Attorneys were scheduled to begin exchanging documents and other evidence by April 13 in preparation for trial in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the estate of a 5-year-old Hoh Tribe boy. The estate of the boy, Gary Blanton III, is suing the Washington Department of Social and Health Services and the Riverside School District, alleging their failure to follow policies regarding foster-home placement and reporting possible child abuse led to the boy’s death.
DSHS and the school district deny the allegations.
Barbara Davis, the boy’s paternal grandmother, is administrator of the estate. The wrongful death lawsuit was filed on September 14, 2016 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. The case was later transferred to the Eastern District court in Spokane in response to a change of venue request from the Riverside School District.
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Should the estate prevail, Davis would be responsible for administering funds awarded by the jury. Her late grandson has two younger siblings, one of them with Down’s syndrome.
The estate is represented by Gabriel Galanda and Ryan Dreveskracht of Galanda Broadman, a law firm in Seattle.
Meanwhile, Gary’s aunt, Cynthia Khaleel, is charged with second-degree murder in the boy’s death. She pleaded not guilty (she attributed her nephew’s earlier bruises and scratches to roughhousing, and his death to injuries he sustained when he fell while trying to get into his brother’s crib).
Khaleel’s trial, originally scheduled to begin in February, is now scheduled to begin on October 17 in Spokane County Superior Court.
The DSHS office in Port Angeles placed Gary and his younger siblings, Skylar and Destiny, with Khaleel after the children’s parents died. The children went to live with Khaleel, her husband, Ian, and their three children in Chatteroy, a suburb of Spokane. According to a state review of the case, the placement was done with the approval of the Hoh Tribe, which supports placement of a child “with a member of the youth’s extended family” before other options are considered.
However, DSHS did not first conduct a “meaningful background check” or assess Khaleel’s “ability to care for the children,” the lawsuit states. In addition, the lawsuit alleges, a DSHS worker falsely reported she had visited the Khaleel home in September, October and November 2014; and DSHS allowed Gary to remain in his aunt’s home despite a social worker’s description of the home as “chaotic” and Khaleel as “struggling to meet the needs of six children both financially and otherwise.”
The lawsuit also alleges Gary’s school, Chattaroy Elementary, did not report possible signs of abuse and neglect to proper authorities as required.
Gary died on April 18, 2015.
In its response to the lawsuit, DSHS said it followed policies and procedures, conducted home visits, and investigated two reports of possible abuse. In that investigation, DSHS believed the allegations to be unfounded.
In its response, the school district claims it did report suspected abuse to DSHS, but admits it did not contact DSHS on two occasions when bruises were observed on Gary’s head or face. In the latter instance, two days before he died, Gary reportedly told a teacher “his mom punched him in the head.”
Review by state committee
In a review of the boy’s placement and the events leading to his death, a DSHS committee – which included the Hoh Tribe’s executive director and a Hoh Tribe Indian Child Welfare case manager – determined the placement of Gary and his siblings “in the unlicensed home of the paternal aunt” was not conducted in accordance with DSHS policy; an evaluation of Khaleel’s home was not made in a timely manner; there “was ample opportunity to more thoroughly assess the caregiver prior to placement”; “a timely home study may have raised questions earlier about her character and suitability as a placement for the children”; and monthly health and safety visits did not occur as required.
The assigned case worker documented that she had conducted in-person monthly health and safety visits with Gary and his aunt in September, October and November 2014. Whether the visits were made was “questioned by the department in December due to activities that were recorded but could not be reconciled.” According to the committee, the worker “had a noted pattern of not meeting timelines for documentation and completion of work and was known to be difficult to supervise …”
The committee report also notes “the apparent failure” of the Port Angeles DSHS office, which placed Gary with his aunt, “to give sufficient consideration to concerns expressed by [a DSHS worker in Spokane] in February and March 2015 as to the chaotic placement environment and what appeared to be an overburdened caregiver.”
In an earlier interview, Galanda and Dreveskracht said they hope the lawsuit will force DSHS to change how it manages the care and supervision of children – and that it will hold responsible employees accountable.
In August 2015, The Seattle Times reported DSHS was the defendant “in scores of lawsuits” over eight years, “ultimately paying $166.4 million for personal-injury claims” in cases of neglect and deaths of children in foster care.
A Times review of available records revealed: “DSHS employees behind these failures rarely are punished.”
According to Galanda and Dreveskracht: “Washington state’s children deserve better than this. There is nothing that can bring [Gary] back, but hopefully he will not have died in vain … With any luck, this suit will likewise force DSHS to finally reverse course.”
Reports from experts will be filed with the court by October 5, according to a court schedule. Lists of witnesses and exhibits will be filed with the court on February 16, 2018, a pretrial conference will take place on March 20, 2018, and trial will begin on April 13, 2018.