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Tuesday, November 18, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Jury faults DSHS for attack by foster kids

By Jonathan Martin
Seattle Times staff reporter

TOM REESE / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Said Aba Sheikh, undergoing a treatment to help him breathe, is frequently hospitalized.
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A King County jury yesterday awarded a Somali refugee $8.8 million, finding that negligence by state social workers contributed to a savage assault by a gang of teenagers living in a West Seattle foster home.

The jury found the state Department of Social and Health Services failed to heed warnings about an escalating crime spree of two foster children involved in an assault on Said Aba Sheikh.

The jury said it intended the unusually big award to pay for the 20-year-old's lifelong medical care.

DSHS officials protested yesterday's verdict, saying it unfairly holds caseworkers accountable for criminal acts outside their control. DSHS has often been held responsible for harm to foster children, but Aba Sheikh's case is one of just a handful that pinned blame for harm done by foster children.

The jury, which deliberated over three days, also ordered King County to pay Aba Sheikh $1.5 million for failing to provide adequate probation supervision of three of Aba Sheikh's attackers in the months before the assault.

That award won't be collected because the county settled just before trial for $4.5 million, a fact that was unknown to the jury, Aba Sheikh's lawyers said.

The county's settlement, and the verdict against DSHS, are the largest against each agency since 2001. If the verdict against DSHS is upheld on appeal, it will be paid out of the state's self-insurance pool.

The four-week trial exposed DSHS's handling of its most troubled teenage wards. Aba Sheikh's lawyers argued that DSHS "warehoused" Aba Sheikh's teenage attackers in a foster home with scant oversight, then ignored repeated warnings from their foster mother and others that two of the most troubled foster children were engaging in a growing number of criminal acts.

To illustrate the lapses, Aba Sheikh's lawyers Jack Connelly and Darrell Cochran noted that DSHS allowed Emma Daniels' foster-care license to lapse for two years even as the agency placed more high-risk foster children in her house.

On March 27, 1999, two of the teens in Daniels' home, Miguel Pierre and Mychal Anderson, were reportedly smoking pot at a West Seattle bus stop with two teenage friends when Aba Sheikh pulled into a gas station across the street. Still fuming from a near fight with Aba Sheikh earlier in the day, the group attacked him, dragging him from the car and kicking him into a coma in the parking lot.

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Aba Sheikh, who arrived in the United States eight months before the attack, has no short-term memory as a result, and his lungs continually fill with fluid, requiring frequent hospital stays. All four of his attackers were convicted of assault.

The jury had little trouble finding that DSHS had been negligent. But it struggled to define how that negligence played into the beating, said juror Franciscia Hoke. Hoke noted that all of the foster children living in Daniels' home had different caseworkers.

"I never heard where all these caseworkers got together to discuss all the things going on in the home," said Hoke. "A lot of us felt they were trying to warehouse kids in this case."

Aba Sheikh's lawyer, Connelly, said after the verdict was announced yesterday that DSHS was warned in the mid-1990s — after a previous scandal involving abuse in a state care facility — that it should assign a single caseworker for all of the foster children in each foster home but failed to follow the recommendation.

"You can't warehouse these kids," said Connelly. "And if you get information a warehouse has developed in a foster home, you need to do something about it quickly."

Connelly said DSHS should have moved Pierre and Anderson to more intensive and restrictive group homes to try to stop their escalating problems, which reportedly included assaults, drug use and school expulsion.

DSHS lawyers called the case an "unprecedented" expansion of the state's legal liability. Assistant Attorney General Jeff Freimund said yesterday the verdict puts social workers in an untenable position — complying with laws that require foster kids be put in the least restrictive, most "family-like" setting possible, while being held responsible if the children exploit their freedom and commit crimes.

"If the courts impose a new duty requiring social workers and the juvenile courts to prevent children in foster care from committing crimes, it will be more difficult than ever to find foster homes," DSHS said in an unsigned statement from its Olympia headquarters. "We will have to institute extraordinary new constraints on children in foster care, interfering with their growth into successful citizens."

But Cochran said Aba Sheikh's case is far from unprecedented, noting a 1981 lawsuit in Mason County that held DSHS liable for a foster child's assault on another child. "For 20 years, they've recognized their duty to dangerous foster children," said Cochran.

He said Aba Sheikh's legal team was prepared to settle the case for much less than $8.8 million before trial, but DSHS offered $750,000.

King County, also named in Aba Sheikh's lawsuit, took a less combative legal stance. Its attorneys felt the county might have faced a large verdict if it went to trial, said spokeswoman Elaine Kraft.

Pierre, one of Aba Sheikh's attackers, was on King County's most intensive level of probation in the six months leading up to the assault, requiring up to four in-person or phone contacts each month. But according to Fred Diamondstone, another of Aba Sheikh's lawyers, there were just six documented parole visits during that six months.

The county's probation file for Anderson, another of Aba Sheikh's attackers, was lost for a month before the assault while the probation department went through a reorganization.

"It was a tragic incident, and we felt it was the humane and right settlement in this case," said Kraft.

Aba Sheikh also will be paid $300,000 by Shell Oil, because the attack occurred at a gas station franchised by the company, and $25,000 from Daniels' state-paid liability-insurance plan.

Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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