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Tuesday, September 15, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Lawsuit alleges Excelsior Youth Center ignored reports of sexual abuse by former employee

The Excelsior Youth Center, seen here  (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The Excelsior Youth Center, seen here (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A former resident of Spokane’s Excelsior Youth Center has filed a lawsuit alleging the center did nothing to stop a staff member from sexually abusing him four years ago despite knowing about the abuse.

The suit was filed in Spokane County Superior Court on July 31 against Excelsior and five unnamed employees, referred to as John and Jane Does. The plaintiff, who was a minor at the time of the alleged abuse, is identified only by his initials.

The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, alleges Excelsior employees acted in “callous disregard” by allowing the abuse to continue while he relied on staff for basic needs and care during his time at the center.

The suit alleges Excelsior received reports of the abuse but failed to investigate them and protect the plaintiff from harm.

The plaintiff was 17 when he was sent to Excelsior for substance abuse treatment as part of a probation requirement in November 2016.

The suit alleges that a staff member, Yessenia Alvarado Cruz, began grooming the victim for sexual abuse “almost immediately” upon his arrival at the center.

Cruz was fired from Excelsior in February 2017, shortly after concerns about inappropriate contact with residents came to light. She is not a subject of the lawsuit, however.

The state Department of Social and Health Services concluded in July 2018 that the victim’s claims of sexual abuse and negligent treatment by Cruz during her employment were “founded,” according to the lawsuit.

Cruz was thought to have moved to California shortly after leaving Excelsior, and multiple attempts by child-welfare investigators to interview her were unsuccessful, according to a DSHS report provided to The Spokesman-Review provided by the plaintiff’s attorney, Darrell Cochran.

A Spokane police detective told investigators that Cruz denied all allegations when the detective interviewed her by phone, and police did not have enough information to file charges, according to the report.

Cruz was in a relationship with another Excelsior employee who had allegedly cheated on her, which was the “impetus” for her grooming of the plaintiff, according to the lawsuit.

In December 2016, Cruz began a sexual relationship with the plaintiff, which was carried out both at the center and the apartment Cruz shared with the other employee, according to the suit. Cruz’s boyfriend knew about the abuse but did not immediately report it to Excelsior leadership, the suit alleges.

The plaintiff ran away from the center on several occasions, and each time Cruz picked him up and brought him to her apartment, where she gave him “illegal substances,” undermining the treatment he was receiving at Excelsior, the suit alleges.

Cruz would later drop off the plaintiff several blocks away from the center so he could walk back, the suit alleges.

Ryan Kiely, Excelsior’s executive vice president, said Tuesday that Cruz’s boyfriend is no longer employed at the center, but declined to comment on the circumstances or timing of his departure.

In January 2017, Cruz received a “formal supervision” from Excelsior that addressed “boundary invasion concerns,” according to the lawsuit. The plaintiff was moved out of the center around that time, said Cochran, the attorney.

According to the DSHS report, a human resources representative at Excelsior provided a child-welfare investigator with a timeline showing two unnamed staff members separately reported concerns about Cruz’s conduct with residents in February 2017. Cruz was placed on administrative leave and fired from the facility three days later.

Kiely confirmed the date of Cruz’s termination on Wednesday but said he was unable to confirm other details of the case’s timeline of events, including when or how supervisors first learned of the abuse allegations, due to the pending litigation.

The suit claims that Cruz was fired in February 2018. Cochran said that date came from a different report. However, Kiely said he was confident the 2017 date was accurate.

The DSHS report says the agency first became aware of sexual abuse allegations against Cruz in June 2017 when a former resident reported rumors of a relationship to his case worker, who then reported it to a child-welfare investigator.

During the investigation, case workers found evidence of the abuse in earlier reports from other current and former Excelsior residents. Several other residents reported rumors circulating about Cruz’s relationship with the plaintiff, and some said Cruz or the plaintiff had told them about it directly.

In a later interview with an investigator, the plaintiff confirmed Cruz had initiated the sexual relationship prior to her firing and that it had continued for some time after both had left the center, according to the report. He also reported that Cruz provided him and other residents with alcohol when they stayed at her home, and occasionally gave him money that she knew would be used to buy drugs.

The suit alleges that Excelsior engaged in a “pattern of indifference to the sexual and psychological abuse” by covering up and denying allegations and failing to adequately investigate reports of abuse.

“It was clear there was a total lack of institutional control,” Cochran said.

The DSHS report shows another Excelsior resident reported sexual abuse by a different staff member around the same time, but those allegations were determined to be unfounded. That employee was fired in February 2017 after a co-worker reported seeing her in an inappropriate position with a resident, according to the report.

Kiely, the Excelsior vice president, said he couldn’t discuss details of those allegations.

“We care about the health and safety of all who take part in our programs, and we worked with licensors, regulatory bodies and law enforcement regarding these allegations,” Kiely said. “Our employees work hard day in and day out to create a helpful and safe environment for everyone we serve.”

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