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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ellensburg man abused at boys ranch in Pend Oreille County in the 1980s receives $1.5 million settlement from state

Terry Vanbuskirk, seen here in a photo circa 1983, was a resident at the J-Bar-D Ranch, a state-licensed group home in Ione that was shuttered after a special inquiry found substandard care and neglect. Vanbuskirk was sexually abused by a night watchman, and the state paid $1.5 million to settle legal claims Vanbuskirk brought last year.   (Courtesy Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala PLLC)

Through three marriages and a string of failed jobs, Terry Vanbuskirk carried with him memories he tried to suppress.

“I’d get a job, and someone would make me angry, and I quit,” Vanbuskirk said this week from his home in Ellensburg. “I have never held a job for more than two weeks.”

As a teenager, Vanbuskirk was abused as a resident at J-Bar-D Ranch, a group home for boys in Ione, Washington. For decades, he didn’t discuss the abuse and the fits of anger and distrust it caused. This week, just before a Pierce County jury was to determine whether the state was responsible for allowing the abuse to continue, the Department of Children, Youth and Families settled with Vanbuskirk for $1.5 million.

Vanbuskirk, identified in court proceedings by his initials, took the stand and told his story to jurors before the settlement.

“I was trying to block this all out. It was really hard,” Vanbuskirk said.

A spokesman for the Department of Children, Youth and Families declined comment on the case via email Friday, citing “pending litigation and continuing legal processes.”

When Vanbuskirk was a teenager, he was one of many boys placed into custody as wards of the state and housed at J-Bar-D Ranch. That facility, and the affiliated Reynolds Creek Boys Ranch near Cusick, Washington, had their contracts for group housing revoked in December 1984 after a judge’s special inquiry found widespread substandard care and abuse.

Vanbuskirk was sent to the ranch in Ione in September 1983 after he was accused of setting a barn on fire, and stayed there until January 1985. The boys were made to work hard labor with no pay, Vanbuskirk said. Within a few weeks, a night watchman began to sexually abuse him, he said.

“Even now, I’m trying to keep his name out of my head,” Vanbuskirk said.

Darrell Cochran, a partner at the firm Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala in Tacoma, represented Vanbuskirk, who claimed state agencies were negligent and inflicted emotional distress on him during his 16-month stay at the ranch. Vanbuskirk’s case is the first to go to trial and the first settlement for a former resident at the ranches, Cochran said.

“We had the opportunity to tell the story for the first time,” Cochran said. “For Terry, it was super important that the public got to hear what happened here.”

Cochran said the firm is actively investigating other cases, and encouraged anyone with information about abuse at the ranches to call his office at (253) 777-0798.

Cochran included the findings of that Pend Oreille County judge’s special inquiry, which took place at the demand of then-Pend Oreille County Sheriff Tony Bamonte, who’d come to the county by way of Spokane. Bamonte had sought help from the governor’s office as early as March 1981 seeking an investigation into care at the ranches.

“Improper or inadequate supervision permitted older boys to pick on younger boys in front of staff, fights between residents, tying residents to trees to be beat by other residents, sexual assaults by residents on other residents, and homosexual acts between residents,” the 1984 report read.

Vanbuskirk said boys were fed butchered animals that had died of sickness at the camp. After a bunkhouse burned in March 1984, they were made to sleep in rooms with rotted floors and moldy carpet.

He was shipped home to Texas in January 1985, but didn’t talk about the abuse with his parents, he said, including his father, who was training to become a pastor.

“As soon as I left the ranch, I couldn’t even trust my own family,” he said. “If you can’t trust a pastor, who can you trust?”

Not until he met his current wife, his fourth, did Vanbuskirk feel comfortable talking about the abuse openly, he said. She had also experienced childhood trauma, and talking about it made Vanbuskirk relive his own memories that had been suppressed by years of heavy drinking.

“When I started drinking, everything that happened started going away,” he said.

Vanbuskirk was put in touch with Cochran and other attorneys at the Tacoma firm, who were putting together information on abuse among other former residents at the ranches. Vanbuskirk’s lawsuit was filed in July 2021, and the trial began the week before Thanksgiving.

In court records, the Department of Children, Youth and Families argued that the negligence and emotional distress were committed by the operators of the camp, not the state that provided a license for the camp to operate. The department was created by state law in 2017 and oversees Child Protective Services, among other services.

Vanbuskirk said he’ll use the money from the settlement in part to pay off a house and take care of his children, as well as donations to his father’s church. He also plans on establishing a nonprofit to help other victims of childhood abuse seek legal help.

Vanbuskirk also plans to consistently attend counseling for the first time since the abuse.

“It starts my healing process, knowing now that somebody is being held accountable for what happened,” he said.