister said. “You have to identify your customers.”
In 1989, KVH administrator Guy Cornwell wrote to another staffer reprimanding him for using inappropriately sexual language around the boys and for corporal punishment in at least one case which Cornwell called a “reportable offense” that was never reported to law enforcement.
Also that year, a female staffer reported sexual harassment and a male staff member previously accused of assault faced another allegation.
In June 1989, a boy reported to his counselor that another boy tried to grab his genitals. The KVH report indicates the Sheriff’s Office was notified, but no corresponding case number exists.
As the years wore on, more and more incidents of alleged rape and assault were reported to state agencies, but not investigated as crimes by law enforcement.
In March 1990, sexual intercourse among boys aged 10 and 15 was reported. The incident was reportedly forwarded to the Sheriff’s Office, but no case number exists.
When asked about such cases, Breen said if the Sheriff’s Office received a report after 1985 regarding the Kiwanis home, it would have showed up in their response to The Chronicle’s records request.
“If something came in after 1985 … it would have generated a case number,” Breen said. “If we would have initiated an investigation based on something we got, it would have been included in those records.”
Breen said he is not aware of any incident in which records were lost, damaged or purged.
In June 1990, an anonymous man called the Governor’s Office to make complaints of sexual and physical abuse. The Sheriff’s Office has no record of being made aware of those alleged crimes.
That same month, a group home monitor at KVH reported concerns regarding child sex offenders being housed with victims of sexual violence.
“(T)here were periodic problems with these individuals and incidents of homosexual activity and even rape did occur,” according to the report.
The state Office of Special Investigations began investigating the allegations made by the anonymous caller to the Governor’s Office on June 19. That month, administrators at KVH denied the allegations.
Two more reports of improper sexual touching were reported by the end of the year but did not make it to the Sheriff’s Office.
Also in 1990, KVH director Charles McCarthy wrote a letter acknowledging that the home had come under scrutiny for not adequately reporting incidents to the state.
In January 1991, Cornwell was accused of child abuse. Also that month, a mother reported to DSHS that KVH staff were giving boys cigarettes and medication without permission. An employee also reported being directed to falsify reports.
In February 1991, the state Office of Special Investigations released its findings on the 1990 investigation, concluding that allegations of physical child abuse and “inappropriate touching” against McCarthy and other staff members were founded. The Sheriff’s Office has no corresponding case numbers.
Later that year, more reports came in to state agencies of students being “hogtied,” of students being given marijuana by staff, and another accusation of abuse against Cornwell. DSHS ruled Cornwell’s behavior was “inappropriate,” at that time, but not strictly child abuse.
DSHS also received several reports of groping and unwanted sexual advances among the boys, much of which was brushed off by KVH staff as “goofing off.”
In April 1991, a second OSI investigation concluded Cornwell committed child abuse.
As in the previous year’s investigation, in which McCarthy was confirmed to have assaulted boys, there is no record that the state’s findings confirming child abuse were forwarded to local law enforcement.
In mid-1992, a boy reported sexual abuse and exploitation described in a DSHS document as possible “manipulation and grooming.”
In 1993, reports of sexual activity among young residents continued, along with accusations of child abuse by staff. One staff member was fired after such accusations, then reinstated.
In 1994, months before the facility closed, DSHS raised concerns about reports of unspecified child abuse with KVH.
A handful of criminal allegations did make it to the Sheriff’s Office.
In 1982, a boy called 911 to report a staffer at KVH forced him to perform oral sex. KVH director Charles McCarthy intercepted the call and told police not to worry about the report, saying the boy just wanted to leave the home, according to a transcript of the call.
“You never made a phone call without a staff member standing right there over your shoulder,” Calk said.
In a 2015 deposition in one of the lawsuits, McCarthy told attorneys he didn’t remember the boy or the incident and said another staff member would have been responsible for reporting the incident.
Attorneys showed McCarthy the transcript of the call.
“Oh, I see it, yeah. But I mean, I’m not surprised,” he said. “Because as a probation officer I would take statements and a lot of the times they were making them up and lying about it. So I had that training to know that (you) don’t expect the, the truth the first time around.”
He then denied again being involved in the incident. He went on to deny any involvement with several documents signed with his name, according to the deposition transcript.
