Growing up on the family farm in North Walpole, New Hampshire, Carolyn Blake Bradshaw lived on candy, scavenged apples and sandwiches from teachers. She remembers the constant, gnawing hunger.
Her mother put her into foster care, and by the time she reached the age of 10, she had lived in five different homes. At one point, Bradshaw was sent to the Weeks School, a reform school for children in Vergennes, even though she doesn’t recall having done anything wrong, except to have been born into a family with no means.
It wasn’t until she was sent to the New England Kurn Hattin Homes for Children that she ate three square meals a day.
But it was also there at the residential girls school in Saxtons River that for the first time, Bradshaw says, she was routinely abused.
The physical abuse began the day in November 1951 that her mother left her in the lobby. Ethel Ford, an employee, appeared and said, “Oh, it’s you. I want you to clean the stairs with a broom and a dustpan,” and she walked away.
The 12-year-old stood there, dumbfounded, then had the presence of mind to ask another girl in the room where she might find the broom and dustpan. Overhearing the question, Ford roared, “I told you to do that,” and slapped her hard on the face. Bradshaw started screaming. A few minutes later, another woman, the cook, came out of the kitchen and put tape over her mouth.
“I could hardly breathe,” Bradshaw recalled. “I was in a panic.” Eventually, the cook ripped off the tape. “That was my introduction to Kurn Hattin. It was very, very scary.”
From that moment forward, Bradshaw said she experienced some form of physical or psychological abuse nearly every day of the three years she lived at the school. For minor infractions like chewing gum or talking, girls at Kurn Hattin in the 1950s were ordered at bedtime to stand in line against a wall for eight hours at a time, Bradshaw recalls. When girls wet the bed, the houseparents made them stand all night wearing a diaper.
She thought about running away, but said she dispensed with the idea after another girl who left was dragged back to the school and went berserk, punching the walls and screaming. That girl was sent to the Brattleboro Retreat, a nearby mental health facility, she recalls.
Into the 1970s, children at Kurn Hattin, which included a boys’ campus in Westminster and a girls’ facility in Saxtons River, performed manual labor — raising and preparing their own food, cleaning, taking care of animals, haying, and hauling milk for the dairy and sap for sugaring.
Bradshaw remembers getting up at 5 a.m. to make breakfast for the 40 girls in her cottage every day for three months. If she talked back to the staff, she was made to wash all of the dishes, too. One of her chores was scrubbing the dorm stairs with a toothbrush and the kitchen walls with oakite, an acidic cleanser that burned and blistered her hands. Another time, she and other children stripped varnish from the floor of the gymnasium.
“They just worked you to the bone,” Bradshaw said. “I was like a slave there.”
Bradshaw and three of her siblings ended up at Kurn Hattin. One brother was injured in a sledding accident at the home for boys and never regained his mental capacity. The eldest brother, Christian, was tormented by Deputy Director John Watson, who molested him five to six times in the 1940s, she said.The administrator would take two boys at a time on excursions to a campground or a motel where he would sexually assault them by turn, she said. Watson switched off with a different pair of boys for each trip, according to Bradshaw.
“He was married to the director’s daughter,” Bradshaw said. “No one would question what he did. He did what he wanted.”
In a taped interview about his experiences, Christian explained how he was abused by the deputy director, who is now deceased. “He said he was one of [the deputy director’s] favorites,” Bradshaw said. “Some boys [he] didn’t touch.”
In the 1990s, Christian confronted Kurn Hattin with the allegations and threatened a lawsuit. He gave an official at the school an original draft of his writings. She shredded the book, which he’d titled “No Ma, No Pa,” according to Bradshaw.
Pete Mayo, the longtime director of Kurn Hattin, made another brother, Harold, at age 10, spend the night in a dirt cellar under one of the buildings with the rats, Bradshaw recalls. Later, Harold cracked his head open when his sled hit a wall at Kurn Hattin. He did not receive medical treatment and never advanced past the mental age of a 12-year-old, she said.
“He was 16 when they finally let him out of there,” she said. “They kept him back because of that head injury. No one had to pay for that injury in any way, shape or form.”
Another boy, Max Lincoln, lost both legs when his pants was caught in a corn shucker in the early 1950s, according to a history of the school written by a former alumni, John Hurd. Kurn Hattin paid for his education and gave him a cash settlement of $35,000.
Now 80, Bradshaw, along with more than a dozen plaintiffs represented by the firm Andrus Wagstaff, is preparing a civil lawsuit against Kurn Hattin for perpetuating a culture of child abuse over a period of nearly eight decades.
Victims allege residential school administrators knew about the abuse and did nothing to stop it. Child survivors say they were threatened by adults and peers who demanded that they keep the sexual assaults and other abuses secret.
“I look at it from the viewpoint, I hope and pray to God no other kids today are molested and abused,” Bradshaw said. “I’m sure there’s a lot of them who were. If they have, and, if they do, it’s time to bring it out into the open and expose it. I want the truth to come out.”
State records, interviews expose a culture of abuse
As Bradshaw suspected, the abuse did continue, for years. In every decade since the 1940s, when her brother Christian was molested by Deputy Director Watson, victims say they were molested by other students, bus drivers, teachers, houseparents and administrators.
Eerily similar patterns of sexual, physical and psychological abuse were covered up for decades, child survivors say. Documents, social media posts and interviews with victims describe how more than 60 children who were sent to Kurn Hattin to escape troubled homes were allegedly assaulted from the 1940s through 2019.
