by Jasmine M. Pulido
On the morning of Aug. 2, Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance (WA BLM Alliance) sent a letter to Susan Betcher, chair of the Board of Directors at Seattle Children’s Hospital (SCH), demanding the immediate release of findings from Covington & Burling’s investigation of systemic racism within the hospital.
The $1 million investigation, conducted by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Covington & Burling firm, began in January after Dr. Ben Danielson resigned from his 20-plus year post as medical director of Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic last November. The SCH Board of Trustees formed an assessment committee composed of three members of the board and four members of the community to oversee the independent review of SCH.
Aside from reviewing relevant data, documents, and hospital policies, Covington interviewed more than 1,000 people about the racial allegations Danielson cited upon his resignation, which included but are not limited to: security being called on Black patients at disproportionately higher rates than white patients, lack of investment in language translators for patients with limited English proficiency, using non-disclosure agreements with ferocity as a tool for erasure, and senior leadership calling him a racial slur without consequence. Two weeks ago, Covington presented a comprehensive written report of their findings and recommendations to SCH and the assessment committee.
On July 30, Board chair Susan Betcher and SCH CEO Jeff Sperring publicly announced that Covington’s investigation was complete and SCH had “unanimously adopted” Covington’s recommendations. However, no mention was made of findings cited in the investigative report.
Shortly following this announcement, all seven assessment committee members signed a letter to Betcher that stated, “… we strongly encourage the Board to publicly release at least Covington’s eleven findings statements, as well as Covington’s complete recommendations, to be fully transparent with the Seattle Children’s community and to share the lessons from this assessment.”
One of the assessment committee members, former Washington State Governor Gary Locke, told the Emerald that the committee members were “very, very pleased” at the thoroughness, transparency, and depth of Covington’s report. “We feel that, obviously, the key part of the report is the recommendations and presenting an action plan for Children’s to address all the issues that were raised in their community.”
Locke continued, “We also feel that Children’s should release the summary of the findings so that people can really understand the challenges facing Children’s and, really, the work that needs to be done.”
Betcher and Sperring’s announcement mentioned that the Board has “directed the Seattle Children’s Executive Leadership Team to establish a task force to develop an action plan by September 1st.” No other specific details have been made available.
Sakara Remmu, lead strategist and CEO of Washington State Black Lives Matter Alliance, finds the withholding of findings from the Covington investigation unacceptable. “It is a slap in the face to anybody who has experienced medical racism in any institution in Seattle.” Remmu herself released a detailed personal account in March recalling the death of her 2-year-old son, Khabir Rasaan, from cancer at SCH in 2005. She described her experiences of “unrelenting racism that suffocated our entire family,” a doctor who admitted to her that SCH knew it had an “internal race problem,” and the ways white doctors at SCH summarily dismissed Dr. Danielson’s early diagnosis of cancer, choosing instead to uphold the incorrect assessment of a white medical student.
On an organizational level, Remmu believes that WA BLM Alliance has a direct concern with Covington’s findings, not just because of her personal connection to the hospital and Dr. Danielson, but because accountability is at the center of action in protecting Black lives. “I think the hospital is concerned about holding the people in positional power accountable to the extent that people might lose their jobs and that that information might be embarrassing.” Remmu believes if these findings are not released, that SCH, a world-renowned medical institution, stands to set a “dangerous precedent” wherein other institutions can cover up information from the communities they exist to serve, even if an investigation turns up information crucial to those communities.
“It’s infuriating,” Danielson said. “I just know that assessments like this have led to the release of findings in ways that have still protected confidentiality. It is such a false, false dodge on the part of the hospital … this is the behavior that perpetuates racism.”
Since Danielson’s resignation, two SCH Board members have also resigned. According to the Seattle Times, Srilata Remala, former Seattle Children’s Foundation Board member, left earlier this year based on the hospital’s reaction to equity issues. Crosscut reported that Cynthia Huffman, a member of the Board of Trustees, also stepped down recently after the hospital decided not to release the investigation’s findings. “I think it would be helpful in building trustworthiness for Jeff Sperring to resign. I have no faith in the Board chair, either. The Board seems to have perpetuated, supported, and even had its own role to play in covering things over, in preventing transparency, and perpetuating the kind of treatment that has been at the core of this concern for a long time now,” Danielson asserted.
Additionally, Danielson is incredibly concerned about the effect this will have on staff, especially Staff of Color, employed at SCH. “Even if you go to every length resigning your job with no financial support, going public and really naming your concerns — even if the hospital commits to spending a million dollars that it could have spent in other ways caring for other families, even if an extensive process happens in a very high-profile way with a group like Covington, even if more than a 1,000 people come forward to share their perspectives and tell their stories and to be forthright and honest in the face of risk and say what they need to say — even if all of that happens, Children’s will still find a way to bury the results and to erase the voices of those people.”
Internally, SCH leadership has also received letters and petitions in the past year from employees, signed by hundreds, in protest of the systemic racism brought up by Danielson. SCH staff members, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of backlash, wrote the Emerald in an email on Wednesday about SCH’s July 30th press release, “Staff working here are furious and disheartened as well, [especially] those of us who are BIPOC and/or involved in anti-racism work for the past year or more.”
Staff members have written their own response letter and published it publicly as a petition, with a list of five concrete demands: public release of the findings from the Covington investigation in full, the immediate resignation of both Sperring and Betcher, and public apologies issued for the harm done to Dr. Danielson as well as SCH patients, families, staff and the community. “It captures the sentiment of many of us here who are forced to reconcile having to work in a place that continues to ignore staff, patients, and families and refuses to do the right thing even when it’s obvious what that is,” the email said.
Among the list of recommendations provided by Covington, Recommendation #7, titled “Transparent Communication” reads, “Commit to communicating with the Seattle Children’s community regarding progress and challenges. Take steps to gain trust by soliciting meaningful input, and communicate to all relevant stakeholders precisely what actions have been taken, what has worked, and what opportunities for improvement still exist.”
Neither SCH media contact Jen Morgan nor Board chair Susan Betcher could be reached for comment. The WA BLM Alliance has not yet received a response regarding their demands.
Jasmine M. Pulido (she/her/siya) is a Filipina American writer-activist and small business owner living in Seattle. She’s currently pursuing her Master of Arts degree in Social Change.
📸 Featured Image: Inside of Seattle Children’s Hospital, image attributed to mksfa under a creative commons 2.0 license.
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