Five-year-old Gary Blanton died in the care of an aunt struggling with six kids in a “chaotic” home. Why did the state keep him there?

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The alarming signs about Cynthia Khaleel were piling up.

The state had put two nephews in her care, and one of them, 5-year-old Gary, came to school near Spokane with his face covered in scratches and bruises.

Chattaroy Elementary staffers suspected abuse, and called the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).

Timeline

Aug. 1, 2014: Gary and Skylar go to live with Cynthia Khaleel.

September-November 2014: Health and safety visits, which were later questioned.

Dec. 12, 2014: Gary’s school alerts DSHS to possible abuse.

Feb. 3, 2015: DSHS caseworker raises concerns about Khaleel.

Feb. 5, 2015: Court commissioner orders Gary’s sister Destiny to be placed with Khaleel.

Feb. 17, 2015: DSHS caseworker finds Khaleel home “chaotic.”

April 18, 2015: Gary dies.

Sept. 14, 2016: Gary’s grandmother sues DSHS.

Oct. 17, 2017: Khaleel’s murder trial to begin.

Sources: Court and DSHS documents

Khaleel, then in her late 20s, was furious. She cursed out a counselor and was banned from school grounds unless security was present. The principal considered Khaleel “hotter than a pistol.”

She was overwhelmed and undersupported, school staffers told DSHS. Both nephews had profound special needs, and Khaleel was also raising three young children of her own — essentially as a single mother, with a military husband stationed far away.

Yet across the state in a Port Angeles courtroom, DSHS was fighting a prolonged battle to place another child, Gary’s younger sister, with Khaleel.

Two months after a commissioner gave the OK — and four months after the school’s report of suspected abuse — an emergency crew found Gary lying inert in his bed.

Helicoptered to the hospital in April 2015, he had bruises all over his body and skull fractures suggesting a severe blow. He suffered a massive stroke and brain injury, and died soon after.

Khaleel told a detective she found Gary lying on the floor earlier in the morning and put him back to bed — a scenario the medical examiner found inconsistent with Gary’s injuries.

Khaleel, now 30, stands charged with second-degree murder. She has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go on trial in June. Out on bail, she could not be reached for comment.

Whatever the outcome, the case underscores deep and persistent problems in Washington’s child-welfare system, whose 2,400 staffers serve around 100,000 children — 7 percent of the state’s juvenile population. A series of troubling events leading up to Gary’s death also shows what the new Department of Children, Youth and Families is up against.

Red flags have gone ignored amid crushing caseloads, lack of adequate supervision and a shortage of homes to place children. Over the past decade, DSHS has paid $141 million for personal-injury claims to children. Such claims, including for starvation and rape, never seem to end.

People

Gary Blanton: 5-year-old who died April 18, 2015

Skylar: Gary’s little brother

Destiny: Gary’s younger half-sister

Gary Blanton Jr.: Gary’s father, who died June 2, 2012, at age 28

Leslie Blanton: Gary’s mother, who died July 26, 2014, at age 37

Cynthia Khaleel: Gary’s aunt, the half-sister of Gary Blanton Jr. Charged with murder.

Carol Baker: Gary’s one-time foster mom in Port Angeles

Cindy Morrill: Destiny’s one-time foster mom in Port Angeles

Heidi Kaas: DSHS caseworker

The new department, created by the Legislature in late June, will take over child-welfare programs run by DSHS’s Children’s Administration, as well as those in other agencies related to early learning and juvenile justice. Backers say the new structure will integrate state services for kids, increase accountability and work toward solving systemic problems.

Internal documents obtained by The Seattle Times, court records and interviews paint a picture of dysfunction in the Gary Blanton case. Caseworker Heidi Kaas, like Khaleel, was overwhelmed and undersupported.

Khaleel was not properly vetted, and Kaas was accused of falsifying reports of “health and safety” visits. Kaas said she was traveling 400 miles every month for the visits, and twice reported being in Spokane and Port Angeles on the same day.

A fatality-review committee convened by DSHS determined there had been inadequate supervision and “critical errors.”

Reading over the committee’s report at the request of The Seattle Times, Patrick Dowd, director of Washington’s Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds, said he was struck by how many DSHS mistakes and flaws, not necessarily unusual in themselves, came together in a single case.