While Kurn Hattin faced a publicized criminal case in 1989, victims from the late 1960s recently came forward as part of a pending lawsuit. Other revelations of abuse from a period of 80 years have emerged only in the past several months.
In a statement on the front page of the school’s website, Kurn Hattin director Steve Harrison said the administration was “not aware of these additional, new allegations.”
“Given that most of the new alleged incidents occurred as much as 50 to 60 years ago, it is difficult to ascertain what happened, especially since most of the Homes’ leaders from that time are no longer alive,” Harrison said.
In several interviews, Harrison has declined to comment on these and more recent allegations, which occurred between 2015 and 2019. He referred inquiries to his attorney, Gary Karnedy at the Burlington firm Primmer Piper Eggleston and Cramer. In an interview on Sept. 4, Harrison said the attorney “has been clear about making sure we are sensitive to the situation and not putting the school or the homes in any kind of difficult position. We’re not trying to hide anything by any stretch.”
Child survivors say Kurn Hattin continues to deny any culpability. Three victims say they, or their siblings, confronted administrators in the 1990s about having been molested by adults and peers at the school. The administration refused to take the allegations seriously and rebuffed the former students, they say.
One alum, with the pseudonym Carter, says a boy who was the victim of a Kurn Hattin administrator in the 1950s went on to become a houseparent. That man, in turn, molested at least three boys in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Carter said, including another victim, John Doe, who also asked not to be identified.
John Doe said he was raped by the houseparent at least 50 times — in a school bus, cars and in the cottages where the boys lived — over four to five years. The molestation started when the boy was 7 years old and continued until he was 12, he said in an interview. Because of the trauma, John Doe suffers from severe memory loss, but he remembers being abused in locations all over the campus, and specifically that the man would give him Hostess pies “then start messing around with me.” The Kurn Hattin employee tried anal sex with him a number of times and made him perform a blow job as he was driving while they were traveling to Massachusetts to see the man’s girlfriend, John Doe said.
In eighth grade, he said he was pulled into the deputy director’s office and asked to talk about the abuse. John Doe distinctly recalls his abuser fleeing the office.
In 1989, Mark W. Davis, a former employee who lived with a houseparent, was charged with molesting 17 boys and went to jail a year later. 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.” (Troopers at the Westminster barracks, about a mile from Kurn Hattin, refused to speak with a reporter.)
Interviews with parents and new documents from the Department for Children and Families show that another 20 children were involved in peer-on-peer sexual assaults and exploitation between 2015 and 2019 in “hazing” behaviors that appear to have been passed along from previous residents, victims say.
Kurn Hattin has refused over the years to investigate claims, victims say, and the administration attempted to rebut the recent allegations in communications with the state. Harrison, who has served as executive director of Kurn Hattin since 2015 and holds a Masters of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, described the Davis case as a “legacy” situation “that had been dealt with.” As for allegations from 2019, he said, “We followed all of the policies of DCF. That would be the extent of my comment.”
The school now faces two civil lawsuits. In 2019, Vermont became the only state to remove the statute of limitations on civil suits for child sexual assaults, allowing victims to sue for abuse that happened long ago. The law gives victims, who are often silenced by perpetrators and are too traumatized to seek justice as children and young adults, an opportunity to find resolution in the courts as adults.
Nathan Foote, lead attorney for Andreozzi and Foote law firm, is representing 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.
Andrus Wagstaff attorney Kim Dougherty became involved in a separate pending civil action after Carter reached out to her in March. The firm announced in a press release issued July 2 that victims were coming forward “after decades of silence” to seek justice. Dougherty says the firm has documented dozens of survivor stories and is now representing more than 15 plaintiffs.
“While evidence suggests school leadership knew about the abuse over the years, little action was taken to stop it or remove the accused abusers,” Dougherty said. “A culture of abuse permeated the school and caused a decades-long cycle of child abuse that many of the school’s alumni are still dealing with today.”
Led by Dougherty, 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. They also represent dozens of Boy Scouts and plaintiffs with claims against the Catholic Church.
Despite the recent statements made by Kurn Hattin, Dougherty said the “egregious” misconduct occurred at a “grand scale” and involved teachers and administrators. Hundreds of children, from the ages of 5 to 15, who were sent there to escape extreme poverty and abuse at the homes, cycled through the school over 80 years. “Pedophiles find the most vulnerable people to prey on and that’s what we have here,” she said.
She anticipates that more plaintiffs from all over the country are likely to come forward. Her clients range in age from 12 to 80 years old. “In order to become the safe place it holds itself out to be, Kurn Hattin needs to stop their defensive denial and recognize these survivors and their suffering,” Dougherty said. “Without that acknowledgement, there will be little change.”
When news of the pending lawsuits broke, Harrison, the executive director of Kurn Hattin, pointed to the 1989 Davis case and would not comment on the more recent allegations, which are now part of an independent investigation. “We were aware of a group from the 1980s because the abuser was identified, convicted, and incarcerated in 1991,” Harrison wrote. “We fully investigated the incidents at the time, felt confident we knew the full scope, and are working to put that sickening chapter behind us.”
The school has hired an independent investigator recommended by the Council of Residential Excellence, Harrison said, who has “dealt with a fair number of cases of this sort and retired as an administrator from a similar kind of institution in Texas.” Comments on the Kurn Hattin Facebook page about abuse are part of the investigation, he said. “People are entitled to their own experience and relating those. I can’t speak to the context.”
