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'Substandard and dangerous': Lawsuit alleges state's Rainier School unsafe

The lawsuit, filed by a disability rights group, wants the facility to stop admitting new residents and find new placements for residents who want to leave.

PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — Two people with developmental disabilities and the Seattle-based advocacy group Disability Rights Washington (DRW) filed a lawsuit Friday against Washington state for allegedly operating the Rainier School in Pierce County in a manner that continuously puts the residents there in peril of harm, neglect and death.

Rainier State School, located in the small town of Buckley, is one of four state-operated institutions in Washington state for people with developmental disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome and epilepsy. State records show of the four, the Rainier School is the most troubled facility, with a disturbing history of resident deaths, sexual assaults, medical neglect, choking incidents and malnourishment.

The lawsuit filed Friday claims the Rainier School, with 130 vulnerable residents living in the facility, is a “dangerous place to live” and that the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), charged with running the institution, has shown a “willful failure” to keep residents from suffering serious harm.

“This place has shown over and over to be dangerous,” said DRW’s Beth Leonard, lead attorney on the case. “DRW could not stand by any longer and watch people put in harm’s way.”

The lawsuit calls on DSHS to come into compliance in several areas state and federal regulars have repeatedly found to be deficient at the Rainier School, including failure to ensure enough staff is available to keep residents safe properly. It also calls on the state to immediately stop admitting any new residents and to move out current residents as soon as possible for those who wish to do so.

Specific incidents of harm cited in the complaint in the last two years included:

  • A 77-year-old resident had to have an eye removed at Harborview after Rainier staff allegedly failed to provide proper medical care for an eye infection.
  • A 42-year-old resident wandered away from Rainier School and was never found. He’s presumed dead.
  • In 2021, a resident was hospitalized after drinking cleaning fluid. The resident had known behaviors of eating inedible items including swallowing a light bulb and ingesting cleaning fluid previously at Rainier School.
  • This year, a resident choked to death. Regulators found the staff was not properly trained in preventing choking behaviors.

A DSHS spokesperson said the agency cannot comment on the litigation but said those in their care are their top priority.

“Our priority is to always do what is in the very best interest and safety for our clients,” said Lisa Pemberton, media relations specialist for the Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA) of DSHS.

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Federal regulators threaten to decertify a portion of Rainier

State and federal regulators have given the state multiple chances to bring the Rainier School into compliance. Repeated violations have led to federal funding currently being cut off for any new admissions. In July, the state Health Care Authority, which oversees federal Medicaid funding for Rainier School, wrote a letter to DSHS, stating its intention to “terminate the certification” of one of two housing sections at the facility. Losing certification would mean losing federal funding for that portion of Rainier School where approximately half of the residents live. 

“I worry about the residents still there,” said Arlene Greathouse of Snoqualmie. Her grandson Gavin, age 20, is a former Rainier School resident who is one of two plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Arlene said Gavin’s life unraveled during his 18 months at Rainier School due to staff not following appropriate behavior plans. According to the lawsuit, direct care staff repeatedly used physical restraints on Gavin and medical restraints, over-drugging him to keep him compliant.

Arlene said Gavin’s team at DDA does a “great job” of helping to find placements for Gavin and taking care of his needs, but the experience at Rainier School was a traumatic setback.

“His life was hard at Rainier. He went from a person who sang and danced and told jokes to someone who could only talk for a few minutes. He slurred his words, I could hardly understand him,” Arlene said. “I thought I could trust these people to care for him, but after the fact, I found out that wasn’t the case.”

   



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