By Natalie Johnson / firstname.lastname@example.org
A Thurston County judge ruled against an attorney’s argument Friday that Kiwanis International and local clubs had no actual involvement in Centralia’s Kiwanis Vocational Home, citing evidence including communications on Kiwanis letterhead voicing concerns about the day-to-day management of the home, as well as a Kiwanis-sponsored investigation into allegations of misconduct.
“The court is convinced that Tumwater and Chehalis clubs had at least a parent agency … involvement with Kiwanis Vocational home to the point where summary judgement is not proper,” Superior Court Judge James Dixon said.
Dixon did agree to dismiss one defendant — the Kiwanis Club of Pe Ell. The suit will stand against Kiwanis International and the Tumwater and Chehalis clubs.
The Kiwanis Vocational Home was open in Centralia from 1979 to 1994. It was a group foster home for boys made wards of the state. At one point, more than 60 boys lived at the property off Sawall Avenue just north of Centralia.
Since 2015, several lawsuits have been filed against area Kiwanis clubs, Kiwanis International, the state Department of Social and Health Services and agencies under its umbrella claiming the organizations were negligent in allowing the home to remain open despite numerous allegations of sexual and physical abuse by residents and staff at the facility during its 15 years in operation.
Attorney Barbara Kastama, representing defendants Kiwanis International, and clubs in Chehalis, Tumwater and Pe Ell, asked Dixon to dismiss claims against the Kiwanis defendants in the first lawsuit, filed in 2015 on behalf of three men who lived at the home in the 1980s. The men are identified by initials as R.N., J.W. and S.C.
“There’s no evidence here these defendants … had any duty to protect the plaintiffs from sexual abuse by a third party,” she said. “They have no evidence that these four separately incorporated entities had any control over the home.”
Dixon asked for clarification, noting that the board members at KVH were required to be Kiwanis members. Kastama said they acted as individuals, not representatives of Kiwanis.
She called attorney Darrell Cochran’s arguments indicating that Kiwanis did have responsibility for the home a “complicated fiction.”
Cochran, representing the plaintiffs, began his response by saying Kastama made the same arguments that were rejected in 1994 in the first lawsuit against the Olympia Kiwanis Boys Ranch, a similar boys home with Kiwanis ties.
“Now Kiwanis International and local Kiwanis clubs come to you and they say things are different,” he said. “Based on what?”
Dixon began Friday’s hearing by disclosing his past involvement with plaintiffs in similar lawsuits against the state and Kiwanis regarding abuse at the OK Boys Ranch.
While in private practice in the early 1990s, he represented three boys who lived at the OK Boys Ranch in juvenile court actions.
He said at least one of the boys told him about “events” at the home. Dixon said his office referred the boy to another attorney, who led several successful lawsuits against the facility resulting in settlements. Cochran also worked for plaintiffs on the OK Boys Ranch cases.
“I’m convinced it does not create a conflict for this court,” Dixon said.
However, Dixon asked Kastama and Cochran if they had any desire for him to recuse himself. Neither objected to him presiding over the Friday’s hearing.
Cochran argued that Kiwanis actually had more involvement with the Centralia home than the Olympia location.
“This evidence is vastly stronger than it was in the OK Boys Ranch case,” he said.
He said the question of whether Kiwanis was responsible for the actions at the Kiwanis Vocational Home should be heard by a jury.
Dixon ruled with Cochran’s argument.
DSHS agreed to settle their portion of the 2015 suit earlier this week for $1.5 million, split equally between the three plaintiffs.
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.”
According to DSHS, a total of 13 claims have now been brought against the state regarding the Centralia group foster home.
A trial in the case was previously scheduled for April. The dates have been stricken, and no new trial dates have been scheduled.