Kurn Hattin close to settlements over abuse allegations

Kurn Hattin Homes
The Westminster residential facility and school has reached agreements with “over 90% of the claimants,” according to an email obtained by VTDigger. File photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Kurn Hattin Homes is close to settlement deals over allegations of abuse on the Westminster campus, the head of the residential home and school told staff earlier this month.

“We have learned that mediation agreements with over 90% of the claimants have been agreed upon and signed agreements will soon be in hand,” Kurn Hattin executive director Stephen Harrison wrote to employees in a May 7 email obtained by VTDigger. 

Those settlements “will leave only one potentially impactful outstanding claim that will be litigated in the summer of 2024,” Harrison wrote. “The result of these settlements will mean tightened budgets for a couple of years as we restore resources, but the continuation of Kurn Hattin Homes is not in jeopardy.”

Little about those agreements has been made public, and in a brief phone interview Tuesday, Harrison declined to provide many details beyond those included in the email. 

“We're anticipating, as I said in the email, that there will be agreements soon,” he said. “A joint statement from the opposing counsel and from Kurn Hattin will be available at the time of final execution of the agreements.”

He declined to provide an expected release date for that statement.

Kurn Hattin Homes, a roughly 130-year-old nonprofit, serves students whose families are struggling with economic hardship, tragedy or other disruptions. The institution operates a school and a residential home for children. As of last fall, the school was serving 32 students, according to state records. 

In 2020, Kurn Hattin was rocked by allegations of physical and sexual abuse going back decades. At the time, VTDigger reported that multiple survivors had alleged longstanding, horrific patterns of abuse on campus.

Kurn Hattin said then that the abuse claims were “devastating” and vowed to order an independent probe “to investigate fully all of the allegations that have been made.”

In Tuesday’s interview, Harrison said that investigation, conducted by an outside firm, had been completed and its findings had informed the settlement negotiations.

But he declined to answer whether the investigation results would be made public, saying only that information about the probe would be released along with the upcoming public statement. 

Harrison also declined to say how many people remained engaged in legal action against the nonprofit. Calls and emails to law firms that have represented plaintiffs in the past went unreturned. VTDigger reported in 2020 that at least 22 plaintiffs were pursuing claims against Kurn Hattin for alleged abuse.

In an interview, Harrison pointed out recent approvals from the state government and from the accreditor New England Association of Schools and Colleges, or NEASC.

“Kurn Hattin is a great place for kids,” Harrison said. “It’s been affirmed by the state Agency of Education as such. It's been affirmed by the NEASC accreditation agency as such. We're continuing on with our work supporting children who have a need at this time.” 

Earlier this month, the institution came before a State Board of Education committee for the scheduled renewal of its approval to operate a school. 

The Agency of Education recommended extending that approval, writing in a report submitted to the board that “the school’s academic program, staff, facilities, and financial standing all meet State Board of Education rule requirements.”

But on May 3, a State Board of Education subcommittee decided to postpone a final decision on that renewal until next year — allowing the school to keep its approval at least until then.

Board members said they were waiting for the results of a January 2024 “focused visit” by NEASC. The organization awarded Kurn Hattin initial accreditation in February but scheduled the 2024 visit “to discuss updates to the legal situation and their financial impact on KHH,” a NEASC staffer wrote.

The accreditor “understands that the recent litigation has strained the financial resources of KHH,” the staffer wrote.

It’s not clear how much money the settlement agreements could cost, and Harrison declined to discuss figures. The nonprofit’s board of trustees is working on a strategic plan to cut costs, including weatherizing campus buildings and ramping up fundraising, Harrison said in the email.

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Peter D'Auria

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