O.K. Boys Ranch -- How A House Of Horrors Stayed Open -- System Gets Blame, But People Failed To Heed Warnings
Seattle Times Staff Reporters
Copyright 1995, Seattle Times Co.
This week's legislative hearings into the horrors of life at Olympia's O.K. Boys Ranch began with a foregone explanation: The system failed.
That explanation is simple, and wrong. People failed.
The record indicates the system's checks and balances should have prevented the sorts of abuses that took place at the home for troubled youths in Olympia.
Yet a score of individuals, not only at the privately run Boys Ranch but within the state's Department of Social and Health Services and among Olympia's civic elite, failed for more than a decade to protect adolescent boys from routine physical and sexual abuse.
Media accounts of the O.K. Boys Ranch scandal, disturbing as they have been, have not captured the terror many young residents felt at the facility between about 1980 and its forced closure last year.
It was a place where newcomers were "initiated" with group beatings; where punishment included "open season," a sanctioned invitation for other kids to pummel an offending child; where the assistant director thought it was "fun" for the boys to scramble for cigarettes tossed from an upstairs window; where the youngest and most vulnerable lay awake expecting to be raped by their housemates; where, after all that, a child so young he needed help to make a phone call could run away and beg - unsuccessfully - to be taken anywhere but back to the O.K. Boys Ranch.
By the time it was shut down in September 1994 - the building still contains a group home but run by a different organization - it was averaging about two egregious "reportable" incidents a week. Twice a week, that is, something happened that should have been reported to criminal investigators or state authorities.
For the adults charged with protecting these children, the specific failures were many.
Much of the Boys Ranch staff was, at best, indifferent to the suffering. At worst, concluded a state investigation, some staff members sodomized and beat the boys themselves.
The Boys Ranch board of directors, whose members included a Thurston County judge and an assistant state attorney general, ignored repeated warnings - even from the Olympia Police chief - that the young residents were in danger.
Child Protective Services officials, including a regional supervisor, effectively condoned sex among boys as young as 11, provided the encounters were deemed "consensual."
State regulators forgave hundreds of infractions, from unsanitary conditions to fiscal improprieties to documented physical beatings and rampant sex. When auditors discovered and reported the problems, their superiors dismissed the reports. When new regulators were assigned to the Boys Ranch, they didn't receive its files (and frequently didn't think to ask for them).
Those regulators who did know of serious, longstanding violations at the facility disregarded laws explicitly requiring them to revoke the home's operating license or deny granting a new one.
And when circumstances eroded to the point police wanted to bring criminal charges against Boys Ranch administrators, the Thurston County prosecutor declined. It turned out he was president-elect of the Olympia Kiwanis Club, the parent organization of the Boys Ranch board.
Yet today, some who were supposed to protect the boys doubt the tales of terror described by police and the attorney general, saying they strain credulity.
A former resident said that only shows how bad it was.
"Nothing's unbelievable to me," said Jason Hatley, a resident of the home from 1987 to 1989, who now works in construction. "It was the law of the jungle."
As two days of legislative hearings into the matter conclude today, the state already has paid $4.4 million and tentatively agreed to pay $4.2 million more to 27 former Boys Ranch residents who sued. Insurers for the Olympia Kiwanis Club and the O.K. Boys Ranch have paid some of the same boys $5.4 million.
The former top three administrators of the Boys Ranch - Thomas Van Woerden, Collette Queener and Laura Russell - were charged last month with criminal mistreatment. All pleaded not guilty.
More investigations are under way, including a State Patrol review of state officials' culpability.
There was little left to do in this week's hearings but review the grisly details and begin the search for legislative improvements to "the system."
But underlying the hearings is a fundamental question: With so many people involved in operating or overseeing the Boys Ranch, with so many safeguards in place, how could this debacle have happened?
The answer, or at least the beginning of an answer, lies in the summer of 1992.
On July 1, 1992, Gov. Booth Gardner appointed one of his most respected advisers, Jean Soliz, to take over management of the state's Children and Family Services division. An arm of the massive Department of Social and Health Services, Children and Family Services was charged with licensing and regulating group homes such as the O.K. Boys Ranch, where the state sent emotionally or physically abused adolescents for care and treatment.
Soliz didn't come to her new job with a specific mission of fixing problems at the Boys Ranch - she maintains, in fact, that she wasn't aware of the depth of the problems there until much later - but she was known as a strong advocate for kids, and she had qualities that suggested she'd make a good administrator.