In an interview, Harrison said he is looking for a public relations and reputation management firm to handle blowback from the allegations. He declined to comment on how the news has impacted enrollments and the school’s finances.
“We are a home for children with a 125-year history of quality care for children, and we continue to provide that same quality care today as when the school was founded,” Harrison said.
Last week, under pressure from the Department for Children and Families, Kurn Hattin relinquished its license to operate a residential treatment program. The state worked with the institution for nearly a year but couldn’t get the school administration to comply with mandatory reporting requirements.
DCF Commissioner Sean Brown said that unwillingness to communicate with the state about abuses was a deal-breaker. “Obviously we’re concerned about the well-being of vulnerable children,” Brown said in an interview. “If we’re not aware of situations, we can’t ensure that children are protected. That’s an incredible concern for us.”
In the past, incidents involved staff, Brown said. More recently, the abuse has been “youth on youth.” “It’s a different dynamic, and it was pretty pervasive, too,” Brown said. “More pervasive than what DCF typically sees. This is an extraordinary case in that way, I think.”
VTDigger obtained documents from a 2019 investigation that show at least nine children and possibly as many as 15, according to a parent, molested each other. In addition, there have been significant threats of self-harm, violence or exploitation at the Westminster campus from 2015 to 2019. Harrison’s own 15-year-old foster child solicited “inappropriate” images of a 12-year-old girl and a 13-year-old Kurn Hattin student, according to records provided by DCF.
Nine boys, ages 7 to 11, were involved in a “touching club” for at least a year, investigators found. The boys groped each other and engaged in oral contact, documents show. The “club” was started by a boy in 2015 to 2016 who had since graduated, a mother of one of the boys told VTDigger.
Her son, who is developmentally delayed and had few friends, participated in the sexual activity after he was initiated by one of the perpetrators, she said, and believed he had to continue to keep his friends. The group gathered unsupervised at the Big Rock and also performed sex acts inside the Morrison Cottage. Her son was the only member of the group who was expelled from Kurn Hattin for participation in the club and was unfairly targeted, she said.
“My child was victimized by another child, and he had to go through specialized testing to make sure he’s not a threat to anybody,” the mother said. “He had to go to two different child psychologists.” It was difficult to find another school that would accept him, and he has become socially isolated and struggles with peer relationships, she said.
In yet another series of incidents in 2019, three girls said a roommate engaged in “forced masturbation,” regularly sexually assaulting them with a toothbrush in the open shower room at Kurn Hattin, according to state officials. The school administration knew about the assaults in February 2019, but did not report them to DCF until April, records show.
Another girl said she felt pressured to perform sexual acts, such as oral stimulation and inserting her fingers into the vaginas of other girls, the records show. The behavior began as “hazing,” she told an investigator who identified four girls involved in the sex acts. That same year, a 12-year-old girl told a DCF investigator that she was raped by another student in an auditorium stairway.
Similarly, a boy reported to DCF that he was forced to perform oral sex on an older boy in 2017.
Also in 2017, a student “on different occasions offered $10 to see another resident’s ‘dick’,” documents show. “He offered another resident $75 to fondle or play with his ‘dick,” according to the records. The allegations were reported on Oct. 20 that year, but it wasn’t until weeks later that Kurn Hattin officials reported the matter to DCF. “The incident simply wasn’t on the KH administration’s ‘radar,'” investigators wrote.
There have also been a number of self-harm incidents reported to authorities. In July 2019, a boy tied a sweatshirt string around his neck and threatened to kill himself and burn down one of the cottages at the school, records show. Another child that month tried to choke himself with a utility cord, according to documents. In September that year, a 7-year-old told other residents they were going to kill themselves with a gun the child had access to, state records show.
Kurn Hattin waited for months to notify the state of three of the incidents, violating state regulations. Under state law, all mandatory reporters (any one who is a child caregiver) must report abuse to DCF within 24 hours.
Brown says the results of the Residential Licensing and Special Investigations (RLSI) unit of DCF are “shocking.”
“We are in the child protection business and to think about kids being harmed there in these ways is incredibly challenging to think about. We were hoping that, as an established member of the community, they would take action to stop these behaviors.”
From 1989 to 2019, DCF placed a total of 64 children, largely from Rutland, Springfield and Brattleboro, in state custody at Kurn Hattin, an average of about three children a year out of a total census of about 100 residents.
DCF has provided the Vermont Agency of Education with the investigatory records and the agency is expected to review Kurn Hattin’s approval status as an independent residential school with the State Board of Education next month, according to Ted Fisher, director of communications for AOE.
In email exchanges with DCF in 2018 and as recently as last month, Kurn Hattin director Harrison disagreed with the findings of the investigators and claimed no violations had occurred. “I simply do not agree that this situation represented a licensure regulation on any count,” he wrote in response to a December 2019 investigatory report from DCF detailing the “touch club” and other incidents. The state followed up with a determination that Kurn Hattin needed to take corrective action.
Harrison wrote a “rebuttal” to the state’s determination in August, claiming Kurn Hattin had made significant improvements in the intervening six months. “The report was an inaccurate and inadequate depiction of the Homes as we currently operate,” he said.
