Foster boys beat teen into coma; should
DSHS pay for their crime?
Agency's lawyers say justice system is to
blame, not state's social workers
BY JONATHAN MARTIN Seattle Times
staff reporter: Nov.
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
The 20-year-old has no short-term memory, and
his lungs fill with fluid, requiring frequent hospital stays.
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.
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
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 A. -
for-nearly a year leading up to Aba Sheikh's assault, according to court
Mychal A. and another resident of Daniels' home are not
being identified because they were convicted as juveniles.
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
(Mychal A)," 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
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 . . . a duty to protect members of the general public from criminal
conduct by foster children,' wrote Jeff Freimund, an assistant attorney general
If the system failed these kids, Freimund argued,
it was King County's juvenile-probation department, which was supposed to
be supervising Pierre and Mychal A. at the time of the beating. Aba Sheikh’s
lawyer 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 Mychal A. and Pierre to a
As bad it
sounds, these were seen as throwaway children,” said Jane Ramon, a
former 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."
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
At trial, Pierre said he found two new friends at
Daniels' home. Mychal A., then 12, had been placed with Daniels after being
abandoned by his mother and physically abused in two previous foster
Ramon,; a social worker for 31 years, said Pierre and Mychal A.
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
A relative of Daniels', Michael G., also periodically lived in
the foster home, and fell in with Pierre and Mychal A. Like the other two,
Michael G.'s record of school fights and violent crime quickly lengthened as the
trio became friends.
Cheryl Willey, a friend of Mychal A.'s family,
saw the quiet, lanky teen deteriorate after Pierre arrived at the foster home.
She testified that she stated calling DSHS three times a week in late 1997 and
early 1998, asking to adopt Mychal A.
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
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 boy
friend 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
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.
developed enough faith in Daniels to grant her guardianship of Mychal A. 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 Mychal A.,
or both, but her calls weren't returned, according to her attorney, Stewart
"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
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.
March 1999, a month before Aba Sheikh's assault, DSHS social workers finally
listened to her concerns and took two foster lads out But Pierre and Mychal A.
remained, with Michael G. often sleeping over.
The night of the
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
He appears to have barely known Pierre, Mychal A. 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, Abe
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 Mychal A.
Pierre and Ativalu,
both 16 at the time, were convicted of assault as adults and are serving
sentences of at least 10 years. Mychal A. and Michael G., both 15 at the time,
were convicted as juveniles. Michael G. is now out, but Mychal A. is still
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
Jonathan Martin. 206-464-2605