Her arrival coincided with a special review of the Boys Ranch operating license, which normally occurred once every three years. Although a new license had been granted only months earlier, recent events had prompted a reappraisal.
By the end of December, the state would determine again whether the O.K. Boys Ranch met the stringent "minimum licensing requirements" necessary to remain open, and also whether it had fulfilled the directives of an existing "corrective action plan."
To anybody paying attention to the morass at the O.K. Boys Ranch, Soliz's appointment was a good sign.
As the day began July 1, life at the Ranch was due for a good sign. June had been an almost unspeakably gruesome month of sexual assaults among the boys. Sex and violence were nothing new, but things had gotten so out of control that the staff, despite its tendency to keep problems a secret, was beginning to take action.
On this day, having questioned one of the teenage residents about his role as ringleader in an all-night orgy two days earlier, a Ranch staff member escorted the boy to the Olympia Police Department, and a formal police investigation began.
Also on this day, an outing to Lake Cushman, at the edge of the Olympic National Forest, was planned for some of the residents. An afternoon of canoeing might be just the thing to break the spell of bad news.
Whatever sense of hope existed that day wouldn't last.
The canoe trip was a disaster. In the Boys Ranch van on the way to the lake, two of the teens began to have sex, in plain view not only of the other boys but also of the two staff members in the front seat. Like parents of cranky toddlers on a long drive, the staffers turned around and shouted at the boys to behave themselves. But they didn't stop the vehicle, abandon the trip or even break up the contact.
There was trouble ahead for the police investigation too.
And as the crucial next six months unfolded within DSHS, it became apparent that Soliz's tenure wouldn't have much effect on life at the Ranch.
The Ranch that wasn't
The O.K. Boys Ranch wasn't a ranch at all. There were no horses or cows, no fences to mend. It was a ramshackle, overgrown tract home in an East Olympia neighborhood.
It was created in 1971 to be a refuge for victims of neglect and abuse. An Olympia Kiwanis Club member, local judge Hewitt Henry, had grown troubled by the boys he saw in his court. "He wanted to have a facility for these boys where they could receive nurturing and loving care, someplace that they could call home," said former Boys Ranch board member Virgil Clarkson.
Kiwanis Club members donated $100 apiece to the project. One member, G.I. Griffith, donated the land; another member, Bob Stevens, designed the home.
Though it operated as an independent, nonprofit facility run by the director, Thomas Van Woerden, the Ranch was overseen from the beginning by the club (the O.K. stands for Olympia Kiwanis). The Kiwanis Club provided a board of directors from its membership and an $8,000-a-year subsidy.
As a foster group home, the Boys Ranch was both regulated and supported by the state. DSHS paid the facility $250,000 a year to provide shelter and therapeutic counseling to 13 boys, who were usually between 11 and 16 years old, and stayed an average of 18 months.
Van Woerden once described the home's goal for the boys this way: "Provide them with structure, certain kind of lifestyle, certain predictability to their life."
By the summer of 1992, his mission statement seemed tragically ironic. One of the few predictable things the boys could count on was violence.
Some examples from the last three years the Ranch operated: When 10-year-old David arrived at the home, according to the attorney general's charging papers, he and another boy were thrust into a circle, surrounded by older residents and forced to fight until one was knocked out or screamed for mercy. Staff members offered fighting tips. Twelve-year-old Chris was initiated by being thrown in a pit and having rocks hurled at him. For 11-year-old Ryan, it was nightly sexual assaults by older residents, accompanied by severe beatings.
Human feces were thrown at one resident. Young boys were routinely beaten by staff members and denied basic medical care. If they complained, they were told to take care of themselves. Children were hit with wooden spoons and boards. They were forced to stand with their noses against a wall for as many as four hours; if they blinked, their time started over.
Many such scenes were recorded in unflinching daily behavior logs kept by the Boys Ranch staff. One series of entries, for example, noted attacks on a 13-year-old boy, including "Soap in a sock in the shower," a favorite Boys Ranch weapon, and, in a brief but ominous entry, "Night terrorism."
Van Woerden read the behavior logs rarely, maybe once a month, he said in a court deposition last year. But even then, he wasn't moved to stop the fighting.
A log entry that talked about "the fight or rather the beating that David gave to Terrence" did not necessarily mean anyone had been beaten, the former director said. "I don't know who said that. It may have been an unskilled staff member that doesn't understand the difference between a beating and a couple of good slugs."
