May 5—Seven former residents of Centralia's shuttered Kiwanis Vocational Home will benefit from a $6 million settlement with service club Kiwanis International, whose local boys home was frought with dozens of reports of physical and sexual abuse.
The settlement was reached late Friday, according to the plaintiff's lawyer, and is the first payout by Kiwanis International over the allegations, which reach back decades.
So far, more than 60 individuals have come forward, many with stories of violence and rape they endured in their adolescence at the boys home.
From 1979 to 1994, Kiwanis Vocational Home housed boys 10 to 17 years old who were separated from their families, becoming wards of the state. The Chronicle began reporting on allegations of abuse in 2017. Back then, attorney Darrell Cochran, representing several former residents, called the facility "a pedophile farm."
"The scarring and spiritual death that accompanies child sexual abuse can never be fully compensated, but the plaintiffs in this particular group felt like they had finally been heard," Cochran told The Chronicle this week. "And the opportunity to get to trial was in itself vindication. To have lawyers that were aggressively telling their story was a salve."
The home was intended to offer a therapeutic place for its young residents, many of whom had troubled childhoods. But while dozens of reports of abuse were lodged, and as audits found inadequate bathing facilities, outdated personnel files, and employees failing to meet state-mandated qualifications, the home continued to receive state funding. During some of that time, the home expanded capacity, eventually housing more than 70 boys.
Kiwanis International declined to comment on the settlement, saying the organization does not comment on pending litigation.
According to Cochran's Tacoma law firm, the $6 million, court-enforceable settlement contract is in hand, and the ultimate dismissal will occur after the transaction.
The Kiwanis organization — which now has 550,000 members and spans dozens of countries — argued in 2017 that local and regional Kiwanis clubs had no knowledge of misconduct allegations at Centralia's Kiwanis Vocational Home. A Thurston County judge ruled against that claim, pointing to communications on Kiwanis letterhead citing specific misconduct allegations.
Former Centralia Mayor Lee Coumbs, who worked at the Kiwanis Vocational Home for five years, also cast doubt on the allegations back then, as did Henry Meister, a board member of the home in the '80s.
"I think it's disappointing that Kiwanis International has denied for years that they made terrible mistakes in operating Kiwanis Vocational Home," Cochran said. "This settlement at least shows some flicker of recognition that what it did contributed to a horrific situation for the boys who were there."
Washington state's Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) has already settled multiple cases with claimants regarding the Kiwanis Vocational Home, including a $1.5 million payout to four former residents in 2017. The Chronicle reported that 40 incidences of sexual or physical abuse were reported to DSHS in the last eight years the Kiwanis Vocational Home was open, none with corresponding police reports. The agency said its settlement included "no admission of liability on the part of the state." Other lawsuits over similar allegations have amassed more than $22 million in settlements, The Chronicle reported in 2019.
Cochran expects more former residents to come forward in the future. Some of those men, he said, are "from disadvantaged backgrounds and won't necessarily be following the news," and may come forward once they learn others have already done so.
Charles McCarthy, the home's former director who, according to previous reporting, was found by DSHS to have physically abused boys and misappropriated funds, passed away last year. According to Cochran, McCarthy had already given video-taped testimony that will be used in future trials.
"I think if I was the Kiwanis, I'd certainly be afraid of taking a case all the way through a trial jury," he said, adding that a group of potential jurors in the recently settled case seemed "troubled" by evidence shown to them.
As for the seven plaintiffs involved in the settlement, some are currently incarcerated, meaning the money will give them an opportunity at a "clean slate" upon their release, Cochran said.
----Previous reporting by The Chronicle was used in the report.