“We have never been perfect and without blemish in this work with children, but we have done, and continue to do, a terrific job with the vast majority of our children in a home environment that they desperately need,” Harrison told the RLSI unit. “Today, our expectation is that we will assess, evaluate, improve, and then reassess our practices and policies in order to make the experience positive for 100% of our children, contrary it seems, to the opinion of RLSI.”
In an interview with VTDigger, Harrison said DCF had recommended that Kurn Hattin relinquish the residential treatment program license because 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.” He insisted that the school had “followed all of the policies of DCF. That would be the extent of my comment.”
Hours before publication of this second story, Harrison upbraided VTDigger, saying it was “patently false” to report in the first article that the school was pressured to relinquish its residential treatment program license with DCF.
Harrison wrote that on their own initiative they “elected” to close the residential treatment program and will continue to operate a residential educational program. “The closure of the license is entirely unrelated to any issues of alleged abuse, and DCF never stipulated any such finding,” he said.
Brown said residential treatment programs “are not plentiful, and when you have a provider who’s been established and make commitments to make change, you want to support them and work with them to do that.”
“They were not able to implement changes and provide the level of supervision to ensure that kids weren’t harming each other, and that brought us to the ultimate conclusion,” Brown said in an interview. “We had concerns about their program, given they couldn’t make the changes. We need to move forward here. While they didn’t agree with that, we’re quite confident we’ve made the right decision.”
David Hirshberg, the former director of Germaine Lawrence, a residential treatment center for girls in Arlington, Massachusetts, said the school had an ethical and moral duty to notify authorities immediately. “A minimally competent treatment center,” he said, would have immediately stopped sexual activity between children.
“There is bad behavior at these places,” Hirshberg said. “Kids sexually abuse other kids. You have to be supervising these kids. This is not a big surprise. When you think something happened, you have to investigate and get the authorities to investigate. Your own staff won’t want to acknowledge these things happened.
“This place should be closed down,” he continued. “What happened there shouldn’t have happened.”
‘Transforming the lives of children forever’
Charles Dickinson, the founder of the school, was a Boston-based minister and reformer who wanted to create a safe haven for homeless boys in his hometown of Westminster. The name Kurn Hattin is Hebrew and refers to the twin mountains in Israel where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
That strain of idealism is summed up by the school’s mission, which is “to transform the lives of children and families forever.” Kurn Hattin strives to “be a place of healing, hope and home” for children “with complicated family and socioeconomic backgrounds.”
In the early days of the school, many of the children were orphans or had a single parent who was abusive or struggled to put food on the table because of an illness or addiction problem. Most of the residents were from New England.
The director, Pete Mayo, was “a man of action” and ran the place for the longest period from 1927 to 1962, according to a Kurn Hattin alum who wrote a history of the school. During his tenure, the school expanded and developed a strong music program.
John Watson, Mayo’s son-in-law and deputy, took over as director when Mayo died until 1976. Both men, who have been accused of abuse by survivors, are now deceased.
As Kurn Hattin evolved over the years, the school accepted children with learning disabilities and emotional behavioral diagnoses from all over the Northeast, especially soliciting residents from racially diverse families.
Harrison told the state that Kurn Hattin accepts boys and girls from “challenging home environments of dysfunction and poverty.” The school provides children with “a stable, safe, secure, structured home environment first and a quality basic education second.”
The idyllic setting seems to underscore Kurn Hattin’s commitment to providing children with a sense of “fulfillment, success and wholeness.” The 280-acre Kurn Hattin Homes for Children campus overlooks several prominent hills in the distance and is located less than a mile from I-91 in Westminster, about 24 miles from Brattleboro. The school property is divided by a paved road, with the Dean Mathey Center, a pink granite-style block gymnasium and a swimming pool on one side, and low-slung white “cottages” on the other.
Groups of up to 24 students live with houseparents in the nine cottages tucked into the landscape near pastures and playing fields that roll away toward the highway and the Connecticut River. Nearby is a white board fence penning handsome Palomino ponies and a 19th century barn with peeling red paint and a luminescent hipped roof.
Typically, Kurn Hattin has about 95 students enrolled in the residential program. In early September, the campus appeared to be practically empty. Only one small group of boys roamed the campus with a teacher. Maintenance workers trimmed the grass and cleaned a gleaming blue pool with no children splashing in the hot sun. A few administrators, including Harrison, were in the Mathey Building.
The features of the campus loom large in the imagination of Kurn Hattin alums, whether they found solace there or faced abuse.
Many say the school has had a positive impact on their lives. They have fond memories and credit Kurn Hattin for their success as adults. On a Facebook alumni page, they mourn the passing of favorite houseparents and share memories of adventures on the farm. The school is credited with giving them moral fiber, a work ethic and lifetime connections with schoolmates.
The fundraising arm of Kurn Hattin has leveraged this loyalty to good effect — raising millions of dollars in charitable donations for its $5 million annual operating budget and a healthy reserve. In 2016, the nonprofit had assets of $47.8 million, according to financial statements provided by the Agency of Education. Plaintiffs say the school has received contributions in the hundreds of thousands of dollars from former alumni, including victims who generously support the school.
Carter who attended Kurn Hattin in the late 1960s and says he suffered years of physical, sexual and psychological abuse, also has a deep connection to his former classmates and has donated money to the school. But he is disappointed by the recent statement from Kurn Hattin, which does not acknowledge a culture of abuse that has gone on for decades, causing irrevocable damage to the victims.