Gary Blanton Jr. and Leslie Blanton hold their son, Gary. When the boy was a toddler, his father was shot to death. Two years later, his mother also was dead.  (Courtesy of Tammy Johnson)
Gary Blanton Jr. and Leslie Blanton hold their son, Gary. When the boy was a toddler, his father was shot to death. Two years later, his mother also was dead. (Courtesy of Tammy Johnson)

“Their needs were so high”

“This one in particular was probably the most gut-wrenching, hardest case ever, that I’ve had for almost 40 years of working with kids,” Kaas said during a February deposition for an ongoing federal lawsuit against DSHS over Gary’s death, brought by one of the boy’s grandmothers.

It wasn’t just Gary’s death. Tragedy hung over the Port Angeles family like a curse.

In June 2012, Gary’s father, Gary Blanton Jr., was shot to death while playing “World of Warcraft” on his computer. The killer was a friend who, unbeknown to the 28-year-old, had decided to execute sex offenders. As a teenager, Blanton had pleaded guilty to raping another teen.

“He didn’t deserve this,” his distraught wife, Leslie, told KIRO TV. She called her husband “an amazing person,” not a predator, and lamented the lack of compassion she said greeted his murder.

Leslie was left on her own with two boys: Gary and Skylar, who was a year younger and born with Down syndrome. She went on to meet another man and have a daughter, Destiny. But she spiraled downward and turned to drugs, as she had in the past. An older daughter had been put into foster care years before.

Now, Gary, Skylar and Destiny all got foster parents as well, each going to a different home.

One day, Kaas, their caseworker in DSHS’ Port Angeles office, got a call from Khaleel. She explained she was Gary Blanton Jr.’s half-sister.

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Khaleel, then in Georgia, where her husband was stationed, hadn’t grown up with her half-brother or spent much time with his family. But she had heard about his murder and said she was worried about the kids, Kaas recalled during the deposition.

“So we started a dialogue,” Kaas said.

Khaleel said she had plans to move to Kansas with her husband, but wasn’t keen to do so. Actually, she said, she was thinking of living in a big house in the Spokane area, just down the street from her mom. It could accommodate her kids as well her half-brother’s children.

“And I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s cool,’ ” Kaas said.

Initially, according to Kaas, the idea was to place Gary and Skylar with Khaleel.

Before Khaleel came on the scene, Kaas said, “There was not a foster home we could put them in together because their needs were so high, both of them.” Gary, on his own, had been in six or seven foster homes, she said.

He was adorable, she added, a sentiment echoed by one of his former foster moms, Carol Baker. “He woke up every day with a smile,” Baker said.

But he had the developmental abilities of a child half his age. He barely talked and wasn’t potty-trained. Rambunctious, he careened down hallways and crawled into Baker’s washing machine.

“We all thought he was probably on the autistic spectrum,” Kaas said.

In April 2014, DSHS flew Khaleel to Port Angeles, and put her up in a hotel room for a week so she could get to know Gary and his siblings. By then, she was saying she wanted to keep the family together and take all three kids.

All of the policies, procedures and laws are in place to prevent the bad things from happening. And yet they keep happening. That’s the crime here.” - Cindy Morrill, foster parent

Kaas was impressed. “She just seemed to be able to handle it all,” the caseworker said in the deposition.

Khaleel bought Gary new clothes, Baker recalled. Cindy Morrill, Destiny’s foster mom, recalled Khaleel telling her she had a “good Christian home.”

Yet both foster moms were uneasy. There were too many kids, with too many challenges.

“Mother Teresa herself couldn’t have handled it,” Baker said.

DSHS judged the matter differently.

In early August — days after Leslie Blanton died from an illness related to her drug addiction, according to a close friend — Gary and Skylar left for Khaleel’s new house in Chattaroy, about 20 miles north of Spokane.

Not done: a home study, mandated by DSHS and requiring background checks on all members of a household, interviews with the prospective caretaker and others, and an examination of the home itself.

DSHS didn’t even realize the information on Khaleel it had in its own files.

“Sense of desperation”

Anywhere in the state, a DSHS caseworker’s job is tough. But it is especially so in small, rural towns, said Autumn Piontek-Walsh, who worked in DSHS’ Port Angeles office for several years, leaving in 2012. There just aren’t that many people to take kids in.

“There is a sense of desperation that if you can’t find a placement for those kids, you’re it,” said Piontek-Walsh, who now owns a private school.

A couple of times, she lay them down on an office couch and stayed up all night to stand guard.

