By Natalie Johnson / firstname.lastname@example.org
Centralia’s Kiwanis Vocational Home, open from 1979 to 1994, was intended to be a safe place for wayward boys, a state-licensed foster home where 11- to 17-year-olds could get an education and job skills in a “family atmosphere,” according to a 1986 Chronicle article.
However, four lawsuits from former residents paint an alarmingly different picture.
“This was a pedophile farm,” said attorney Darrell Cochran, of Tacoma, who represents plaintiffs in all four cases, two of which were filed Tuesday.
The lawsuits each allege physical, sexual and emotional abuse by both staff and residents of the home, intentional understaffing with unqualified workers and financial fraud and negligence by staff and state agencies, including the state Department of Social and Health Services, which licensed the facility.
“These individual defendants continued to support KVH despite clear evidence that it was a breeding ground for sexual abuse and sexually charged physical abuse,” the lawsuit states.
Furthermore, Cochran said evidence gathered in the cases shows conspiracy rife with “political corruption” with the facility acting to conceal allegations of abuse while continuing to profit from state reimbursements for services.
“Despite knowledge of the deplorable condition at KVH, Defendants acted to cover up and shield those from scrutiny, or at a minimum, did nothing to report or otherwise curtail the situation,” the complaint states.
While complaints of abuse and mismanagement came pouring in to DSHS — and even showed up in their own audits of the facility — the agency consistently approved requests to increase capacity for residents at KVH.
The two lawsuits filed Tuesday in Thurston County Superior Court name three plaintiffs identified by their initials — G.V., G.C. and R.P. — and list numerous defendants, including: Kiwanis International; Kiwanis Vocational Home; Kiwanis Pacific Northwest District; Kiwanis of Tumwater; Kiwanis of Pe Ell; Lewis County; Kiwanis of Chehalis; former KVH board members Sam C. Morehead, Edward J. Hopkins and Lewis E. Patton; the state of Washington; DSHS; the state Department of Children, Youth and Family Services; and state Child Protective Services.
The lawsuits specifically allege that each of the agencies and individuals listed acted negligently, putting the juvenile wards of the state living at KVH in physical danger.
“Each and all of the Kiwanis Defendants ignored their duties to the children at KVH and created a danger that Plaintiff would be sexually abused and suffer life-long injuries,” G.V.’s complaint reads.
In all, Cochran’s office is involved in four lawsuits regarding abuse at the KVH. A 2016 lawsuit filed on behalf of a plaintiff identified as K.B. lists Kiwanis, KVH, Lewis County Youth Enterprises, Kiwanis of Tumwater, Kiwanis of Pe Ell, DSHS, Children, Youth and Family Services and CPS. That lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in Thurston County Superior Court in July 2018.
A 2015 lawsuit filed on behalf of a client identified by R.N. against the same agencies is scheduled to go to trial in Thurston County Superior Court in April 2018.
The four lawsuits involve residents of the facility from the mid-1980s to the facility’s closure in 1994.
Kiwanis International was not able to provide a statement as it had not yet received the lawsuit. Lewis County has also not received the lawsuit. DSHS does not comment on pending litigation.
The Centralia/Chehalis Kiwanis Club did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Many of the individuals named in the documents no longer work with the agencies or groups they did at the time of the allegations, and some have died.
The allegations against KVH are similar to those at another Kiwanis-sponsored facility — the Olympia Kiwanis Boys Ranch — which also closed in 1994.
The OKBR received extensive coverage from the regional media after its collapse. A December 1995 Seattle Times story called the ranch a “house of horrors” and blamed DSHS for allowing it to stay open as long as it had.
When Darrell Cochran began taking on lawsuits alleging abuse at the OKBR in the mid-1990s, the cases literally hit close to home.
“I lived two blocks away from the Olympia Kiwanis Boys Ranch when I was growing up,” Cochran told The Chronicle. “Most of the clients were classmates of mine back in the day.”
He said he remembers the students were troubled, but little else.
“You didn’t understand it as a seventh- or an eighth-grader,” he said.
In the past 20 years, he’s been fighting cases related to the OKBR, but said these four lawsuits are the first filed regarding sexual abuse at KVH in Centralia.
“We never did one that just focused on the Kiwanis Vocational Home,” he said. “It’s unfinished business in the back of my head for all these years.”
According to Cochran’s office, Pfau Cochran Vertitis Amala, of Tacoma, dozens of plaintiffs who have sued the OKBR have received settlements totaling about $50 million, all in cases settled “as discreetly as possible” by state and local defendants.
“I feel blessed to be able to expose it and get help for the people who desperately need help,” Cochran said.
Unlike its Olympia counterpart, similar allegations of abuse and mismanagement have not previously been reported in Centralia.
The Kiwanis Vocational Home was founded in 1979 on Sawall Avenue off North Pearl Street after Centralia resident Ben Martin donated more than 300 acres of property just north of city limits to the project. Lewis County Youth Enterprises was formed to govern the home. Kiwanis clubs in Centralia, Chehalis, Grand Mound, Rochester and Tumwater were the initial sponsors of the home, according to a 1990 Chronicle article.
