Even as a foster child all those years ago, DeShaye Harris said she suspected her health care providers at the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic in Seattle’s Central District treated her differently because of the color of her skin.
After getting immunization shots at the clinic in the 1990s, Harris recalled watching a clinic worker lead a white girl to a basket to pick out a toy.
“But they just walked me right out,” said Harris, who is Black.
Now, some two-and-a-half decades later, Harris, 33, contends that racial bias at the clinic also manifested itself in a far more troubling way: By factoring into her doctors’ and nurses’ alleged failures to report her repeated disclosures about being raped and otherwise abused at the foster homes where she lived.
During one checkup when she was still in grade school, Harris said she complained of “inflammation, discharge and pain down there.” A clinic provider informed her she had genital warts and wondered how she got them, she said.
“And I told them,” Harris said. “But they just looked at me as if I was some sexually active child and sent me back to my foster parents.”
Harris and her three sisters are among four sets of Black siblings — a dozen former foster children in all — who allege in a lawsuit that “numerous Odessa Brown employees received notice of potentially egregious abuses, but failed to act” as they and other professionals are required to under Washington’s mandatory reporter law.
As a result, the children’s “disclosures were never properly investigated or referred to law enforcement or CPS (Child Protective Services),” causing them to remain in homes where they suffered further abuse, the suit claims.
Donna Moniz, a lawyer for Seattle Children’s, which operates the Odessa Brown clinic that primarily serves people of color and low-income families, did not respond to requests for comment this week. In legal pleadings, Moniz has denied that clinic employees received, or failed to report, any credible abuse claims.
Last week, Moniz also filed a motion asking a judge to dismiss the case, contending the plaintiffs’ claims about the clinic are contrary to past statements they’ve made in previous lawsuits, unsupported by verifiable evidence and were made well beyond the state’s three-year deadline for bringing a lawsuit.
A spokesperson for the hospital this week cited the legal motion, adding: “In the interests of privacy, and in light of the ongoing legal action, we cannot comment further or share additional details at this time.”
Attorneys for the plaintiffs countered their clients’ case is sound and claim the hospital’s argument to toss the case “is cherry-picking the facts” by omitting the most damning evidence. They added the lawsuit illustrates a long-running pattern and culture at the clinic that was recently aired publicly amid the news that Dr. Ben Danielson, its longtime medical director, had resigned, alleging institutional racism.
“It highlights what this gentleman said he saw for years at this facility: That there was unequal treatment for people of color,” said lawyer Lawand Anderson, who represents Harris and the other plaintiffs with attorney Lincoln Beauregard.
The attorneys are now pursuing a deposition with Danielson, Beauregard said. The hospital separately has hired the law firm of former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate Danielson’s allegations.
Filed in August 2019 — 15 months before Danielson resigned — the lawsuit is the fourth in a group of cases, replete with horrific details, that allege institutional failures to prevent or report ongoing abuse of the plaintiffs during their placements in four state-licensed foster homes during the 1990s.
The defendants in the previous cases — the state of Washington and Sound, the private nonprofit formerly known as Sound Mental Health — settled before trial in all but one instance. In that matter, three siblings voluntarily dropped a suit against Sound after realizing they’d confused it with the Odessa Brown clinic, Beauregard said. None of the parties disclosed the settlement terms or amounts paid to resolve those cases when asked for them this week.
In the current lawsuit, which is set for trial in May, 10 of the 12 plaintiffs so far have provided statements swearing they told clinic employees about ongoing abuse at their foster homes. Harris and two others, a Black man and a Black woman who asked to be identified by their initials, also recounted in interviews with The Seattle Times instances when they said they disclosed their abuse to the clinic’s staff. The Seattle Times typically does not identify victims of sex crimes unless they want their names to be used.
“There were times when I hurt myself just so I could go tell them what happened to me the night before,” Harris said. “But no matter how many times I told them, I’d just get sent back.”
E.W., 31, and L.F., 29, each generally described experiences similar to those detailed by Harris, contending nurses and doctors seemed to ignore or disbelieve their accounts.
“I told them whenever I could — that I never wanted to go back, that [the foster parents] did bad things to me,” L.F. said.
Despite her disclosures, L.F. said clinic employees invariably would allow her foster parents to take her home. “Then, here comes the tears,” she said. “And there was always a fight getting me back into their vehicles.”
The clinic’s patient records include references to alleged sexual abuse of some, but not all of his clients, said Beauregard, who acknowledged the documentation is sometimes illegible and spotty at best.
“But that’s not my clients’ fault,” he said. “Clearly, if you are treating a kid for genital warts, that’s the opportunity to discuss and find out what’s happening to them.”
Based on what is available, a forensic mental health consultant hired as an expert witness by the plaintiffs’ attorneys identified multiple mandatory reporting lapses, including an instance when a clinic doctor’s notes from March 1997 about one child indicated “no noted documented physical or sexual abuse … though it is suspected.”
Attorneys for the hospital have countered in pleadings that entries from clinic records cited in the case “all appear to repeat issues occurring prior to each child’s placement in the foster care system,” and don’t substantiate any new allegations of abuse at the time of clinic visits. One record cited on behalf of two siblings also appears to originate from a visit to a different hospital, not the Odessa Brown clinic, the hospital’s lawyers wrote.
After 25 years, E.W. said the names of the doctors he saw and precise details of conversations he had with them have faded from his memory. But he’s adamant he reported his foster parents’ abuse.
“I don’t think [clinic employees] even took it serious or documented it,” he said. “We’d just get sent back home to the foster parents, and then the abuse would be even worse.”
Over the years, E.W., L.F. and Harris said they’ve struggled with the psychological fallout stemming from their abuse. As adults, they’ve suffered suicidal thoughts, nightmares, panic attacks, detachment in personal relationships and other emotional problems, they said.
Each blamed the abusers, but also castigated the social workers, health care providers and others who seemed to turn a blind eye to their plight.
“If just one doctor would’ve took the time and listened to me and heard my cries,” Harris said, “I can almost guarantee that my abuse would’ve been addressed a lot sooner.”