He says he joined the lawsuit to break the grip of fear Kurn Hattin has had on his life. Carter has suffered from deep depressions caused by the pain and humiliation of childhood memories that constantly haunt him.
“I want the world to know the truth and the details of what happened,” Carter said. “It’s not my fault. It’s not the other survivors’ fault, it’s Kurn Hattin’s fault. They nurtured the abuse, whether they realized it or not.”
‘Nobody ever protected me’
A victim from the mid-1980s whose pseudonym is Sally Smith was sexually abused by her biological father, starting at the age of 2. When he went to prison, she was sent to Kurn Hattin, where she was serially raped by a man in his mid-20s who drove the bus and worked at the school.
“I was put there to be removed from a sexual abuse situation and then it never stopped,” she said. “Sex was just life, that’s what I was taught.”
It wasn’t like she could leave.
“Home was not a good place,” Smith said. “There was no safe place. There was no place where I could be OK. Nobody ever protected me.”
Between the ages of 12 and 14, she recalls forced sex with the Kurn Hattin worker so many times the experiences run together. She was assaulted in the pool chemical room, on the bus, in the boiler room — wherever he could corner her, she said. “When we went to the Red Sox game, he made you give him a blow job on the bus,” she recalls. In her mind, the assaults are all “one big old blob.”
“It never stopped for me that’s all that was ever talked to me,” Smith said. “I thought sex was normal — I was f—ed at 2 years old. People picked up where he [her father] left off.”
What infuriates her is that she recalls the director, David Maysilles, and others asked her about the abuse and then “just ignored it.” Maysilles, recently deceased, came from a generation that didn’t talk about sex, she said.
“They all got away with it for so many years. They all knew,” Smith said. “There isn’t a piece of me that doesn’t believe that.”
In the middle of her eighth-grade year, she said, administrators took her to a gynecologist in Bellows Falls, where she was fitted with a diaphragm. When she graduated, she said they gave her a present: A three-month supply of birth control pills. Smith was 14. A year later, she had her first child.
“Why would they give you a diaphragm halfway through the school year? They knew,” Smith said.
Smith says several years after she graduated, the Vermont State Police showed up out of the blue at her doorstep in New Hampshire and interviewed her about the perpetrator .
“I denied it,” Smith remembers. “Still in my head, I didn’t think it was wrong. In my mind, it was still OK. I didn’t understand being violated. I was scared to death with a young baby in my arms at my mother’s house.”
The former bus driver was not apprehended, and abuses at the school continued.
Time has passed, and Smith now feels able to come forward. She says she doesn’t want anyone else to get hurt. “We can’t prevent what happened to the rest of us, but we can make sure going forward nothing happens to them,” she said.
“It’s gotta stop,” she said. Smith compared the abuse at Kurn Hattin to the cycle of normalized abuse families carry forward for generations. “It took me to my mid-30s to learn that making love was just that. That I wasn’t just a f— machine.”
The sexual assaults were more than 30 years ago, but memories of the abuse came flooding back when she read about the Andrus Wagstaff lawsuit. Smith, who has been a nurse for the past 29 years and has children of her own now, says her life hasn’t been the same since the reports came out. She’s had to go back into therapy. In the interview with VTDigger, she was distraught and went directly to an appointment with her counselor afterward.
“I’m struggling hard,” Smith said. “It’s like it’s yesterday. Since July, I have constant nightmares. Things are coming into my head, little things that trigger the next thought.
“Your childhood is what you spend the rest of your life getting over,” she said. “I don’t remember toys. I don’t remember playing. I can’t conjure that at all. I remember sitting in a ball and crying. My depression is lifelong.”
‘They were my abusers, but I didn’t hate them for it’
Jenny Coleman, the executive director of Stop It Now!, a Massachusetts-based child sex abuse prevention group, says it is very common for survivors to delay disclosing abuse until years, even decades later.
Abused children are in survival mode, not knowing when it is safe to identify what happened, Coleman said. The abuse affects a child’s basic functioning. Adults aren’t trusted.
“For many folks, they don’t realize that what they’ve gone through isn’t what everyone goes through and there aren’t role models to contradict that,” Coleman said.
One of responses is, they don’t trust adults, said Hirshberg of the Massachusetts treatment center. “It’s not a stretch of the imagination to understand that,” he said.
Men, in particular, often delay disclosure for 20 years or more, according to Psychology Today. Sexual activity between boys can undermine male identity and trigger fears that they’re gay, she said.
Victims often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. And research shows that, when they do come forward, they are often subjected to victim-blaming.
One of the things that really struck Coleman about the Kurn Hattin abuse cases is that in many cases children did tell adults what was happening and their stories weren’t believed. “It’s not just abuse itself, but a lack of response to the abuse,” that can damage a child’s belief in self, she said. “It’s just such a shame. Healing can happen immediately when we respond with belief and safety.”
The culture of intense silence at Kurn Hattin likely further damaged the children psychologically, she said, because they grew up “without anyone believing them.” The children were already vulnerable and had special needs. The layer upon layer of trauma in this situation is “really profound,” she said.
“The place had no boundaries, no sense of respect for personal boundaries, the culture was riddled with abuse,” Coleman said. “I was really struck by the pervasiveness across ages, across genders, across the years.”
Childhood trauma can have a profound impact on educational success, professional success and the ability to support yourself, she said. Survivors are at high risk for physiological problems, including obesity, stress, anxiety, changes in brain development, and cardiopulmonary and gynecological diseases. They are also more likely to be revictimized and become addicted to drugs and alcohol.