Sexual encounters - from experimental "acting out," in the parlance of social workers, to coercive incidents, including rape among the boys, to occasional sexual assaults by staff members - were routine.
David, the 10-year-old who was initiated with a gladiator-style fist-fight, said he was repeatedly raped by two older residents, and that his pleas for help were ignored by the staff.
A 10-year-old identified in court papers as Boy Q said he was raped by a staff member. Bleeding and in pain, the boy said he complained to Collette Queener, the assistant director, and asked if he could see a doctor. "Queener told him that the bleeding was not a problem and that it would stop," according to settlement documents in his lawsuit.
As far back as 1978, a staff member was found to have had sex with a resident while on a camping trip, according to Van Woerden's deposition. The man admitted the act to Van Woerden, who called the sheriff and had him arrested.
In 1980, a Kitsap County man who reportedly donated $20,000 worth of lakefront property to the Boys Ranch was allowed to have residents visit him on weekends. He was subsequently convicted of molesting them.
Eventually, even the home's administrators accepted sex among the boys as a way of life. Queener, a former nun and Idaho parochial-school teacher, was asked in her deposition if there was any way to stop the kids from having sex. "It didn't appear to be possible," she said.
Russell, whose name was Laura Rambo while she was head counselor at the Ranch, had a similar take: "If two boys want to have sex, they will figure out a way, just like if two boys want to smoke a cigarette, or if two boys want to shoplift at a store, they will figure out a way," she said in her deposition.
It was against this background that on the evening of June 14, 1992, five boys from the Ranch broke into a nearby house, stole alcohol and brought it back to their rooms. Upstairs, after drinking the booze and sharing it with two more boys, the group of seven disrobed.
The resulting "orgy," as everyone later called it, lasted through the night. Staff members, required by law and contract to provide 24-hour supervision, broke up the scene twice but didn't keep the boys separated. Sex continued until the morning.
The oldest boy was 17 (although the Boys Ranch contract allowed no residents older than 16); the two youngest were 11.
Even by the loose standards of the O.K. Boys Ranch, this was excessive. Two days later, on June 16, Rambo placed a call to Miriam Madison, a 27-year veteran of the state's child-welfare system and the Child Protective Services supervisor for Southwest Washington.
Rambo wanted some advice.
Urgent phone calls to the state, on the relatively rare occasions that the Boys Ranch staff made them, rarely helped - at least not from the boys' perspective.
Officials in three different branches of Children and Family Services regularly dismissed complaints from Boys Ranch residents, as well as independent reports concerning their safety.
Investigators were quick to believe the self-interested stories of alleged perpetrators or to accept problem-minimizing explanations from the staff. Allegations of abuse were frequently discounted, and the complainants often were accused of trying to shift attention away from their own misdeeds.
Some of that is understandable, social workers say. Children who end up as residents of a group home like the O.K. Boys Ranch are, by definition, troubled kids. Most are there because they were unsafe in their original home and couldn't be controlled in one or more foster homes.
As a "Level 3" group home, the Boys Ranch took the worst of these cases. Many of the kids had been abused physically or sexually or both. Many were prone to run away, to fight, to use drugs. Some were sexual aggressors; some had been prostitutes. Many had been in trouble with the law. Some were habitual liars or had trouble discerning reality.
One boy who accused others at the Ranch of raping him, for example, also thought the FBI and CIA had dispatched squads of assassins to hunt him down, a DSHS investigator said. Even for a trained social worker, it was sometimes difficult to find the truth.
Partly for that reason, the DSHS children's services system is set up in triplicate, with some overlapping responsibility. The idea is that if people in one part of the system are unable for whatever reason to see to a child's interests, somebody in another branch will.
Child Protective Services is the front-line defense. CPS workers have authority to remove children from unsafe homes; any allegation of child abuse reported to CPS, even an anonymous phone call, is required to be investigated.
Child Welfare Services, a second level, assigns a caseworker to each child removed from a home by CPS. Child Welfare Services then attempts to place such kids in a safer environment. Ideally, they are placed with a relative; failing that, in foster care or, as a last resort, in a group home such as the Boys Ranch.
Finally, there is the DSHS licensing program, which regulates and monitors group homes. Licensers have authority not only to renew or deny a group-home license once every three years but to summarily revoke a license.