KVH began by taking only a few boys. It grew to include more than 70 residents at its peak, all of whom were wards of the state who were removed from their birth families by state agencies and placed in foster care.
“They come from broken or abusive families,” director Charles McCarthy told The Chronicle in 1990. “They are emotionally hurt and need some training to move back in with their family, relatives or foster homes.”
About 80 percent of the home’s funding came from the state, according to a report in The Chronicle from 1987, and the facility was licensed as a foster home through DSHS.
Many of the stories filed in The Chronicle’s archives about the Kiwanis Vocational Home are glowing reviews of the facility’s mission to help young boys removed from abusive or troubled families.
Coverage from the mid 1980s and early 90s shows students digging in gardens, doing school work and playing ping pong.
Meanwhile, reports of assaults by staff members on students were already starting to alarm state agencies.
In Dececember 1981, DSHS staff wrote to the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office expressing concern about violence at KVH. The letter notes five examples of assaults on residents perpetrated by staff or other residents dating to October of that year
“We are told that other assaults may have occurred previously and may have been witnessed by others who have present or former connections with this group home,” wrote Larry Pederson, Chehalis Community Service Officer with DSHS.
Pederson requested the Sheriff’s Office’s help in investigating the incidents.
The Chronicle has requested records of criminal investigations regarding KVH from the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office.
Investigations undertaken through the four lawsuits have identified instances of sexual abuse reported and documented as early as 1982 — three years after KVH opened, according to documents provided by Cochran’s office.
In January 1982, a boy living at the home reported a staff member let him drive his car in exchange for oral sex. The boy left the facility for a week and returned to learn that the incident was not reported to law enforcement, according to documents obtained by The Chronicle.
The boy called the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office to report the rape, and according to a report from the Sheriff’s Office, a staff member took the phone away and dismissed the allegations.
A report from DSHS dated Feb. 4, 1982, notes prosecution was unlikely in that specific abuse report, and agreed to renew KVH’s license provisionally, provided the home met training and other requirements.
Further instances of sexual or physical abuse between residents or perpetrated by staff were reported consistently while the facility remained open.
For example, in November 1985, several instances of abuse were reported, including a staff member backhanding a boy, a boy raping another boy with no report filed and physical force used by staff to “maintain order.”
A DSHS memo issued days later dismissed the concerns.
Alleged abusers included both boys at the facility, KVH staff and leadership and Centralia School District staff.
“Dozens and dozens and dozens of kids are being molested in this place,” Cochran said.
He said evidence shows boys identified as victims of abuse were living with boys identified as sexual assault suspects.
In September 1988, a resident was arrested on suspicion of first-degree rape for an incident that occurred at KVH. The Chronicle printed a story on the police report.
That week, a CPS staffer wrote to Chronicle Publisher Jack Underwood chastising the newspaper for calling the incident a rape, as the police report did, and instead insisted the incident was consensual, according to documents obtained by The Chronicle.
In yet another incident, one staff member, who the Chronicle is not naming due to the fact that criminal charges were not filed, was removed from child-care duties at the facility after a DSHS investigation concluded he physically abused a resident in 1990. He was previously accused in 1988 of hitting residents and in 1989 breaking one resident’s leg and hand, and was not removed from his post at that time.
In another report, a teacher allegedly threw a student across a room. Dozens of documents obtained by The Chronicle detail other instances of abuse or complaints about the facility.
In addition to reported cases of abuse, staff from the Department of Child and Family Services noted concerns about staff supervision, record-keeping and staff educational backgrounds that did not fit licensing requirements.
A June 1985 audit showed KVH was overbilling DSHS for services, according to documents obtained by The Chronicle. The audit also concluded adequate bathing facilities were not provided, personnel files were not up to date and educational, therapeutic and vocational services were not clearly outlined.
Meanwhile, KVH expanded its capacity for residents.
The facility was issued a provisional license for the period of Dec. 1985 to June 1986 due to more deficiencies identified by DSHS audits, mostly involving record-keeping and facilities.
In May 1987, KVH applied to DSHS to increase its capacity again. In August of that year, McCarthy wrote to DSHS that the facility had already taken children younger than 11, despite not yet having the new license to do so.
In 1990, capacity was increased again, to a maximum of 74 boys.
In February 1991, a DSHS audit of the KVH again found financial discrepancies and that employees of the home did not meet state-mandated qualifications. DSHS ordered KVH to cut its population. That year the home was cut to just nine boys.
According to a 1996 Chronicle article, court documents from a lawsuit over a dispute about the KVH property revealed that the 1991 DSHS audit “determined McCarthy and members of his staff physically abused the boys, that McCarthy misappropriated funds, and counselors failed to meet the minimum educational and experience requirements.”
The audit and subsequent requirement that KVH dramatically downsize was the beginning of the end for the facility.
KVH was renamed Coffee Creek Center after the Children’s Industrial Home Board of Directors took over.
Allegations of abuse continued until the home was finally shuttered in 1994.