Since beginning with a handful of plaintiffs in 2015, a campaign of lawsuits aimed at state agencies and Kiwanis International alleging negligence, sexual abuse and general mistreatment of wards of the state placed in the Kiwanis Vocational Home in Centralia has amassed monetary settlements of more than $22 million for more than 40 former residents.
While a handful of other standalone lawsuits have been filed regarding the facility, attorney Darrell Cochran of law firm Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala, represents the former residents in these cases.
Cochran told The Chronicle that since the first settlements in December 2017, the total monetary amount awarded to his clients has reached $22,099,000, with $19,849,000 coming from the state and $2,250,000 from Kiwanis defendants.
“My reaction is it’s just a fraction of the damage that was caused by the state negligence at the Kiwanis Vocational Home campus,” he said, adding that he believes the money doesn’t come close to mitigating the “grander damage to society” caused by alleged crimes and poor management at the facility.
The largest single settlement was $1.5 million. The smallest was $40,000.
“In these cases what the agency hopes is that the settlements, that they assist these young men with living productive and quality lives once they’ve endured such pain,” said Debra Johnson, director of communications for the state Department of Children, Youth and Families, which now handles inquiries regarding the case and oversees youth services.
The goal of DCYF is to provide a more focused lens and energy toward the type of care that children receive,” Johnson said. “This raises the level of attention and resources for children, youth and families in this state.”
The Kiwanis Vocational Home, once located just north of Centralia, was open from 1979 to 1994. During that time, hundreds of boys were placed at the facility by state agencies.
“People who were residents of KVH are spread out throughout the country. Many of them have no idea there is legal action going,” Cochran said. “When they find out … their lives are turned upside down and they will give us a call. I suspect there will be people coming forward for years.”
Cochran told The Chronicle his office hears from a new former resident about once a week.
The Kiwanis Vocational Home was founded and operated for much of its existence by the Lewis County Youth Enterprises board and supported by Kiwanis through the right to name the facility after the organization. The facility’s board members were required to also be Kiwanis members.
The home was intended to be a place for 11- to 17-year-old boys who were wards of the state — removed from their families by the state because their parents were unfit to care for them — who struggled to adjust to a typical foster home. While some of the boys had criminal or behavioral issues, the home was not a juvenile detention facility and boys were not sentenced to spend time there as punishment by the court system.
The lawsuits filed since 2015 name various local Kiwanis clubs, Kiwanis International, various agencies within the state of Washington, including the Department of Social and Health Services, and individuals who either were KVH board members, staff or state workers assigned to monitor the facility, including but not limited to Chuck McCarthy, former director of KVH; board members Edward Hopkins, Henry Meister, Sam Morehead and Dale Shannon; Guy Cornwell, assistant executive director; Lee Coumbs, now Centralia’s mayor and then director of the KVH school and a founding corporate officer of KVH; and Richard Thompson, Paul Trause, Steve Ennett, Kirsty Galt and Mark Redal, then of DSHS.
Top members of management at the facility were accused of both physical and sexual abuse of boys living there.
Complaints of violence at the facility started as early as 1981, with accusations of sexual abuse following shortly after.
Former residents who spoke to The Chronicle alleged violent hazing, sexual abuse by older boys on younger boys, sexual abuse and physical assaults by staff, and generally poor and unsanitary conditions at the facility.
The Chronicle identified dozens of reports of assaults and abuse that were reported to Kiwanis and DSHS but were never forwarded to local law enforcement.
Several audits and investigations were done on general conditions at the facility, including a 1990 audit by the state of Washington that found McCarthy had misappropriated $200,000, that he and other staff had been accused of physically assaulting boys and that criminal incidents were not being reported to law enforcement. Documents obtained by The Chronicle show staff voiced concerns about the facility housing both sex offenders and victims of sexual assault together, and the suits document instances in which employees claimed they were terminated for attempting to report rapes.
Investigations also concluded childcare and counseling staff did not meet minimum requirements, but that KVH was billing the state anyway.
The lawsuits filed argue that DSHS and Kiwanis knew of allegations of abuse, mismanagement and negligence, and not only allowed the facility to remain open and funded by the state, but allowed the facility to continue to grow — at one point reaching as many as 70 residents.