When serious abuse is found, including any physical beating and
most sexual contact, an employee in any of the three branches is required to contact both police and the appropriate person in the other two branches of DSHS. With competent people in these jobs, there are enough checks and balances to compensate for an occasional fumble.
In addition, an auditing branch of DSHS conducts periodic reviews of operations such as the Boys Ranch to make sure the triple-backup system is working.
As the case of a young boy named Terrence illustrated, however, it was possible for all three branches of the agency to fumble a case at the same time, and then ignore an auditor who discovered their mistakes.
Terrence arrived at the O.K. Boys Ranch in September 1987. He was 11, and Eric Bailey, the DSHS group-home monitor, noted at the time that Terrence seemed vulnerable; he lacked the street smarts and toughness most of the other boys had.
He was initiated after lights out on his second night at the Ranch: The other kids entered his room and took turns beating him. A few nights later, an older boy returned to Terrence's room and forced him to perform a sexual act.
The following month, according to the behavior logs, Terrence complained about constant intimidation. One morning, he said, a group of residents urinated on his clothes. He was afraid to go to school because the boys threatened to beat him up. A week before his 12th birthday, in November, Terrence was walking in the woods near the Ranch when a boy named David surprised him, grabbed his neck and pummeled his face.
Terrence had had enough.
On Dec. 3, he ran away and made his way to a nearby convenience store. He telephoned a social worker, Richard Englund, to report he had been raped by two older boys at the Ranch; he pleaded not to return.
But not long after the phone call, as Terrence waited at the 7-Eleven, Van Woerden and another staffer drove up in a van to take him "home." Englund's first call had been to the Boys Ranch.
In the van, Terrence named the two boys he accused of raping him (one had a history of sex offenses), and said there had been more than one attack.
The resulting investigation was, if nothing else, swift.
Bailey, the group-home monitor, arrived that same day. He asked Terrence if he had been coerced by the other two boys. This time, Terrence said no. Bailey didn't interview the alleged perpetrators - who later acknowledged the sexual contact to Rambo, the counselor - or the second staffer in the van. His conclusion, made on the spot after an inquiry that lasted less than five minutes, was that Terrence was in no danger.
Based on that assessment, Van Woerden called Englund to report that Terrence hadn't been raped after all but had been involved in "typical adolescent experimentation." He then called CPS investigator George Hartwell to head off any more questioning. Bailey's interview had "handled the investigation," Hartwell agreed.
No further action was taken by CPS, and there is no record that either the Boys Ranch or the state contacted police as required. In a matter of hours, the triple-failsafe system had been breached.
What everybody knew at the time but didn't see as a problem, was that Bailey, the assigned group-home watchdog, had worked at the O.K. Boys Ranch in the mid-1970s. He considered Van Woerden one of his closest friends.
Recalling the incident in a deposition last year, seven years after the fact, Bailey said he had no regrets about his brief investigation.
"Having sex with other residents of the Boys Ranch is certainly not recommended behavior, appropriate behavior or healthy behavior," Bailey said, "but it's a far cry between a voluntary sexual thing and a rape. And when I left, I was satisfied in my mind that this was not a situation in which a child had been victimized, and I'm absolutely certain that if there was any doubt in my mind that I would have placed him in a shelter bed."
Hartwell said in an interview it would be wrong to blame caseworkers for continued abuse at the Ranch because when they saw a problem they filed a report with regional supervisors.
"What happened to it at that point, I don't know. We made it clear that there were problems with the Ranch," he said. "Whether or not someone was paying attention, I don't know, but apparently not."
Terrence, barely 12 at the time, stayed at the Ranch for nearly two years after the incident, suffering, he said, repeated rapes and beatings.
Much of this was already on the record in 1989, when the O.K. Boys Ranch operating license came up for renewal.
In October of the previous year, a DSHS program auditor named Art Cantrall launched an intensive review of the Boys Ranch, concentrating on an 18-month period, from May 1987 to October 1988.
He found 39 serious violations, including 15 that had been flagged during the last full-scale audit, in 1981, but never corrected.
Cantrall reported unsanitary conditions, poor training of staff and incomplete medical records. He found that none of the top administrators - Van Woerden, Queener and Rambo - had the required masters of social work degree (this had also been noted in 1981 and, before that, in 1979).