“These kids often have gotten into deep trouble because they act impulsively,” Hirshberg said. “They have never seen consistent consequences. They don’t believe what they do matters. Things happen to them. They don’t believe they have choices.”
Victims of sexual assault are 10 times more likely to take their own lives than people who have not been victims of sexual assault, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
Carolyn Blake Bradshaw was so traumatized by physical and psychological abuse at Kurn Hattin that when she joined the Air Force at Lackland Air Base in the mid-1950s, she was triggered by the routine discipline and begged to be discharged.
“I couldn’t take it,” the 80-year-old said. “I had nightmares from Kurn Hattin. The Air Force was very rigid. They had stiff regulations and it brought back all the memories — I had to go to the top brass and talk to her about getting out and that’s when I realized I had some problems.”
Bradshaw had become accustomed to the normalized abuse at Kurn Hattin. “I didn’t know what they were doing to me was bad,” she said. “I suffered through it. I tucked it away and went on.”
She had anxiety attacks in the classroom and to this day suffers from agoraphobia and needs to be near an exit in a crowded room.
Bradshaw buried her experiences at Kurn Hattin and as an adult she became emotionally attached to the place. She spent time with the children, served as a vice president of the alumni board and helped Kurn Hattin raise money.
“I jumped from marriage to marriage, but I always had this thing about Kurn Hattin that I owed them my life,” she said. “I went from a home where I was starving to death. I had a bed there, I had clothes there, I had food there. I owed them my life.”
Though Bradshaw has five children of her own, she wanted a connection with the children at Kurn Hattin.
“They were my abusers but I didn’t hate them for it,” Bradshaw said. “I became family with the kids, that’s why I’ve been back. I was searching for family. I wanted family so bad.”
Hirshberg says it’s common for abused children to remain loyal to their families and to institutions that replace the family unit.
“There is nothing mysterious here — humans tend to defend, protect, and feel deeply connected to, their family,” he said. “Regardless of internal strife, the family remains the most basic institution of human life, providing a sense of safety, nurturance, and identity.
“We are a herd species and the thought of being alone in the world is horrifying; more horrifying than traumatic abuse is being alone in this scary, uncontrollable world,” Hirshberg continued. “How does this relate to feelings towards an abusive treatment facility? Residential homes are substitute families. Even when abuse occurs, residents form meaningful relationships, receive nurturance and emotional support, have shelter and food. The abuse is traumatic but it is hardly the full experience. The need for family is powerful and we humans find it wherever we can.”
‘I knew I needed to behave’
Carter says when his own children reached the age of 6, memories from the school came flooding back. “It was a horrifying epiphany,” he said. “I saw my own precious children in that place and understood that what once was normal in all that I ever knew was not normal.”
Over the years, Carter has reached out to former abusers and alums of Kurn Hattin to make sense of the place and what happened to him there. Former students are all “deeply connected to that place” because it is where they made their first friends and forged their first memories, he says. Children clung to friendships forged in harsh circumstances.
The cognitive dissonance of deep-seated fear about “a place they hold dear” is difficult to manage, Carter says.
A number of his friends and acquaintances have died young of alcoholism, overdoses, by suicide and health ailments.
Carter remembers very little about his life before he was sent to Kurn Hattin. From the moment he was dropped off at the Westminster school and separated from his mother, his consciousness quickened. Before that day, he had few memories.
That day was “the start of the rest of my life,” as he describes it.
That Sunday the school held an assembly in the Main Building where reel-to-reel movies were played.
As they waited for the start of the film, the principal of Kurn Hattin, Henry Rodgers, was pacing back and forth, scowling at the boys.
Carter paid attention and sat quietly because “I knew I needed to behave.” Then the principal stopped in front of him and said, “Pick up that gum.”
Confused, Carter asked, “What gum?”
Rodgers pulled the 45-pound boy up by the hair, threw him on the floor and ground his face into the linoleum. Then he calmly said, “I didn’t ask if it was your gum.” Then the imposing former Boston cop pulled Carter back up by the hair and told him to pick up the wad of gum.
The other students watched as Carter, in a panic, scratched with his fingernails at the hardened deposit fused to the floor.
Rodgers was not only the principal; he was also the sports coach and an eighth-grade teacher. His office was at the end of a hallway near the first- and second-grade classroom. He kept the door open. There was an easy chair where he’d sit smoking and glowering at the kids. Carter says he also held court there, “getting little boys to do his bidding and holding little girls on his lap.”
“I dreaded walking past,” Carter said.
As an adult, Carter is still tormented by the memory of that first encounter with Rodgers, and the principal lives so large in his mind that he was surprised to learn that Rodgers died of a heart attack just a few months after the chewing gum episode.
When the first- and second-grade class was told about the principal’s death, a feeling of intense joy spread over him, and he convulsed in a fit of hysterical laughter. To suppress the sound, he wrapped his arms around himself — afraid he’d be caught laughing. “I was free, I was free forever.”
But the feeling of rapture didn’t last long. While Carter’s mind was eased temporarily, life at Kurn Hattin remained a harrowing experience.
On a daily basis, Carter said he experienced and watched other boys suffer psychological torment reinforced by acts of physical and sexual abuse that were meted out at random and with a frequency that filled him with horror and dread.
