After a yearlong investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct and assault involving more than a dozen children at Kurn Hattin Homes for Children, the state has come to the conclusion that the residential program in Westminster is unable to change a “pervasive” culture of abuse.
The Department for Children and Families asked Kurn Hattin to surrender its license to operate as a residential treatment program in August. The school, which serves vulnerable 6- to 15-year-old children with behavioral, psychological and socioeconomic problems, relinquished its DCF certification last Thursday.
An investigative report from DCF from 2019 describes a “touching club,” in which at least nine boys who were residents of Kurn Hattin “had been engaging in sexualized activity with each other.”
Most of the sexualized behavior involved viewing and touching each others’ penises. Some of the boys, however, “described more extensive sexualized contact, including over the clothes ‘humping,’ oral-genital contact, and skin-to-skin contact in which one youth described that his penis touched another youth’s bottom,” according to documents from DCF obtained by VTDigger.
In addition to “the club,” DCF describes a series of incidents involving a girl who repeatedly assaulted two other girls at Kurn Hattin in 2018 and 2019 with a toothbrush in dorm showers, and another perpetrator who penetrated other girls’ vaginas with her fingers as part of what was described as “hazing.”
Another girl in April 2019 was forced by a male classmate to have sex in a stairwell of the auditorium, state documents show.
Kurn Hattin failed to report the sexual abuse within 24 hours as mandated by law to DCF investigators. In some instances, the institution took months to notify authorities.
Caregivers and administrators appear to have done little to stop the abuse, according to records from DCF investigations.
DCF issued a damning report in December and required Kurn Hattin to take corrective action in an effort to bring the program into compliance.
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By the end of June, DCF determined that Kurn Hattin had made little progress and began negotiating with the residential school to surrender its license to operate as a residential treatment program.
Last Thursday, officials from Kurn Hattin agreed to voluntarily relinquish that license.
DCF Commissioner Sean Brown said Tuesday that the department was committed to working with Kurn Hattin, but ultimately “came to the conclusion that they weren’t making changes we wanted to see.”
Steve Harrison, the director of Kurn Hattin, said the relinquishing of the license was the result of a recommendation made by DCF two years ago. State officials told Harrison that the school “really didn’t fit the parameters of what a residential treatment program was, and we might want to consider not continuing our licensure.”
Reached by phone on Tuesday, Harrison declined to comment on the DCF records and said Kurn Hattin followed DCF’s advice to relinquish the license. Kurn Hattin didn’t have a difficult time meeting DCF compliance requirements, he said. As for allegations from 2019, he said in an interview on Sept. 4 that Kurn Hattin “followed all of the policies of DCF. That would be the extent of my comment.”
The decision comes on the heels of a pending lawsuit announced in July and a VTDigger request for records regarding allegations of sexual and physical abuse at the facility, which provides year-round educational and treatment services for disadvantaged children.
Documents, social media posts and interviews with victims detail how more than 60 children who came from disadvantaged homes were allegedly assaulted from the 1940s through 2019. Eerily similar patterns of sexual, physical and psychological abuse were covered up for decades, victims say.
Children as young as 7 years old have said they were molested by Kurn Hattin caregivers, administrators or peers.
In the past three years, more than 15 children molested each other at the Westminster campus, according to reports released by DCF on Monday.
In interviews with VTDigger, six of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit who were residents of Kurn Hattin over a 70-year period have detailed physical, psychological and sexual abuse perpetrated by adults and peers at the school. A dozen former students on the Kurn Hattin alumni Facebook page have also confirmed a culture of molestation and psychological torment over a period of decades.
Ted Fisher, the director of communications for the Agency of Education, said the DCF action will prompt a review of Kurn Hattin’s approval status as an independent residential school by the State Board of Education next month.
Kim Dougherty, lead attorney for the Andrus Wagstaff firm, representing the plaintiffs in the Kurn Hattin case, says the misconduct was egregious and involved houseparents and administrators dating back to the 1940s. Hundreds of children, from the ages of 6 to 14, who were orphans or from troubled homes, cycled through the school during that period. Fifteen plaintiffs have joined the mass action lawsuit, and Dougherty anticipates more plaintiffs are likely to come forward. A complaint has not yet been filed.