The bookkeeping system was deemed unacceptable. Money was commingled, in violation of both state law and generally accepted accounting principles, so it was nearly impossible to determine whether state money had been spent appropriately. Even so, Cantrall found what appeared to be systematic over-billing and double-billing of the state; he identified $106,000 in overpayments to the Ranch during the 18-month auditing period and recommended the state take immediate steps to recover it.
One problem was that the Ranch, though billing the state extra for counseling the boys, had no perceptible therapeutic program (and no staffer qualified to administer one).
But Cantrall was most disturbed by another discovery: There was a clear pattern of the Boys Ranch staff failing to report incidents of apparent abuse to police, to DSHS or to the boys' parents, as required by law. Among the unreported abuse, Cantrall said, were sexual assaults among the boys and apparently frequent physical beatings, including by staff members.
His final recommendation, released in June 1989, was emphatic:
"The auditors determined the operation of the O.K. Boys Ranch to be NOT IN COMPLIANCE with the terms and conditions of the contracts and state regulations and policies. The agency had serious problems requiring immediate corrective action."
Cantrall released his final audit report on June 24, four days before the Boys Ranch license was set to expire. Based on his findings alone, a strong argument could have been made for nonrenewal, for closing the home down.
The state had established 10 minimum licensing requirements, most concerning the immediate physical safety of children, that had to be satisfied by facilities like the Boys Ranch. On these 10 standards, the law was clear: A licenser had no discretion, it said, but "shall" revoke, suspend or decline to renew a license if any one of the 10 conditions were not met.
By Cantrall's account, the Ranch was out of compliance with eight of the 10 requirements. The law required that it be closed.
But licenser Steve Ennett, who was assigned to the Ranch that year, said in a deposition later that he paid little attention to Cantrall's audit. During his own investigation, "I did not find anything that indicated to me that there was inappropriate supervision at those times," he said in a deposition last year.
Which meant, he said, there was no need to investigate further.
Ennett and his supervisor, Regional Administrator Mark Redal, decided to give Van Woerden time to respond to the audit. They granted a six-month provisional license through the end of December. In that period, on threat of closure, the Ranch would have to both comply with the requirements, and provide reasonable assurances that it could continue to do so.
After he read Cantrall's audit, Van Woerden disputed some of the facts and promised to address others.
Together, he, Ennett, Redal and Cantrall agreed on a Corrective Action Plan for achieving compliance. The Ranch would meet all the minimum requirements, including the long-flouted master's degree requirement, before the provisional license could be renewed. The plan also called for the overbilled money to be repaid, and for the licensing office to regularly review the Boys Ranch behavior logs.
But on every point, the Corrective Action Plan was scuttled.
Redal waived the need for a master's in social work even though his boss, Joyce Hopson, had insisted it be met.
Ennett converted the provisional license to a full license, marking many of the 10 minimum requirements with a "P," for presumed compliance, on a DSHS form. He presumed the Ranch was complying with the law, he later said, because Van Woerden had promised that it would.
A dispute-resolution hearing was convened on the money. After more than a year of haggling, the $106,000 in overcharges and double-billing was settled for $6,903 in cash and a promise by Van Woerden to take in two extra boys for a year, at no charge to the state. That in-kind payment was never fulfilled.
Nobody from the licensing office ever looked at the behavior logs. On their pages, the sex and beatings continued.
Sexual activity condoned
Miriam Madison answered her phone on June 16, 1992, to find Rambo on the line.
As both recalled later, Rambo related to Madison that a group of boys had burglarized a home, gotten drunk and had sex with each other. She wanted to know if it was necessary to report what had happened. Madison, according to her own deposition, reacted without astonishment.
"I told her that if they were of the same age and it was consensual, that that did not need to be reported to law enforcement," Madison said.
Madison acknowledges she did not order an investigation or follow up in any other way, as the law required her to do.
During the deposition, Madison was asked if Rambo had told her the ages of the boys involved. No, Madison said, nor had she asked. "It was my assumption that the boys were about the same age," which she further assumed to be 12 to 14, she said.
Similarly, she wasn't told and didn't ask how many boys were involved - "I guess my impression was maybe four; a group is usually more than two" - or what the nature of the sexual activity was.
Less than two weeks after this easily dismissed all-night orgy among not four but seven boys, not 12 to 14 but 11 to 17 years old, there was a second all-night incidence of group sex involving some of the same boys, and several days after that the Lake Cushman canoe trip.
Now the Olympia Police Department, acting on complaints from boys who said they were raped, was beginning its own investigation into the orgies. That set in motion a round of circular logic within DSHS.