“OK, one of them’s off my plate,” she said, echoing Kaas, of what it often feels like to secure a placement.

She said she felt pressure from supervisors to solve cases quickly and move on to the next — even when a proposed placement had what she called a “high creep factor.”

“I didn’t want to do it — and you do it,” she said.

Evon Aldrich worked for several years in a unit that reviewed criminal background checks for cases in Seattle and surrounding areas. Aldrich, who no longer works for the agency and was not involved in the Blanton case, said she saw department staffers push for placements that disturbed her. She’d sometimes think: “With a rap sheet like this, we shouldn’t even consider placing a child in the home.”

DSHS policy disqualifies people from taking in children, for varying lengths of time, if they have committed certain crimes.

Aldrich filed a whistleblower complaint with the state auditor’s office.

A March report by that office concluded no state laws were broken. But, of 33 cases from 2015 reviewed, it found two cases in which DSHS, contrary to policy, did not do background checks before placing children in a home.

In another case, a background check was done and revealed an adult in the home had committed a crime considered a “permanent disqualifier.” DSHS kept the exact crime confidential, but it could have included anything from sexual misconduct to domestic violence charges to murder.

Children went to the home anyway, according to the March report.

That wasn’t totally forbidden; the Children’s Administration’s top official can override a disqualification. But that didn’t happen, said an investigator with the auditor’s office.

A DSHS spokeswoman said a new, centralized background-check unit has addressed such problems.

Jennifer Strus, who headed the Children’s Administration from 2013 until late August, when she left to advise the governor on the creation of the new department, said DSHS’ mistakes represent a small fraction of its overall record.

“We actually have a lot of successes … thousands of thousands of cases where things go right,” she said.

Strus said she couldn’t comment specifically on the Blanton case because of litigation.

“What the public expects for us is to predict human behavior — and we can’t.”

What’s more, she stressed: “It’s a chronically underfunded system and it is in every single state.”

The Children’s Administration lost $150 million and 400 staffers during the recession because of legislative cuts.

Ross Hunter, a former Democratic representative from Medina who played a leading role in budget negotiations, said: “You see in hindsight what looks like bad decisions.”

He said, however, he and fellow legislators had little choice given the economic meltdown and opposition to new taxes.

“We cut a lot of stuff,” he said, not just DSHS funding. “That was very hard to do.”

As it created the Department of Children, Youth and Families — which Hunter began heading Aug. 1 — the Legislature allocated $6.3 million in startup money and millions more to improve child-welfare programs.

“Will it be enough?” asked Hunter. “I don’t know.”

But he promised to be a “clanging gong asking for resources.” He is in the governor’s cabinet, he pointed out, and looking out specifically for kids and families. The head of DSHS, in contrast, had to lobby for resources across the agency’s many responsibilities, including fixing troubled Western State Hospital.

Hunter declined to talk much about the Blanton case, saying he was too new on the job. He said, however, that the governor and the Legislature had created DCYF precisely because of deaths like Gary’s.

Their thinking, he said: “We want to do a better job than we’re doing today.”

“What you don’t know”

In October 2014, a couple months after the Blanton boys arrived in Chattaroy, Kaas entered notes into a DSHS data system about a health and safety visit.

“Gary is doing really well in school and in the home,” she wrote, although she noted he would let out a bloodcurdling scream when one of his cousins bugged him.

A month later, Kaas wrote even more positively about a visit:

Gary and Skylar have settled into the household. Gary calls Aunt Cynthia ‘mom’ most of the time now. Skylar is still nonverbal, but mostly content and smiling continually during his waking hours. Both brothers have come a long way in their development and sense of security levels.

With a master’s in social work from the University of Washington, Kaas had worked for DSHS since 1998. She was a mother herself who had moved to Port Angeles to rediscover her roots — her parents and grandparents had grown up there — and fallen in love with its slow pace and waterfront beauty, she recounted during the February deposition.

So she had a lot of experience to make a judgment about Khaleel’s home. What remains unclear is whether she actually saw the boys there.

On the same October and November dates Kaas said she visited them in the Spokane area, she also said she checked up on Destiny at a Port Angeles day care, according to notes entered into the system.

Kaas declined to be interviewed for this story because The Seattle Times would not give her final say over what was written.

Asked during the deposition about the October reports — and how she could have visited two places at opposite ends of the state on the same day — she said she must have entered the wrong date for one visit.