Boys who stuck out in some way — who had learning disabilities or were overweight — were persecuted, Carter says. Others, he said, were “pets” groomed by adults and given special treatment. These students often became the worst bullies.
Carter said a boy he considered a friend forced him to perform oral sex. “I found out why I was the recipient of his attention in the basement of the dorm,” Carter said. In his head, he can still hear the perpetrator’s New England accent. “‘Caaaatah, you’re f—king queer,’ as if I was forcing a homosexual act on him.”
Afterward, he said, the older boy threatened to kill him. He gave him a choice: by rifle, or bow and arrow. “I took that very seriously.”
But the emotional blow was even more devastating. “I was so disappointed,” Carter said. “I felt betrayed. He had been grooming me a long time.”
A friend Carter tried to protect was forced to perform oral sex on an older boy in the showers, Carter said.
Afterward, the boy experienced mental distress, and on occasion would squeal and rock back and forth uncontrollably. To this day, Carter blames himself for not being able to stop the abuse and appears to be more traumatized by his inability to prevent the cruelty to his friend than he is by his own sexual abuse.
“To be a little boy far from home and to watch the suffering of another little boy and not to be able to do anything was terrible,” Carter said. “There are ways of dealing with your own pain.”
“The harsh reality of that place was that he shouldn’t have been there,” he said. “I couldn’t protect him and I couldn’t take care of him. But we were like brothers. That’s how I felt about him, like brothers in war.”
Another boy, who was overweight, was mercilessly taunted by a bully. At one point, Carter remembers coming across a group of boys standing in a circle in the corner of the gym. They were applauding and cheering, and at the center of the circle was the overweight kid with ropes around his ankles. The bully and his friends were tugging on his arms, too, pulling as hard as they could at both ends of the boy’s body, seemingly intent on ripping him apart.
“John was pale white, trembling and sweating profusely, he could not scream, he could not speak, only pitiful squeaks issued forth from his mouth. He looked like the victim of electric shock. It was f—ing terrifying to witness.”
Carter pushed the bully and he dropped the rope and turned away.
That same day, late in the afternoon, he came across another ring of boys near the gym. This time, they had a rope around the overweight boy’s waist and they were pulling it so taut that he couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t utter a sound.
Carter ran up to the bully and pushed him, again. This time, he put the rope around Carter’s waist and pulled it tighter and tighter until he went limp with the top half of his body flopped over. His vision was cloudy and he couldn’t breathe. “I thought, they’re going to kill me,” he said. “And I started to lose consciousness. I got calm and lucid and I thought I’m going to die.”
Then suddenly, the bully stopped, leaving him for dead.
‘All that I ever knew was not normal’
Carter’s houseparents ran Dickie Cottage, where 24 boys as young as 6 were in their charge. The couple made life for the boys a misery. Carter describes them as scary narcissists who punished the boys regularly.
“They punished us continually and without reason or justification. They either got their jollies from it or they didn’t know what to do with us or didn’t care,” Carter said. “We were controlled every waking hour.”
Every morning, one of the houseparents, Dick, woke them up by catapulting the boys off the beds onto the hard oak floor. “If you overslept, you’d wake up suspended in the ether,” Carter said.
Each boy was required to make his bed every morning to Dick’s arbitrary interpretation of Army regulation standards so that a quarter would bounce off the surface of the sheets. If a boy failed to make his bed properly, Dick would throw the mattress on the ground and make him start over.
Many boys peed in their beds, and Dick would humiliate them further by dumping their beds on the floor. When that daily routine was over, he would needle them with noogies and sidle up and slap them on the back of the head or kick them in the butt.
The boys were miles from home and could communicate with their families only by letter. And even that private communication was subject to the houseparents’ purview. Every letter was read by the houseparent. “I can’t tell you how stressful that was,” Carter said.
The female houseparent would watch the boys as they showered. When they changed out of their play clothes into school pants, she insisted that the boys line up in front of her office and prove that the seams of the pants were lined up on the hangers. If they were not perfectly aligned, she would fly into a rage.
At night, she would walk through the dorm with a yellow pad and folding chair, another victim recalls. She would sit by each boy’s bed and ask if they had done anything wrong. Carter used to make “s—” up because he hadn’t done anything wrong. The woman would know if they had or hadn’t behaved badly and would call the boys out for lying.
“Everyone I knew was under some form of punishment,” Carter said. “At this point in my life, I was innocent, not to mention constantly terrified. His female houseparent was the second most terrifying person to him, after Henry Rodgers.”
Often after Carter gave his usual recitation, she said, “You didn’t do anything wrong,” and made him stand in the corner “because you didn’t do anything.”
“I can taste the paint on the wall,” Carter said. “I can still smell it, but standing in the corner was a relief over enduring her psychotic rage.”
At 4:30 p.m. every day, the boys were told to stand in line and strip down to their white cotton underwear. The female houseparent then inspected their bottoms for brown streaks. Boys who had soiled their underwear were called babies and forced to sit on toilets for 30 minutes in open stalls while the rest of the students were allowed to shower and get ready for dinner.
“Every day she would scream, ‘oh baby’s on the pot!'” he recalls.
She also threw a fit if the boys used the words “I think,” in a sentence.
That ran counter to her husband’s nightly ritual.
“We had to stand facing the wall in front of a large empty cork board that had ironically a white sign with large bold black print that said simply ‘THINK.’ The male houseparent would then pull up a table and chair behind us and force us to perform deep knee bends for hours while standing in a pool of our own piss, often with our pants around our ankles,” another victim recalled.