The report was referred to the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office after initial investigation in Lewis County, because the events reportedly happened north of the county line.
In 1986, the Sheriff’s Office received a report that a boy told counselors he was sexually assaulted by another boy at knifepoint. After investigation, police concluded the sexual contact was not unwanted after all, despite the alleged victim having a cut on his arm from the knife.
Meister told The Chronicle the boys at the home were considered unreliable witnesses at the time and accused former residents coming forward now of lying in the hope of a payday from a lawsuit.
“The issue I have, where these kids come from, I’m not being unsympathetic. I wouldn’t trust any one of them as far as I can throw them,” he said. “I don’t care what the situation or the circumstances is. None of these kids is naive.”
In September 1988, the Sheriff’s Office responded and made an arrest in the case of a sexual contact between boys. The next year, a student was arrested on suspicion of molesting a staff member’s daughter.
In 1990, deputies responded after a developmentally disabled 16-year-old boy, who had previously been a rape victim, reported another 16-year-old raped him and threatened him. A deputy wrote in an initial report that the suspect had been accused in the past and was at “a high risk to reoffend.” The victim reported the suspect threatened him and his family if he told anyone about the incident.
When a detective began investigating the case a month later, he reported the victim changed his story to say the sexual contact was all his idea.
The detective concluded the incident was consensual. No charges were filed.
Also in 1990, deputies received a report of a sexual assault involving a 12-year-old victim. The boy’s mother told police school administrators asked her not to report the incident. A first-degree rape charge was filed against the 14-year-old suspect.
That year a staff member was reported to have assaulted a boy, but was cleared after an investigation.
Deputies responded in 1993 to a report of sexual contact involving a female teacher. No charges were filed. The same year, they responded to two reports of indecent exposure among students.
In 1994, two staff members lost their jobs after allegations of abuse investigated by the Sheriff’s Office.
In contrast, school staff were diligent in reporting incidents to law enforcement in which the boys were to blame, including dozens of reported assaults ranging from the serious — boys throwing stolen kitchen knives at each other — to the questionable — for out of control food fights and throwing a volleyball at a teacher.
Between late 1985 and December 1990, only 10 assaults either between boys or involving staff were reported to police.
Two months after that, in February 1991, DSHS released its findings of a special investigation into claims of abuse and financial mismanagement, and the school came under new administrators. It also decreased from more than 70 students to roughly a dozen.
In 1991, the home reported 16 assaults with teens listed as suspects. All but one was a misdemeanor assault, and all but one were between boys.
In 1992, KVH reported 23 assaults, again all misdemeanors but one and all perpetrated by students.
In 1993, KVH reported 37 assaults, all misdemeanors but one, all perpetrated by students.
In 1994, in which the school was open only six months, police responded to 15 reports of assaults. Two of those incidents involved a student being assaulted by a staff member and the rest were incidents between students.
In addition to assaults, boys were regularly reported for burglary and theft for stealing candy and other items.
Police responded and issued citations to boys for punching each other and pushing each other down — incidents not referred to the Sheriff’s Office when allegedly committed by a staff member. Several students were cited for hitting a staff member while flailing their arms in the course of being tackled by staff.
Staff members throwing boys to the ground is commonly referenced in KVH documents as an acceptable way to subdue them when they got out of hand. However, some accused staff of going too far, then trying to cover it up.
Wallace recounted an incident in which a staff member slammed him into a concrete slab at the shop building, tearing the ligaments in his knee.
The next day, Wallace’s leg was blue and swollen, and he was taken to the doctor. Staff told him to tell the doctor he tripped and fell, he said.
“If you deviate from that story then there will be hell to pay… because then they’d just turn kids on you,” he said.
Wallace stuck to his story. He’d already learned his lesson.
“If you were caught snitching you were deemed as a narc … nine times out of 10 you could look forward to getting a good a— whooping,” Calk said.
Wallace said many residents, himself included, spent most of their lives still hiding what happened at the facility, thinking that no one would believe their stories.
In the decades since he left, he said he’s only opened up to a handful of people.
“It’s 35 years after the fact, but they can’t kick our butts anymore,” he said.
To contact reporter Natalie Johnson, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-807-8235. Letters can be sent to The Chronicle at 321 N. Pearl St., Centralia.