Her bosses, ultimately, had a different explanation. A May 2015 notice of dismissal, after Gary’s death, accused her of falsifying three months of reports.

“That’s frightening,” said Dowd, the ombuds, in an interview.

He has seen missed health and safety visits before. More concerning, he said, would be the false reassurance of falsified reports. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” he said.

Tom Stokes, DSHS administrator for the region covering Port Angeles, reached the conclusion about Kaas based in part on an interview with Khaleel, who said the caseworker talked to her almost daily by phone but came to her house only once — for a walk-through before the children arrived. Stokes reported other foster parents also said Kaas missed health and safety visits for months at a time.

A settlement with Kaas, who filed a grievance, resulted in her resignation. She admitted no wrongdoing and DSHS paid her $4,500.

At the deposition, she said she had made the visits to Chattaroy, though she may not have been “totally in the home” one time. “We were like riding bikes or something” and went to the “grandmother’s home, which was down the street.”

While Kaas said she had been scapegoated for everything that happened, she admitted some mistakes.

She said she wasn’t sure she understood a formal home study was needed, given the walk-through. And she said she erred by failing to transfer the case to DSHS’ Spokane office, as policy dictated.

“I mean, I’d had this case forever,” she said, adding that she was like a mom to Gary for years. “It was really difficult to trust it was going to be OK. I wanted to make sure, you know.”

Driving to Spokane every month wasn’t a big deal because she had a boyfriend and family there, she said.

Why didn’t the reports of same-day, cross-state visits arouse immediate suspicion? And why didn’t Kaas’ supervisors make sure a home study and case transfer were done?

Neither Stokes nor other supervisors returned messages seeking comment. DSHS said it found no records of disciplinary actions for those overseeing the case.

Yet Gary’s fatality-review report noted “conspicuous missed opportunities for key supervisory actions.” The report said high turnover in the office kept supervisors focused on new hires and not monitoring veterans like Kaas.

“I was on my own,” she said in the deposition, though she added, “if you’ve got a really complex case, you need to be able to talk about it.”

As the most senior caseworker in the office, she said, she was given the hardest cases, and the most, period — at least 35 at any given time.

“I was completely overwhelmed,” she said.

In 2011, as a result of the landmark Braam settlement, the caseload limit was set at 18. Because of the settlement’s complicated terms, that limit is not enforced.

A recent state report puts the overall caseload average at 20, but the figure has been much higher in some offices.

Greg Devereux, Washington Federation of State Employees executive director, said he went on a tour of DSHS offices a few years ago. “People would say, ‘I have 50, 60, 70 cases a month,’ ” he recalled.

Roughly one-quarter of 25 DSHS child fatality-review reports for 2015 and 2016 note high caseloads. One unnamed office had a backlog of 450 CPS investigations, according to a report on a 16-year-old who died after being given sodium nitrite by his adopted mother, who said she believed the substance would curb his sexual behavior. The caseworker assigned to investigate the family had 50 open cases, the average for his unit, according to the report. The investigation faltered for 10 months, with no activity recorded.

Another report, on an infant accidentally suffocated while sleeping in a bed with the child’s mother and a sibling, said the caseworker had an “extremely high caseload” in an office plagued by turnover and a 50 percent vacancy rate.

Turnover, increased caseloads and inadequate training have led to an “overarching” challenge of stress in field offices, said still another report.

Hunter, after reading the DSHS report on Gary’s death, also pointed to high caseloads and rampant turnover. The loss of people, he said, was “crazy-making.”

“Everyone spends all their time trying to help new people get up to speed,” he said. Meanwhile, experienced staffers take on even more cases and burn out.

Hunter said he plans to spend the coming months meeting with caseworkers to find out why so many quit their jobs.

Caseload ceased to be an issue for Kaas in December 2014. DSHS pulled her off all cases as it looked into her performance. The Blanton case went to others.

Some of DSHS’ most questionable decisions were yet to come, and played out alongside what Gary’s fatality-review report called a “legal distraction.”

“Cynthia cannot keep up”

Cindy Morrill had fostered dozens of kids, many with special needs, by the time Gary’s sister, Destiny, came to live with her. Destiny was 2 days old.

Morrill said she thought of this placement, like the others, as temporary. But that changed at the prospect of losing Destiny to Khaleel.

