DSHS Settles First Kiwanis Vocational Home Lawsuit for $1.5 Million

By Natalie Johnson / njohnson@chronline.com

The state Department of Social and Health Services has settled the first lawsuit alleging abuse and negligence at the state-licensed Kiwanis Vocational Home, which was open in Centralia from 1979 to 1994. 

DSHS has agreed to pay $1.5 million split equally between the three plaintiffs, identified in the 2015 lawsuit by their initials as R.N., J.W. and S.C. 

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Attorney Darrell Cochran said for his clients the moment is “bittersweet.”

“The bitter part is they’ve not only had to experience the horror at KVH but have been attacked by both the state and the Kiwanis for bringing this tragic situation to light,” he told The Chronicle Wednesday. “They’re relieved. They have some peace.”

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Kiwanis Vocational Home
The Kiwanis Vocational Home, then renamed Coffee Creek Center, closed in 1994. For 25 years it served as a state-licensed group home for wards of the state.

DSHS issued a comment on the settlement Wednesday afternoon. 

“The settlement involves no admission of liability on the part of the state,” the statement reads. “The passage of time between the events in question and the lawsuits make these cases challenging to defend.”

R.N., who has asked that his full name not be released, said he was sexually abused by staff as a teen at the facility. 

“After I left that place, my life spiraled out of control,” he said. 

R.N. is currently incarcerated. 

He. said he was placed in the Kiwanis Vocational Home after being removed from an abusive home by DSHS. Like many former residents who have shared their stories with The Chronicle, he remembers his stay at the home beginning with a “blanket party” during which older residents covered him with blankets and beat him with objects, then sexually assaulted him. 

He also has accused staff at the facility of sexually assaulting him on several occasions. He said the incidents were reported to DSHS, but police never got involved. 

A previous analysis of public documents by The Chronicle found about 40 instances just in the last eight years the home was open in which sexual or physical abuse was reported to DSHS with no corresponding police report in existence. 

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The settlement comes about a month after DSHS successfully petitioned a Thurston County Superior Court judge to issue a stay on the case, putting it on hold for at least a year.

However, the case was only stalled for DSHS, and attorneys representing Kiwanis plan to present a motion for summary judgement Friday asking a judge to rule that they should not be held accountable for the actions of third parties — the staff who the plaintiffs accuse of abusing them

If Kiwanis’ motion is successful, that might have left DSHS as the only defendant, Cochran said. 

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“All they had achieved was a delay,” he said, of the stay. “They were never getting out of it, it was never getting better and it might have been they would end up being the only defendant. That was a risk the state was not willing to take, apparently.”

However, Cochran said he does not believe a judge will rule with Kiwanis at the hearing Friday.

Cochran has represented a number of plaintiffs in similar lawsuits against the state and Kiwanis regarding the Olympia Kiwanis Boys Ranch, but the 2015 lawsuit with R.N., J.W. and S.C. was the first involving the Centralia facility, and the first to reach a settlement.

“I think it sets a precedent that the state acknowledges there were horrific conditions for foster children there,” Cochran said. “I think it’s a milestone in that this settlement acknowledges there were terrible conditions that DSHS could have prevented and now it’s in the open.”

The three plaintiffs have sued various defendants including DSHS and agencies under its umbrella and Kiwanis clubs claiming that the state and Kiwanis allowed the home to stay open despite years of allegations of sexual and physical abuse by staff and other residents. The plaintiffs report that they were the victims of abuse while residents in the 1980s.

More lawsuits from former residents were filed in 2016 and 2017. 

According to DSHS, a total of 13 claims have now been brought against the state regarding the Centralia group foster home. 

“In the more than two decades that have passed since the alleged actions took place, DSHS has taken numerous steps to improve child safety and well-being in Washington state, not the lease of which enhanced the procedures for licensing, monitoring and investigating facilities like Kiwanis Vocational Home,” said DSHS Secretary Cheryl Strange in a statement. “If these allegations were true, we hope these funds provide the men with the resources they need to recover from that traumatic time in their lives.”

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