In a child-abuse case that shocked many people, the state and three other parties have agreed to pay $6 million to settle a lawsuit brought on behalf of a boy who was intentionally starved by his father and his girlfriend.
The state and three other parties have agreed to pay $6 million to settle a lawsuit brought on behalf of a boy who was intentionally starved by his father and the man’s girlfriend.
The settlement, reached early Tuesday during mediation, stemmed from the case of Shayne Abegg, who weighed only 22 pounds at age 4 when authorities rescued him on March 7, 2007, from his Everett home. A year earlier, when Shayne came to live with his father, he had weighed 38 pounds.
Under the settlement, which requires approval by a judge, the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) agreed to pay $5 million, with the remainder to be split between state-contracted therapist Brad Simkins and two social-service agencies that hired him.
The boy, through his guardian, originally sought $22 million in a tort claim filed with the state.
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The lawsuit, filed in Snohomish County Superior Court, alleged DSHS, Simkins and the others failed to protect Shayne, who couldn’t sit or walk when he was found. In addition, the boy’s temperature had reached the dangerously low level of 87 degrees and his muscles were wasting.
The settlement comes at a time when state legislators are considering privatizing some social services to fix what critics call a broken child-welfare system. The Children’s Administration, which is part of DSHS, has been plagued by problems for years, including dozens of child fatalities.
Shayne’s father, Danny Abegg, and his girlfriend, Marilea Mitchell, were each sentenced to eight years in prison last year after being found guilty of criminal mistreatment in a bench trial. His mother lost her parental rights years ago.
The father and girlfriend claimed during the trial that they just thought Shayne was skinny. That defense incensed the Snohomish County judge, who likened photographs of the emaciated boy to those of concentration-camp victims.
Before Shayne’s rescue, DSHS had received numerous complaints during the previous nine months that Shayne and his older brother were being abused by Abegg and Mitchell, according to state records.
The lawsuit alleged that the work of DSHS employees was slipshod. It contended not everyone who filed a complaint was interviewed; other times there was no record that anyone spoke with Shayne or his brother outside the presence of family; still other times, investigators accepted Danny Abegg’s and Mitchell’s explanations.
Even when one caseworker saw “extreme bruising” on both sides of the brother’s head, she did not act to protect the boys, according to the lawsuit. Shortly after the caseworker noted the bruising, Abegg sent the brother to live with relatives in California.
According to the lawsuit, DSHS dismissed some of the complaints as “unfounded.” But the agency nonetheless enlisted Simkins to help the family — particularly with “food issues.”
Simkins reported troubling patterns, the lawsuit said. The boys had a “fear of starvation,” he wrote in one report. They “have to scavenge for every meal that they can get,” he wrote in another. Yet, Abegg and Mitchell seemed “less than enthusiastic” about working on that problem.
Instead, the couple continued to withhold food as a form of discipline, and complained to Simkins that the boys would “steal” food from the kitchen.
As Simkins worked with the family, another complaint came in, and the warning signs continued, according to the lawsuit. Yet Shayne was left in the home.
The boy’s attorney, David Moody, said Tuesday that the “evidence was crystal-clear that DSHS failed to act.”
The settlement will provide adequate compensation for Shayne, now 6, to receive care he will need the rest of his life, Moody said.
Shayne suffered significant permanent cognitive delays as a result of being neglected and starved, Moody said.
Steve Williams, a DSHS spokesman, said Shayne is now living in foster care and is in good health.
“Any child who endured what Shayne did may well face challenges throughout the rest of his life,” Williams said. “We’re pleased that the state can provide some financial assistance to help him.”
After Shayne was rescued, DSHS hired an outside expert to retrain workers on how to recognize malnutrition and two social workers involved in the case resigned.
Moody said the state has to do more than change policies and must require “effective and meaningful” social work.
In Olympia, Senate Bill 5943 would radically transform the state’s child-welfare system by requiring the state to hire private contractors to work with children and troubled families after verified complaints of abuse or neglect and the first dependency court hearing. The new contracts could leave about 1,000 social workers and support staffers out of work.
The bill, which has bipartisan support, passed the Senate on March 11, and the House Committee on Early Learning & Children’s Services held a hearing on it Tuesday.
Information from Seattle Times staff reporter Jennifer Sullivan and Times archives is included in this report.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org