Foster boys beat teen into coma; should DSHS pay for their crime?
Seattle Times staff reporter
A gang of boys from a West Seattle foster home, capping a spree of crime and delinquency, kicked Said Aba Sheikh into a coma for no better reason than he was riding a pink bike.
Four years later, three of the teens are in prison. Aba Sheikh, a young refugee from Somalia, is permanently brain-damaged. The 20-year-old has no short-term memory, and his lungs fill with fluid, requiring frequent hospital stays.
For a King County jury, difficult questions remain. Is the foster-care system to blame? And if so, should the state pay for Aba Sheikh's lifelong care, estimated at $20 million?
If his lawyers are successful, the case would make the state Department of Social and Health Services responsible not only for harm done to foster children, but for harm done by foster children.
Now in its third week, the trial has put a bright light on the treatment of adolescent foster kids, particularly troubled boys.
Three of Aba Sheikh's attackers lived in the same foster home run by a single working mother. Evidence presented at the trial suggests the house was an unsupervised "warehouse" for troubled teens — DSHS' most difficult wards.
DSHS social workers were repeatedly warned that the teens in Emma Daniels' foster home had formed a de facto gang in the year before Aba Sheikh's beating. The boys' convictions during those 12 months included assault, theft, car theft and burglary, and all had been expelled from school.
Daniels became so worried that she sent her own son to live with a relative. She begged DSHS social workers to move the two most difficult children — Miguel Pierre and Mychal Anderson — for nearly a year leading up to Aba Sheikh's assault, according to court documents.
Social workers denied the request, then placed even more high-risk foster kids in her care, according to court files, even ignoring the fact that Daniels' foster-care license had lapsed.
"DSHS gambled that the juvenile justice system would do what DSHS should have done long before; remove Pierre and Anderson," Aba Sheikh's attorneys, Jack Connelly and Darrell Cochran, wrote in a court filing. "The price of the bet was Said Aba Sheikh's life-long debilitation."
But DSHS lawyers say the suit overreaches in the hunt for a culprit. The case is based on the "unprecedented theory that DSHS social workers ... owe a duty to protect members of the general public from criminal conduct by foster children," wrote Jeff Freimund, an assistant attorney general representing DSHS.
If the system failed these kids, Freimund argued, it was King County's juvenile-probation department, which was supposed to be supervising Pierre and Anderson at the time of the beating. Aba Sheikh's lawyers reached an undisclosed settlement with King County before trial.
And the lawyers have uncovered documents and evidence suggesting that DSHS social workers were fearful of the situation at Daniels' home but did nothing to move Anderson and Pierre to a group home.
"As bad as it sounds, these were seen as throwaway children," said Jane Ramon, a former DSHS social worker who reviewed the case for Aba Sheikh's lawyers. "I'm not saying it's not difficult to deal with these high-end children, but you have to try. I don't know how anyone could look at the case and not feel they were warehoused."
Others note problems
Pierre, described by Aba Sheikh's lawyers as a ringleader for the younger foster kids at Daniels' home, was on his seventh foster home when he was placed with her in 1997. DSHS never told her about the 15-year-old's history of setting fires and abusing animals or a previous investigation for sexual assault, according to Daniels.
A counselor with the Metrocenter YMCA quickly realized that Pierre was running wild in Daniels' home, and wrote DSHS in hopes of getting the teenager into a more-structured home.
"If we stay this course, his history of sexual abuse, drug abuse, learning disability, rage and crime will go untreated," the counselor wrote. His request wasn't acted on, and Pierre stayed with Daniels while committing eight felonies over the next year.
At trial, Pierre said he found two new friends at Daniels' home. Anderson, then 12, had been placed with Daniels after being abandoned by his mother and physically abused in two previous foster homes.
Ramon, a social worker for 31 years, said Pierre and Anderson were unusually troubled foster children when they arrived, but when put together in the same household, they became the highest-risk type of foster kids. The boys never should have been placed in the same home, she said.
A relative of Daniels', Michael G., also periodically lived in the foster home, and fell in with Pierre and Anderson. Like the other two, Michael G.'s record of school fights and violent crime quickly lengthened as the trio became friends. He is not being identified because he was convicted as a juvenile.
Cheryl Willey, a friend of Anderson's family, saw the quiet, lanky teen deteriorate after Pierre arrived at the foster home. She testified that she started calling DSHS three times a week in late 1997 and early 1998, asking to adopt Anderson.
Willey, an active parent at Garfield High and the wife of a software designer, was baffled by DSHS' resistance to moving him. "They cannot make any convincing argument either that they were unaware of the explosive nature of the situation, with most likely a violent outcome, or there were alternate placements for at least one of the boys," she said this week.
Foster mom wanted out
Daniels, a 56-year-old department-store worker, got her foster-care license in 1988 and became over the next decade the foster parent for children "that no one else wants," according to DSHS documents.
By the early 1990s, with a boyfriend sharing her house and child care, she began taking in adolescents. The man moved out in the mid-1990s, but in 1997, because DSHS failed to review her home, the agency continued to believe she had extra help, court documents show.
Her license officially lapsed that year. In 1999, after Aba Sheikh's beating, a high-ranking DSHS supervisor retroactively changed Daniels' license to cover up the lapse. The supervisor was later fired, according to a source close to the case who asked not to be named.
DSHS developed enough faith in Daniels to grant her guardianship of Anderson. But when Pierre and other difficult teenage foster children moved in, records show, she began feeling overwhelmed by boys who ignored curfew, who smoked marijuana in her back yard and who began to be arrested by police.
She asked DSHS to move Pierre or Anderson, or both, but her calls weren't returned, according to her attorney, Stewart Estes.
"She did not receive an answer," he said. "She knew (DSHS) was looking for another placement but would not be able to find one."
Stuck with the rowdy kids, she told them they could stay if they behaved, said Estes.
But as Daniels grew more and more concerned, DSHS coaxed her to take yet another boy in June by offering more than $500 a month.
In March 1999, a month before Aba Sheikh's assault, DSHS social workers finally listened to her concerns and took two foster kids out. But Pierre and Anderson remained, with Michael G. often sleeping over.
The night of the attack
Aba Sheikh, then 16, had been in the United States just eight months when he was attacked on March 27, 1999. He had survived a civil war in Somalia, the disappearance of both of parents and years in a refugee camp in Kenya with his extended family. With his uncle's help, he settled in West Seattle.
He appears to have barely known Pierre, Anderson and Michael G. that Saturday when he rode by them on a pink bike. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, Aba Sheikh and Michael G. squared off, but Aba Sheikh left without any blows exchanged.
That evening, Aba Sheikh and a family friend drove into a West Seattle gas station to buy a phone card. The trio of foster boys, along with another friend, Pulefano Ativalu, were smoking pot at a bus stop across the street.
As the group ran over to the car, Aba Sheikh's friend ran into the store terrified. The attackers gave conflicting testimony at trial, but Aba Sheikh was dragged out of the car, then kicked in the head about 10 times by Pierre and Anderson.
Pierre and Ativalu, both 16 at the time of the attack, were convicted of assault as adults and are serving sentences of at least 10 years. Anderson, 15 at the time, is serving more than seven years as an adult. Michael G., also 15 at the time, was convicted as a juvenile and is now out.
On the stand last week, Pierre, in a prison-red jumpsuit, slouched into the witness chair. Asked why the assault happened, he shook his head. "Nothing else to do, I guess."
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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