Knee deep 

Lawsuits mount against Spring Creek Lodge

On Oct. 7, 2004, just days before her 17th birthday, Karlye Anne Newman slipped into a bathroom at Spring Creek Lodge Academy—a behavior modification boarding school outside Thompson Falls—and hanged herself in a stall with her sweatshirt.

The Sanders County Sheriff’s Department investigated Newman’s death, found no signs of foul play, and ruled it a suicide.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) also investigated Newman’s death. As a result of that investigation, a Montana PBS documentary recently revealed, DPHHS filed a child abuse and neglect complaint against Cameron and Chaffin Pullan, the twin brothers who own and operate Spring Creek Lodge. The case was ultimately dismissed, and due to a state law designed to protect juvenile victims of abuse, it remains sealed from public scrutiny. As a result, few details about DPHHS’ investigation or the facts surrounding Newman’s death have been revealed to the public.

Some of those facts may soon surface in court now that Karlye’s mother, Judith Newman, has filed a lawsuit against Spring Creek Lodge and the Pullans. Filed Nov. 6, the complaint alleges wrongful death, negligence, breach of contract and fraud on behalf of the school and its directors. It’s the third in a string of lawsuits filed this year naming Spring Creek Lodge as a defendant.

In March, former Spring Creek Lodge student Jonathan Herrick filed a lawsuit in Sanders County District Court alleging negligence and breach of contract by Spring Creek Lodge. Herrick’s suit claims Spring Creek’s inadequate staffing and oversight policies led to repeated physical and psychological assaults against him during the time he was a student there. The five-page complaint doesn’t detail the alleged abuses, other than to say that Herrick “suffered serious physical, mental and emotional injuries” while at Spring Creek. Polson attorney James Manley, lead counsel on both the Herrick and Newman lawsuits, declined to comment specifically on either case.

Additionally, in October Spring Creek was added to a long list of defendants in a lawsuit filed in federal district court in Utah. That suit alleges negligence, fraud, breach of contract, battery, assault, false imprisonment and racketeering violations—among others—on behalf of the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (widely known as WWASPS) and its associated programs, which until June included Spring Creek Lodge. The 36-page complaint currently lists 27 plaintiffs, though Dallas, Texas attorney Windle Turley said he expects to add “many more” to the suit in the coming months. Turley said he couldn’t comment on which of the complaint’s allegations pertain specifically to Spring Creek Lodge.

At press time the two Montana lawsuits had not yet been served. Spring Creek Program Director Mike Chism said Nov. 20 that Spring Creek officials weren’t aware of them and thus declined to comment. As for the Utah suit, Chism said, three plaintiffs are former Spring Creek students, though he declined to identify which three. He also said the three students had been enrolled in other WWASPS programs either prior to, or after leaving, Spring Creek.

“The lawsuit is really vague,” Chism said, noting that the complaint doesn’t specify whether any of the alleged crimes were supposed to have occurred at Spring Creek.

The Newman lawsuit, however, is more specific, and mirrors many of the allegations DPHHS initially made against the Pullans, as reported by Montana PBS.

According to the Newman lawsuit, Spring Creek’s program “was not designed or operated to provide quality or even adequate care” and the defendants “planned and operated Spring Creek Lodge Academy in such a manner that physical, educational, mental or emotional harm was consistently and foreseeably caused to the children at Spring Creek, including Karlye Newman.”

Karlye’s mother alleges that Spring Creek staff concealed the fact that Karlye was not progressing well in the program and that she had deteriorated physically, mentally and emotionally in the months she was enrolled at Spring Creek. Judith claims her daughter expressed “self loathing, hatred of her life there, depression and despair,” and that Karlye made repeated statements that she was going to kill herself, but that those statements were ignored by Spring Creek staff.

According to the Montana PBS documentary “Who’s Watching the Kids,” (which can be viewed online at http://www.montanapbs.org/WhosWatchingTheKids), DPHHS charged that Cameron and Chaffin Pullan, as officials of the school, neglected Karlye when she became suicidal by not providing her adequate therapy. “Who’s Watching the Kids?” also reported that DPHHS alleged that Spring Creek employees placed Karlye in solitary confinement for periods of hours, sometimes days, “damaging her mentally.” Finally, according to the documentary, the department alleged that Spring Creek’s method for keeping track of students was inadequate in that it left Karlye alone long enough to commit suicide.

A DPHHS hearings examiner initially dismissed the department’s complaint on the basis that 1) DPPHS lacked the legal authority to regulate the school; for that reason, the department can’t declare Spring Creek’s rules and regulations inadequate, and 2) the examiner didn’t believe DPHHS could prove its allegations of abuse and neglect. A district court judge upheld the hearings examiner’s ruling, and DPHHS appealed to the Montana Supreme Court before ultimately withdrawing the administrative charges.

In a statement issued by the school following Karlye Newman’s death, Spring Creek officials claimed that “SCLA [Spring Creek Lodge Academy] was acutely aware of the girl’s fragility and had placed her on ‘high risk’ observation. After showing signs of improvement, the 16-year-old student was recently removed from high risk after consultation with the student’s counselor, the assistant clinical director and four staff members who had worked closely with her.”

But Judith Newman claims the staff never sought or conducted a competent suicide evaluation for Karlye and then failed to take appropriate steps to monitor, supervise and protect the teen.

According to the complaint, Karlye was missing for more than an hour before she was discovered hanging in the bathroom.

“Defendants made no attempt to look for her, or otherwise protect her,” the complaint states. “When a staff member found Karlye hanging, the untrained and unqualified staff member ran out in panic. Defendants failed to provide immediate and necessary aid which might have saved Karlye’s life.”

Manley said he expects the Herrick and Newman lawsuits to go to trial sometime next year. Turley says it could be years before the Utah lawsuit goes to a jury trial.

jadams@missoulanews.com

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