Advocates for a Young Victim of Neglect Seek Payback from a Washington State Health Agency

It’s taken three years but the Washington state Department of Social and Health Services now faces a $27 million lawsuit for allegedly dropping the ball on this one … the victim was a blind, disabled teenager.

Heathers-teachers-quotePolice say that in October of 2012, emergency responders arrived at a home in North Bend, Washington to investigate April and Jeff Henderson; a couple who was supposedly caring for then 19-year-old Heather Curtis. Detectives say they found Heather Curtis in a room with a bunk bed, lying on the mattress with only a light blanket to cover her. Among the dirty diapers, feces, garbage, smell and flies milling about was Heather; naked except for a very soiled diaper. Investigators say they originally thought Heather was a child of 7 or 8 years old because she was extremely malnourished, emaciated and writhing in pain. Heather Curtis is blind, has spastic quadriplegia and cerebral palsy. Her teeth had decayed to the point where she, after being removed from the home, required 19 root canals. At the time of her rescue she weighted only 68 pounds.

“I remember it like it was yesterday. It was one of the most horrible things I’d ever seen,” said King County Detective Belinda Paredes-Garrett. “She was wailing and moaning a sound I’ve never ever heard and the only thing I could compare it to would be a wounded animal.”

Court documents indicate that Heather Curtis was 10 years old when her caregiver died. Jeff and April Henderson then took her in and were paid by the Department of Social and Health Services to care for the disabled child. It was in 2003 — after the Hendersons took Heather Curtis into their home — that the DSHS received complaints of negligence. In 2004, according to state documents, Heather’s teachers noted that she wasn’t bathed and would come to school smelling of feces and urine. She had bad sores and would often come to school without a coat. The following year, more and similar reports were filed by educators and then later, in 2009, teachers formally claimed that Heather was being mistreated; the child was always dirty (with feces on her bottom, especially) and her hair missing. The child was missing a lot of school and by 2010; she was no longer in school.

The state of Washington’s King county Department of Social and Health Services’ records show that for the next couple of years, employees paid an occasional — previously announced — visit to the Henderson home but never went into Heather’s bedroom. On October 17, 2012, April Henderson took Heather Curtis to Children’s Hospital in Seattle, where a nurse documented a number of concerns. The complaint was sent to Adult Protective Services and on October 25th, police and firefighters removed Heather from the Hendersons’ home.

Heather Curtis’ new guardian and their attorney, David P. Moody, have filed a $27 million lawsuit against DSHS for failing to supervise the Hendersons’ care of the disabled child. They claim that DSHS didn’t require the Hendersons to go through training and social workers did not investigate neglect complaints. The Hendersons, who, according to police, were living a rather lavish lifestyle, received $4,000 a month from the DSHS for Heather’s care. The couple pleaded guilty to 2nd degree criminal mistreatment and received a nine month sentence of home detention.

If Heather wins her case, the multi-million dollar payout — or some type for settlement — would ensure private care for rest of her life. King County detective Belinda Paredes-Garrett visited Heather nine months after the rescue, saying that the young woman had gained weight and was back in school. It was in 2013, two months after Heather was rescued, that the DSHS enacted an automated database to better track complaints. The department says it has also increased its investigation staff.

Here’s the story from King5 News in Seattle.