On July 15, Olympia Police Chief John Wurner and Sgt. Nancy Gassett met with DSHS officials to discuss the case. The group included regional administrator Redal and the assistant administrator, Kristy Galt, along with Madison from CPS and three from the licensing office: Ed Putman, Sue Corwin and their direct supervisor, Jim O'Neal.
Putman and O'Neal had only recently granted a new license to the Boys Ranch, despite Putman's discovery on his first visit there in January of "30 to 40" serious violations. But as they both said later, they were unaware at the time of the facility's blemished record.
O'Neal had taken over as licensing manager in 1991; Putman had assumed the Boys Ranch case at the start of 1992. But Redal had not given them the previous licensing records and had never mentioned either Cantrall's audit or the behavior logs, both men said in sworn statements.
If he had seen the audit and the unfulfilled Corrective Action Plan, Putman said later, he would not have renewed the license in February 1992. Furthermore, he said, if he had been the licensing examiner in 1989, when the audit was completed, he would have moved to immediately shut down the Ranch.
Now, at this meeting, Police Chief Wurner and his investigating sergeant told the group that the new allegations of neglect and failure to report abuse were quite serious; they merited investigation by DSHS as well as by the police.
Over the following weeks, the police and state officials also met with members of the O.K. Boys Ranch board of directors, a group of Kiwanis members that included Thurston County Superior Court Judge Susan Dubuisson, Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Lane and several Olympia business leaders.
Putman and O'Neal recommended the operating license be revoked immediately. Redal decided to wait for the results of the police investigation and to see what came of a new Corrective Action Plan, drafted with the Boys Ranch board.
As O'Neal recalled it last year, Soliz attended one of these July meetings. Soliz disputes this; she says she wasn't brought up to speed on the Boys Ranch until November. But O'Neal said he specifically remembered telling Soliz of the orgy and asking her to consider revoking the license.
Her response? "She may have made a comment to suggest that that would be considered," O'Neal said, "but she did not say revoke the license. If she had, we would have."
The plan was to wait for the results of the police investigation.
Police knew Ranch well
Olympia Police had investigated the O.K. Boys Ranch before, much more often than Chief Wurner would have liked.
Boys from the Ranch always seemed to be getting into trouble. As far back as 1985, the chief had met with the Kiwanis Club's Boys Ranch board of directors to alert them to problems.
On that occasion, Wurner recalled, he told the board members the Ranch was generating more police calls than any place else in the city.
He was appalled at their response. As members of the O.K. Boys Ranch board, these individuals' legal responsibility was to keep vigil on the group home. Wurner expected his talk to be met with concern and action.
Instead, he said in an interview, "They basically told me not to stick my nose into something I didn't know anything about. They said Van Woerden was the expert and I wasn't."
Later, board members also disregarded Cantrall's audit, and its finding that apparent sexual abuse had gone unreported.
"It should have been a warning sign, in hindsight," former board member Virgil Clarkson said of the audit. "But we had so much faith in Tom (Van Woerden) and his staff. He gave us the impression that children of that age acted out their sexual fantasies - if you will. He was the authority."
The board didn't look further into the allegations.
Even other Kiwanis officials had difficulty getting information about the Ranch.
Robert Van Schoorl, the Kiwanis Club's president in 1992 and 1993, said he grew concerned about Van Woerden's operation but was "rebuffed" by Ranch board members when he tried to find out more.
Four days after meeting with the Boys Ranch board in July, Police Chief Wurner wrote to Lane, the board member who was also an assistant attorney general, outlining the apparent crimes police investigators had turned up.
Wurner wrote: "We offer this information to you as evidence of the profound impact criminal conduct perpetrated by residents of the O.K. Boys Ranch is having on our community and the residents themselves."
Still, the board of directors rebuffed the chief and supported the Boys Ranch staff.
Clarkson, a financial manager with the state Department of Transportation, said in an interview, "I guess we just weren't ready to accept all this was happening. To do otherwise would have meant saying, `I'm sorry staff, you let this place go to the dogs, and you're out of here.' "
If the board wasn't willing to make that determination, Chief Wurner and the Olympia city prosecutor, Reiko Cushman, were.
On Sept. 23, Cushman wrote Thurston County Prosecutor Patrick Sutherland, recommending that criminal charges of failure to report abuse be filed against Van Woerden, Queener and Rambo.