“Finally these survivors have been heard,” Dougherty said. “They’ve lived in fear for far too long, their efforts to expose the truth went unanswered for years, even decades according to some of our clients. Now they can rest easy knowing that children are no longer at risk and will be protected from similar suffering in the future. DCF pulling the license for Kurn Hattin is a statement of recognition of all of the children who were abused and it’s validation for those courageous survivors who have come forward in an effort to protect others.
“This is a time to reflect on how to make Kurn Hattin better in the future,” Dougherty said. “Closing it down is not the goal, providing a safe place for children is. Kurn Hattin now has an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past decades and recent years, and ensure they will never happen again.”
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Dougherty first became involved in the case when a male victim reached out to her in March. On July 2, the firm announced in a press release that victims were coming forward “after decades of silence” to seek justice. Dougherty and Andrus Wagstaff, a national firm based in Lakewood, Colorado, represented young gymnasts who were sexually abused by Dr. Larry Nassar in a lawsuit against Michigan State University. The firm also sued the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics.
Vermont is the only state that has removed the statute of limitations on civil suits for child sexual assaults, allowing victims to sue for abuse that happened long ago. Two groups of plaintiffs are preparing to sue Kurn Hattin in civil court for damages.
In 1989, Mark W. Davis, who was a former employee and lived with a houseparent, was charged with molesting 17 boys. He went to jail a year later. Nathan Foote, lead attorney for Andreozzi and Foote, is suing Kurn Hattin in civil court on behalf of seven men who were abused by Davis. Foote told the Brattleboro Reformer that his clients are seeking financial damages and want an apology from Kurn Hattin.
Davis appears to be the only perpetrator who has been charged. According to Vermont Department of Public Safety spokesperson Adam Silverman, the Vermont State Police has received a number of complaints about Kurn Hattin over the years.
“VSP has investigated those complaints as appropriate,” he wrote in an email. “In all of these instances, due to the ages of those involved, we are unable to provide any further information about the investigations or their outcomes.”
The latest alleged abuse incident investigated by state police and the Windham County State’s Attorney’s office was in June 2019 involving a 10-year-old Kurn Hattin student in DCF custody. The girl was allegedly sexually assaulted by a peer with a toothbrush in the showers at Kurn Hattin, which were unsupervised, according to her mother who asked not to be named to protect the identity of her daughter. Two other girls were also victimized for more than a year, the mother said. The perpetrator told the other girls she would kill them if they spoke about the abuse, according to the mother. The girls were afraid to shower or talk about the incidents until the perpetrator left the school, the mother said. The perpetrator and the two girls were removed by the Department for Children and Families, she said.
That case of alleged misconduct was investigated by the Vermont State Police in conjunction with the Windham County State’s Attorney’s Office, Silverman said.
The mother of the girl said she reached out to Kurn Hattin and asked for her belongings, including her clothing, pictures, letters and holiday gifts from her family, and a stuffed animal she was fond of. Administrators did not respond to the request, nor did they offer any assistance to the family, she said. “I live on Social Security and had to buy her new clothes,” the mother said. “She had nothing.”
Traumatized by the assaults, her daughter, now 12, has threatened to commit suicide and her mother has rushed her to the ER more than once. “I’ve spent so many sleepless nights crying, afraid to wake up to find my child dead,” she said.
The mother is outraged that the administration of Kurn Hattin didn’t protect her daughter or express any remorse for the assaults.
Harrison, who has served as executive director of Kurn Hattin since 2015, would not comment on allegations of abuses in a statement placed on the front page of the school’s website in July. He wrote that a query from the Brattleboro Reformer about the Andrus Wagstaff case “was the first time we had heard specifics about allegations from these years, and we were given no time to respond.”
In an interview at the campus last week, Harrison described the Davis case as a “legacy” situation “that had been dealt with.”
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