Dick would yell at the boys if they tried to pick up their pants.
“We were not allowed to go to the bathroom and sometimes you pissed yourself,” Carter said. “Everyone has a piss story.” Often the PJs would fall to a boy’s ankles and there was no way to keep them up.
When they went swimming in nearby Mill Creek or the indoor swimming pool at the girls school in Saxtons River, the boys were not allowed to wear shorts. They were expected to skinny-dip while the adults watched. “Your genitals were available for any other boy to fondle, molest or whatever in that context he felt appropriate at the time,” Carter recalls. “All of that stuff was normal to me. That’s all that I knew. It was everyday behavior there. It was normal there.”
Joe Kemp, a retired Phoenix policeman who was a houseparent at Kurn Hattin from 1972 to 1981, said the school policy was for boys to swim naked. His first week on the job, he said, “It was pointed out to me there was an actual schedule of rules, and one of them was that the boys would swim in the nude. I took it off the wall and threw it away.”
“I thought that was crazy and I didn’t understand it,” Kemp said. He bought bathing suits for all of the boys and “that ended that practice the first week I was there.”
Kemp recalls rumors about problems with abuse at the school before he and his wife arrived, but while they were houseparents for nine years he doesn’t remember any allegations of molestations or “anything of that nature.” “I’m not aware of anything like that happening there,” he said in an interview. “We were happy working there. We thought it was a good place. We did make improvements and it became a better place.”
Before the Kemps arrived, Carter says voyeurism was normalized. When one of the houseparents thought Carter participated in a pillow fight along with another boy, she took them to the bathroom and told them to take their pants and underwear off, and then handed them a dry cloth and demanded that they polish the linoleum floor on their hands and knees. They went back and forth under the sink, under the urinal, under the toilets for several hours until their knees were bloody and the floor shone.
On more than one occasion, Carter negotiated the terms of his abuse, opting for physical assault over sexual assault. A bully who had enslaved another boy to perform chores and sexual acts also tried to force himself on Carter. “I traded sexual abuse for physical abuse. I took blows to the head and chest instead.”
Carter recalls the anger and dismissiveness of the people “who were paid to take care of you.” The employees were local people who had few choices in life other than to work at Kurn Hattin, where they could get three meals a day, a free place to stay and get a paycheck. “They were not qualified in any way,” he says.
“Willful blindness doesn’t absolve you of the wrongness of what’s happening around you,” he said. “People didn’t do what they were supposed to do.”
The boys were also required to keep the Kurn Hattin farm going and keep the landscaping up on the campus.
If there was no snow on the ground, they rolled and pushed and skidded boulders to a pile at one end of the property. In some cases, the rocks weighed more than several boys put together.
“We wrenched our backs, we crushed our hands.”
Carter describes the rock pile as a Sisyphean odyssey. “It was an everyday slog of dirt, strain and sweat and mindless routine and never-ending stress, all under the guise of punishment for something you had been unjustly accused if you knew at all what you had been unjustly accused of.”
“We were needy for their approval,” he says. “We wanted to move the biggest rocks.”
“This was not a character-building routine”; it was not healthy in any way or by any definition. It was, he said, exactly as the abusive houseparents intended it: cruel abuse.
Near the end of Carter’s time at Kurn Hattin, Joe Kemp and his wife, Joene, arrived as houseparents. They put an end to the skinny-dipping, and limited the bullying and abuse. Carter was grateful they were willing to defend the boys, and even more thankful that they were willing to treat him with respect and offer positive reinforcement.
“She was talking to me like another adult,” he said. “That was the gift she gave me. She was never irritated or dismissive.”
Those were rare qualities in caregivers at Kurn Hattin, he said.
‘Why don’t you people just get on with your lives’
Carter asked Chris Barry, a former director of Kurn Hattin from the 1990s, to address the abuses, and he said was told “Why don’t you people just get on with your lives.” VTDigger attempted to reach Barry, but the most recent known phone number was disconnected.
Carter later contacted Harrison anonymously by email in March 2018, detailing what he knew and asking the director to look into the allegations.
“With the recent changes and social awareness, what is Kurn Hattin doing to address its own abuses in the past?” Carter wrote. “Just because the residents at Westminster were male and many are now deceased, it does not relieve the entity that is Kurn Hattin of your responsibility. Willful blindness solves nothing and serves only to reinforce your complicity.”
Harrison asked Carter to meet with him. “I rarely respond to individuals who choose not to identify themselves, but in this case, I will make an exception.” He went on to say that he had “limited knowledge of the past,” the previous two co-directors had died, and Barry “has estranged himself from the Homes and has no contact with me on any matter.”
“I have little to no knowledge of the alleged incident(s) to which you refer and no way to found (sic) out as the institutional memory passed on with the individuals and no other records appear to be extant,” Harrison wrote.
The email exchange went on for several days and landed in a stalemate. Carter insisted that the director investigate Kurn Hattin’s dark past and provided explicit details about allegations of abuse, suggested records he could review, listed names of people with knowledge. Harrison said, “If we do not meet, the issue ends here.”
After Carter’s plea for an internal acknowledgement of the abuse failed, he became a plaintiff in the lawsuit. A settlement would force the school to document what happened, he said, and “reflect on how they got to this position today.”
“They have directly created the situation they are in now because of their lack of action and defensive posture of denial in the past,” Carter said.