DEVILS LAKE — A man who was disciplined multiple times for mistreating children and admitted to pinching a 14-year-old boy’s stomach while referencing the boy's weight apparently continues to work at a residential group home in Devils Lake.
Meanwhile, a woman who spoke out against the man says she was fired for doing so. Now she and the mother of a resident of the center are worried about the well-being of residents while the employee continues to work there.
“Eventually he’s going to repeat his pattern. … He can’t control himself. He would’ve done it again, but yet they protected him and defended him,” former Harmony House employee Katherine Gray said.
A jury decided late last month that leaders from Devils Lake Public Schools, Lake Region Special Education and Harmony House retaliated against Gray, a former staff member who reported what she considered misconduct by fellow employee David Kosmatka. Five other claims brought by Gray were dismissed, including allegations of different forms of retaliation, defamation and rights violations.
Gray was awarded a settlement, but she says that's not enough. Now she and the mother of the boy allegedly abused by Kosmatka want the social worker held accountable and want to create a safe environment for the home’s residents.
Harmony House, a residential group home for foster and at-risk youth, is overseen by Devils Lake Public Schools and Lake Region Special Education.
Earlier in the week, Superintendent Scott Privratsky and the district’s lawyer, Daniel Gaustad, provided a statement via email.
“My clients and I appreciate the time and effort put in by the jury, and we are disappointed in the result on one of the six claims Plaintiff brought in this case, with the other five claims against our clients being dismissed,” Gaustad wrote.
Gray said Harmony House employees “looked the other way” when Kosmatka would cross the line because they feared for their jobs. She claims other district employees have confided that they’re afraid to make reports about misconduct because it led to Gray’s firing.
Gray maintains that Kosmatka was cruel to the home’s residents and targeted Native American children. The 14 year old boy highlighted in her lawsuit received the worst of Kosmatka’s treatment, she said.
According to Gray’s claim in court documents, the boy was incessantly bullied and grabbed, pinched and shaken by Kosmatka at Harmony House, where he lived for a year and a half. The abuse left him shaken emotionally and without confidence, according to his mother.
“He went through hell. Him and the other children there. It’s terrible how any person, especially a social worker, could do something like this to the kids and get away with it,” the mother said.
Kosmatka told the boy he was “fat and lazy” and would refuse to give him food, the boy’s mother said.
Kosmatka recalled pinching the boy’s stomach and telling him if he kept eating he’d “get a big belly just like mine,” according to transcripts from the trial. He said he realized what he said to the boy was harmful, but it was meant in jest. He said he apologized to the boy.
"Kosmatka acknowledged that he 'probably shouldn't have grabbed' but he had known (the child) awhile and could do what he wanted," court documents stated.
While working at Harmony House, Gray said she saw Kosmatka “engaged in verbal bullying of residents, calling them names, belittling them and threatening to kick them out of Harmony House.” She claims he entered private bedrooms without knocking and while children were undressed.
Kosmatka has been disciplined four times for mistreating children within the district, according to documents from Lake Region Special Education.
In 2006, he grabbed a student after she refused to take her medication. Kosmatka said he was given a written reprimand after the incident, according to the deposition transcripts from last month’s trial.
He was reprimanded again in 2007 and suspended without pay due to “physical contact with two students,” according to a letter from the Devils Lake Public School District to Kosmatka. The letter was among the documents in last month’s trial.
Kosmatka had two other incidents of improper contact with students, according to the suspension letter.
He was ordered to complete a crisis intervention program and undergo mental health counseling. Kosmatka returned to work just over a month later.
He was placed on paid administrative leave in 2016 after the boy’s mother brought forward an accusation of abuse. In 2017, the board of social work sent Kosmatka a letter saying they had voted to “initiate disciplinary actions” on his license because there was reason to believe he violated rules and regulations set forth by the board and the code of social work ethics by using derogatory language and physical contact with clients. He was ordered to complete five ethics hours of continuing education.
“That’s just like a slap on your hand and then he can go back and continue the abuse,” the boy’s mother said. “Every little thing, I don’t care what it was, when he called him fat or he walked in on him in the shower — every bit of it is abuse in my eyes.”
Gray, who started working at Harmony House in 2014, filed complaints with the state Human Services Department against Kosmatka and Harmony House Director Barry Sundeen. In documents related to last month’s trial, Gray claimed Sundeen made derogatory remarks about the children and protected Kosmatka.
The boy’s mother said she also filed complaints and tried to obtain a restraining order against Kosmatka.
Gray claims she was fired shortly thereafter for speaking up.
Another child reached out to Gray about similar incidents with Kosmatka after Gray was fired, according to Gray’s claims in a court document. She reported the concerns to police and the school board, although criminal charges have not been filed against Kosmatka.
In the civil lawsuit, Gray alleged the defendants defamed her name, violated her civil rights and broke North Dakota law.
Five of the six claims in the federal lawsuit were dismissed but on June 21 jurors awarded Gray $20,000 in damages for the retaliation claim. Gray said she has received notice from the district’s attorney that they plan to challenge the judgment if she doesn’t settle for less money. She said it feels like “they are continuing to harass, bully and retaliate.”
She said she plans to meet with legislators and hopes to change laws related to procedures for the social work board and protections surrounding mandated reporters.
“I’m not going to stop,” she said. “I’m going to fight for changes.”