Washington State agrees to pay $16.95M in landmark child abuse settlement

By Darrell Cochran Law

Olympia, WA – November 1, 2023 – Washington State has agreed to pay $16.95M to settle lawsuits brought by 12 boys sexually and physically abused while under the care of the State and placed at the J Bar D Boys Ranch, a now shuttered facility in Ione, north of Spokane.  The settlement was announced by Darrell Cochran, co-founding partner with the Tacoma-based law firm Pfau, Cochran, Vertetis, Amala. Cochran served as lead attorney for the 12 plaintiffs.

The boys ranged in age from 10 to 15 years old during the time of their placement at J Bar D during the late 1970’s to mid-1980’s, after being removed to the State’s custody.  They were immediately subjected to rampant sexual and physical abuse by staff and older residents with known deviant behavior.

According to the lawsuit filed in Thurston County Superior Court, child welfare officials “knew or should have known for some years that the children placed at J Bar D were subjected to sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, physical and emotional abuse, gross indifference and neglect, and deprivation of the most basic human and social services, including the failure to provide necessary counseling, love, affection, and spiritual and personal guidance, such as constituted their most basic personal and human rights.”

Cochran said: “The J Bar D case marks one of the darkest chapters in State social work history. Children were repeatedly raped, cattle prodded, dragged behind horses and other terrors. They were threatened if they spoke out.  And those who were supposed to be watching over them were instead destroying their lives.”

The State is Responsible

The State claims the abuses were perpetrated by the operators of J Bar D and therefore was not responsible.  But regulations and the law make clear the State was responsible for the care and wellbeing of the boys, failed to protect them, and actively endangered them.

According to Cochran, the State retains legal custody of a child throughout the duration of the dependency, and the State alone controls the placement of the child, determines the child welfare services to be provided, and decides when the child will be removed from a group home, placed with a new foster family or group home, or returned to the family or group home. The State’s delegation of physical custody to the group home does not lessen its continuing responsibility to protect dependent children in its legal custody.

Cochran’s team discovered the State not only failed to investigate repeated episodes of reported child abuse, but it also failed to make mandatory licensing investigations, verify qualifications of staff, and investigate the conditions at J Bar D to determine whether it was a safe place for the children.

The boys suffered devastating permanent emotional, physical and mental damage, according to Cochran. “This institutional neglect and horrific abuse the victims suffered never leaves them.  But this trial and settlement is a significant step in their healing journeys that will hopefully help bring some closure to them all.”

The suit and settlement are also critical steps in helping prevent future abuses, according to Cochran.

“Anytime we have an atrocity of the magnitude of what we had at J Bar D Ranch, we know that if we conceal it, ignore it, and don’t take lessons from it, that history will repeat itself.  We must do everything in our collective powers to make sure that doesn’t happen to any more boys,” Cochran said.

“It’s Unbelievable To Me”

Some of the most damning testimony in the trial came from Roy Harrington, a former DSHS regional administrator appointed in 1984 to belatedly investigate J Bar D.

“It ran contrary to everything an agency responsible for children should be paying attention to,” Harrington testified. “It was unbelievable to me that something would have gone this far without the agency taking the action they should have taken immediately.”

Ian Bauer, PCVA Partner and member of the legal team stated: “It’s despicable. Instead of protecting the vulnerable children in their care, they fed them to the wolves.  Years of litigation have only served to demonstrate DSHS’ utter and complete inability to do the right thing – to finally, at long last, take responsibility for the chronic, horrific abuse at J Bar D and Reynolds Creek and other, similar group homes for dependent children.  The children of this State deserve better.”

The trial revealed DSHS officials failed to treat complaints seriously until Summer of 1984, more than five years after initial complaints.  And it uncovered DSHS staff conspired with J Bar D leaders to ignore complaints and abuses because of financial incentives and improprieties.

J Bar D Ranch head and DSHS licensor Dave Goodwin embezzled at least $100,000 he spent on vacations, vehicles, heavy equipment and even an airplane.  He and others also knowingly overcharged the state for care and services not provided.  DSHS staff refused to talk to children or investigate complaints and regularly tipped Goodwin off to pending inspections, internal agency conversations and other proprietary information.

Andrew Ulmer, PCVA Partner and a member of the legal team stated: “The most outrageous part of this horrific situation was that David Perkins, the DSHS licensor who was responsible for overseeing these facilities, invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid incriminating himself during the 1984 criminal investigation launched shortly before these ranches were shut down. DSHS should be an ally with law enforcement to protect children and investigate potential crimes, but that did not happen here.”

A Local Hero Shined A Light

The State only acted after repeated demands from then-Pend Oreille County Sheriff Tony Bamonte, who’d heard complaints for years. He ultimately reached out to the governor’s office as early as 1981 requesting an investigation.  J Bar D and the affiliated Reynolds Creek Boys Ranch near Cusick, Washington, had their contracts for group housing revoked in December 1984 after a judge’s special inquiry found widespread substandard care and abuse.  The company subsequently went out of business.

“These boys had no choice and no voice.  No one was looking out for them when they needed and deserved it most. DSHS disregarded the grave dangers to children at J Bar D, and they suffered horrendous abuses and irreparable harms because of it,” Cochran said.

The State last year agreed to pay a $1.5M settlement to another former resident of J Bar D who suffered repeated sexual and physical abuses at the facility.  Cochran and his team represented the man, and have several other suits pending against the State for other victims.

Laura Neal, a senior paralegal who worked closely with the plaintiffs stated: “the abuse children suffered at JBarD is shocking. It is even more shocking when you realize how much and how long the State knew these things were happening. Yet they still left these boys there and even continued to place more boys at the ranch.”

Neal added: “Many of our clients have spent the last forty years trying to bury the memories of the abuse they suffered and witnessed at JBarD. It’s very difficult for them to come forward and to share their stories. For many this is the first time they have ever talked about it. Our hope is that this process and this settlement provides them with a sense of closure and the resources they should have been given many years ago in order to help them heal.”