Foster mother Cindy Morrill holds Gary Blanton’s younger sister, Destiny. Morrill cared for the girl for more than a year before she was moved to the home of Cynthia Khaleel in February 2015. Khaleel stands accused of murdering Gary two months later. (Courtesy of Tammy Johnson)
Foster mother Cindy Morrill holds Gary Blanton’s younger sister, Destiny. Morrill cared for the girl for more than a year before she was moved to the home of Cynthia Khaleel in February 2015. Khaleel stands accused of murdering Gary two months later. (Courtesy of Tammy Johnson)

Usually foster parents have no legal standing to contest such matters. But given Morrill’s and her husband’s involvement in Destiny’s life practically from birth, Clallam County Commissioner Brent Basden allowed the couple to intervene.

They asked to keep Destiny — and faced a wall of opposition.

DSHS, bearing a declaration from Kaas about how well Gary and Skylar were doing in Khaleel’s care, requested Destiny be given the same opportunity. Valerie Brooks, coordinator for the county’s Court Appointed Special Advocate program, representing the interests of children, backed up DSHS at a November 2014 hearing.

“It is just unbelievable,” Brooks said, referring to Gary. “He has grown and progressed leaps and bounds.”

“I think it would be a great case study,” enthused John Hayden, a court-appointed attorney for Gary and Skylar.

The boys, by virtue of their mother, belonged to the Hoh Tribe. The federal Indian Child Welfare Act dictated that the tribe’s opinion carry great weight, and the Hoh strongly argued in favor of Khaleel, who said she was part Native American.

Yet Commissioner Basden was troubled.

“Nobody’s articulated to me why it would suddenly be better for this child to have to start over,” Basden said at the hearing. “I mean this is a 15-month-old child that every day has woken up and looked into their (the Morrills’) eyes and been cared for, nurtured …”

In December, DSHS in Spokane received the call from Chattaroy Elementary about Gary’s bruises and scratches.

It was the first time the Spokane office heard of Gary and Skylar’s presence in its terrain and it jumped on the case, not only investigating the school’s report but launching a belated home study.

Spokane caseworkers did not find evidence Khaleel hit Gary. But caseworkers learned of Khaleel’s volatile reputation at the school. They also discovered DSHS had investigated Khaleel before. One time, her then-toddler was spotted wandering the streets on his own. Another, she was looking after a friend’s 2-year-old when the child fell from a third-story window, according to DSHS records.

DSHS did not conclude there was abuse or neglect in either case.

Still, just a week into a home study, before a decision about Destiny’s placement, Spokane caseworker Jim Desmond felt the need to contact DSHS’ Port Angeles office.

“As I told you during our phone conversation on 2/2/15, I have some concerns about the home of Cynthia Khaleel,” he wrote the next day in an email to caseworker Susan Steiner in Port Angeles.

DSHS did not mention Desmond’s concerns — nor the investigation into Gary’s bruises — in legal proceedings over Destiny’s placement, said Morrill and her attorney Carol Mortensen.

Basden said he has no way of knowing what he’s not told. “The court doesn’t get off the bench, get in the car and drive over to the home,” he said.

On Feb. 5, 2015, he ordered the Morrills to turn Destiny over to Khaleel.

Twelve days later, Spokane caseworker Edith Vance visited the Khaleel home and filed notes.

I was at the home for over two hours and it is chaotic. Skylar was in a high chair in the kitchen the whole time I was there, there is so much going on that Cynthia cannot keep up, the children are shuffled to a downstairs playroom while she is upstairs, and when I left, Gary and another young boy were outside with no adult supervision and no fenced yard …

I feel that the aunt’s heart is in the right place, but I fear that she is in far above her head and the expectations are too high.

Yet Gary and his siblings remained at her home for two more months. Only after Gary’s death on April 18 did DSHS remove Destiny and Skylar. A Hoh family later took them in.

Morrill puts the blame squarely on DSHS for doing nothing about a situation she called a “disaster waiting to happen.” The people in charge, she said, evade responsibility.

“All of the policies, procedures and laws are in place to prevent the bad things from happening. And yet they keep happening. That’s the crime here.”

More than a year after Gary’s death, Baker, his former foster mom, said: “It still hurts.” She has sought out counseling and questioned whether she should continue fostering kids.

The previous Christmas, she and her family released balloons in Gary’s memory.

“Everyone,” she said, “failed him.”