The June orgies were the tip of the iceberg, she said. It was clear from the city's investigation that the Ranch staff had known for years about physical and sexual abuse and that it had gone unreported, let alone treated.
"The actual atmosphere in which the boys live is chaotic, without controls or structure, and basically permitted a gross level of abuse of every description to be perpetuated among the residents," Cushman wrote. "The environment, far from being a beneficial, therapeutic one, is an environment likely to develop and increase criminal activity among these boys, particularly sexually predatory behavior."
Sutherland was president-elect of the Olympia Kiwanis, but strongly objected later to the implication his judgment was clouded by his involvement with the Kiwanis.
In any event, after a rare personal appeal in his office by both Cushman and Wurner, Sutherland was noncommittal. He thanked them for their time and said he'd take the matter under advisement.
At DSHS, the tail-chasing that was passing for an investigation was now nearly complete.
In November, Hartwell submitted the results of his second, more thorough review of the Ranch.
This time, he found "a general lack of understanding by the Boys Ranch staff . . . of the serious implications of sexual behavior for the physical and emotional health of the residents, and of what incidents were reportable."
The prevailing attitude, he said, was that "boys will be boys."
Even so, Hartwell reached a basic agreement with Van Woerden on "seven areas of improvement or correction." The details, he said, could be worked out between the Ranch and the licensing office.
But Soliz was not satisfied with the improvement plan alone; Van Woerden had signed and ignored such plans before. In December, she met with the Boys Ranch board and issued an ultimatum:
If the Kiwanis wanted to keep the Boys Ranch open, she said, Van Woerden would have to go.
The board resisted this suggestion, too. But not long afterward, Van Woerden's attorney, Jerome Buzzard, called the prosecutor's office with a proposal: If Sutherland agreed not to file criminal charges, Van Woerden would resign.
Sutherland took the deal, and on Jan. 1, 1993, Queener was installed as director.
Although she had barely escaped criminal charges, Queener was the only candidate interviewed by the Boys Ranch board.
"We knew she was a person of high moral standards, and she worked well with the children," said board president Jane Skinner. The board members knew this, Skinner added, because that's what Van Woerden had told them.
As for Van Woerden, when he departed, his friends in the Kiwanis raised $1,485 as a retirement gift; the board also voted to give him $10,000 in severance pay. Said Clarkson: "I wanted him to go out in a blaze of glory."
With the criminal inquiry now concluded, DSHS could finish its own work.
It didn't take long. Since there was no criminal case, there was no proof of illegal activity, which meant there was no need for further CPS investigation, which meant there was no need for any action by the licensing office.
On Feb. 5, Redal lifted the stop-placement order. Probation was over. The O.K. Boys Ranch was back in business.
Business as usual
Nothing much changed at the Boys Ranch after Queener assumed control. By some accounts, life there actually got worse.
In 1993, with Mike Lowry now in the governor's office and Jean Soliz now his appointee as DSHS secretary, there were at least 92 "reportable" incidents at the Boys Ranch - incidents that should have been reported to CPS or the police.
A licensing review in August found 16 violations of either the minimum licensing requirements or the previous year's new and improved Corrective Action Plan.
In the first nine months of 1994, there were 97 reportable incidents.
In June, the legal guardian of one of the residents called CPS to report conditions at the Ranch: "general filth and clutter; cooked food left out attracting flies before being served; residents smoking tobacco and marijuana."
CPS determined the complaint was unfounded, the residents at low risk.
Finally, in September, after more reports of sexual assaults and physical abuse, and the settlement of one suit against the state for $4.1 million, Soliz ordered the Boys Ranch closed.
It had been more than two years since the June 1992 orgies that prompted a dead-end police investigation. Five years since state officials ignored an auditor's findings and renewed the home's operating license. Seven years since an investigator determined that 12-year-old Terrence, who had run away from the Boys Ranch in terror, was in no danger.
When she charged Van Woerden, Queener and Russell, Attorney General Christine Gregoire said she also would have liked to charge DSHS officials at all levels and members of the Ranch board.
She couldn't, she said, because under state law none of them had committed a provable crime.
Today, many of those who were residents of the Boys Ranch have post-traumatic stress or other continuing emotional or behavioral problems, their attorneys say. Of the latest 10 boys to reach a settlement with the state, five are in juvenile detention.
Andy, a youth who arrived at the Ranch as a 12-year-old in 1991 and was among the boys who sued, has an idea of justice for those who were supposed to protect him.
"The only really fit punishment for them is to go through what we went through," he said. "It was hell."
------------------------------------ A LONG TRAIL OF MISSED OPPORTUNITIES ------------------------------------
In the 23 years the O.K. Boys Ranch was in operation, there were literally hundreds of incidents that should have raised concerns among the people who ran it and regulated it.
1985: Olympia Police Chief John Wurner meets with the Kiwanis Club's Boys Ranch board of directors to tell them the home was generating more police calls than any place in the city. The board tells him to butt out.
February 1986: State licensing inspection finds at least 15 deficiencies at the Ranch. The staff disputes some, promises to correct others. In two follow-up inspections the problems are not corrected, but no further action is taken.
June 1989: Auditor Art Cantrall finds 39 serious violations at the Boys Ranch, 15 of which had also been identified in a 1981 audit but never corrected. The audit identifies a clear pattern of the staff failing to report abuse and finds the home out of compliance on eight of 10 licensing standards. Although the law required the home to be closed, licensing officials decide to keep it open.
March and April 1992: DSHS licenser Ed Putman twice recommends closing the Ranch; regional supervisor Mark Redal takes no action.
June 1992: Boys Ranch staff reports group sex among ranch residents; DSHS supervisor Miriam Madison says no formal report is necessary if the sex was consensual.
July 1992: Olympia police begin investigation of sexual abuse at the Ranch. Police brief both DSHS workers and Kiwanis board; officials of both decide to keep Boys Ranch open.
September 1992: Olympia city prosecutor recommends that three top staff members at the Ranch be prosecuted for failure to report sexual abuse. The county prosecutor, Patrick Sutherland, later declines to prosecute. Sutherland, now deceased, was president-elect of the Olympia Kiwanis Club.
January 1993: Ranch director Thomas Van Woerden resigns under pressure. The board replaces him with Collette Queener, Van Woerden's longtime deputy.
September 1994: More reports of sexual abuse. Boys Ranch closed.
------------------------------------ KEY PLAYERS AT O.K. BOYS RANCH . . . ------------------------------------
Louie Balukoff / AP: Thomas Van Woerden served as director of the Boys Ranch from its inception in 1971 until he was forced out in 1993. During his tenure, the Kiwanis Club-run Ranch's board of directors maintained full allegiance to his authority. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of criminal mistreatment.
Louis Balukoff / AP: Collette Queener, the ranch's long-time assistant director, replaced Van Woerden in the top spot in 1993. Complaints of abuse, though, continued under the watch of the former nun and Idaho parochial-school teacher. She has pleaded not guilty to criminal charges stemming from her work at the ranch.
Louis Balukoff / AP: Laura Russell (formerly Laura Rambo) worked at the Ranch for a year beginning in 1980 and then returned in 1983 for a 10-year stint as head counselor. In 1992, Olympia police recommended that she be charged with failure to report child abuse. Last month, she pleaded not guilty to criminal mistreatment charges.
. . . AND AT D.S.H.S. ----------------------
Ron Wurzer / Seattle Times: Jean Soliz, who took over the state Children and Family Services Division in 1992, allowed the Boys Ranch to stay open despite a police investigation that recommended the three top Ranch staffers face criminal charges for failing to report abuse. As secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services in 1994, she ordered the Ranch closed.
-------------------- DOCUMENTS TELL STORY --------------------
The O.K. Boys Ranch generated thousands of pages of documents during its 23 years of operation.
Documents reviewed for this story include audits by the Department of Social and Health Services, investigative reports compiled as part of the criminal case against former Ranch staff, internal Ranch behavior logs, DSHS incident reports, Olympia police reports and more than a dozen depositions taken as part of a lawsuit filed by former Ranch residents.
In addition, interviews were conducted with current and former DSHS staff, former residents of the Ranch, Kiwanis members and others.
The three former staff members who have been charged with criminal mistreatment would not be interviewed. Attorneys for Tom Van Woerden, Collette Queener and Laura Rambo all said their clients would not talk to the media.
Key Boys Ranch board members were also not interviewed. Jeffery Lane, an assistant attorney general, declined to comment. District Court Judge Susan Dubison and realtor Jane Skinner did not return repeated telephone calls for comment.
At DSHS, regional supervisor Mark Redal and licensing examiner Steve Ennett also declined to comment.
Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.