by Jasmine M. Pulido
After six months of investigation into systemic and interpersonal racism at Seattle Children’s Hospital (SCH), followed by considerable community backlash when findings from the assessment weren’t originally released, SCH’s board of trustees has now unanimously voted to publicly disclose Covington & Burling’s 11 finding statements as well as more detailed recommendations made in the report.
The Covington & Burling law firm and former Attorney General Eric Holder were hired by SCH to do an independent assessment on the hospital after racial allegations were publicly raised by Dr. Ben Danielson’s resignation last November. An assessment committee, composed of three members of SCH’s board and four community members, were also brought in to oversee the independent investigation. The assessment committee read the entire report but signed nondisclosure agreements (NDA) which prevented them from divulging any information on its contents.
Last week, CEO Jeff Sperring and board chair Susan Betcher furnished only a summary of recommendations made by Covington’s report and declared an action plan to be delivered by Sept. 1. Details of the recommendations were omitted as well as the findings from the report.
But SCH employees posted a petition demanding for the findings to be released in full, public apologies to Dr. Danielson and the patients, families, workforce, and SCH community for harm done, and resignations of the CEO and board chair.
The assessment committee — which included former Washington State Governor Gary Locke, citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and Executive Vice President of the Seattle Indian Health Board Abigail Echo-Hawk, Co-Chair of the Odessa Brown’s Children’s Clinic Capital Campaign T.J. McGill, and retired Chief Nurse Executive Frankie Mannie — also asked for at least the 11 findings statements be revealed to “be fully transparent with the Seattle Children’s community.” Echo-Hawk told the Emerald in an email, “If Seattle Children’s wants to attempt to rebuild its trust within BIPOC communities, they can, at the very least, release the finding statements.” Washington State BLM Alliance and other key community stakeholders also publicly demanded the findings be made available.
SCH’s board of trustees voted to publicly disclose findings which were released to the public on Aug. 9.
On that day, both Sperring and Betcher published their own letters to the SCH community on the SCH website. “The assessment made clear that Seattle Children’s has not lived up to the standards and the values we set for ourselves … we must collectively challenge and continue to change the culture, structures, and behaviors that perpetuate systemic racism in our organization,” Sperring’s letter said. “I am resolved as the leader of this organization to drive that change as we start addressing the findings and recommendations.”
While Sperring’s letter promised change under his leadership as CEO, Betcher’s statement offered an apology. “We heard from many of you that our initial adoption and release of the Summary of Recommendations did not provide the clarity you expected and instead added to the pain our community is feeling/experiencing. For that, we profoundly apologize.”
Sperring and Betcher announced that an internal task force would be working directly with SCH’s executive leadership team to construct an action plan with timelines and accountable outcome metrics that will be made public. Additionally, the board and leadership have asked Covington & Burling to “come back and assess Seattle Children’s progress against the action plan, and report that progress to our community.”
Locke applauded the SCH board’s decision to embrace transparency by releasing the 11 summary findings and more detailed recommendations, but other key community stakeholders don’t believe these actions are enough to repair the harm done by SCH.
After reviewing Covington’s findings, Washington State BLM Alliance (WA BLM Alliance) called for Sperring and Betcher to resign immediately. Sakara Remmu, lead strategist and CEO of WA BLM Alliance, wrote in response to the findings in a media press release on Aug. 9, “The official findings are clear and damning; hospital leadership has been aware of the insidious nature of anti-Black racism and explicit bias and done nothing. Nothing to protect staff. Nothing to protect patients. Nothing to hold offenders accountable.” The conclusion of Remmu’s letter to SCH is definitive: “Current hospital leadership failed to address known issues, failed to be transparent, and failed to be accountable. For the community to have faith in the process of change going forward, new leadership is required at Seattle Children’s [H]ospital. Immediately.”
Dr. Ben Danielson, whose resignation from his 20-plus-year post as beloved medical director at SCH’s Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic (OBCC) prompted the investigation, told the Emerald in an email, “Well, I don’t exactly offer a gold star. Releasing this contextualizing information is what they were supposed to be doing in the first place and it took a lot of effort to get them to follow through in some way on a very clear commitment.”
Among the finding statements, Danielson drew attention to a few specific details. For instance, SCH knew about significant racial disparities in Code Purple calls since at least 2013. According to Covington & Burling’s report, “senior leadership did not meaningfully act to mitigate these disparities until 2020.” Danielson pointed out that this timeline overlaps with Sperring’s tenure. The report also stated that SCH “did not adequately investigate or address a 2009 allegation that Dr. Jim Hendricks referred to Dr. Danielson using a racist epithet.” Danielson wrote in response to this statement, “They said it had been thoroughly investigated, when it is now clear that it had not been adequately addressed. That feels like they had been lying.” Lastly, in reference to OBCC, the conclusive observation by Covington & Burling that SCH has “historically discounted the clinic’s consideration of and focus on the lived experiences of its patients” proved to Danielson to be the “antithesis of equity”. He wants the CEO and board chair to step down.
In the detailed recommendations Covington & Burling submitted in their investigative report, the second paragraph immediately indicates, “Because leadership begins at the top, our recommendations begin with a focus on governance, the Board, and the Executive Leadership Team.” The very first detailed action step identified by Covington & Burling in their recommendations titled, “Make and Sustain an Unequivocal Commitment to Commitment to Anti-Racism and EDI” suggests, “Issue a public statement from the CEO and Board Chair acknowledging Seattle Children’s role in enabling and perpetuating systemic racism, taking responsibility for failing to address racial disparities sooner and with greater urgency, acknowledging deficiencies in reaction to events like the killing of George Floyd and the resignation of Dr. Danielson …”
After reading the Aug. 9 press releases from the CEO and board chair as well as the findings and detailed recommendations, an internal SCH workforce member stated frustrations with senior leadership’s lack of acknowledgement or apology for harm they “continue to inflict upon the workforce, patients/families, and the community.” The email continued, “It seems unlikely they will ever do so despite this being a crucial step towards repairing these relationships, and it being included as the first detailed recommendation from Covington.”
The internal SCH staff member who asked to remain anonymous told the Emerald that many workforce members were having “mixed emotions” after reading the disclosed findings and detailed recommendations. “Having to fight for every little thing is taking an enormous toll on our workforce, contributing to our burnout and taking away energy we could be devoting towards the patients and families we serve. We will always fight for our patients, families, and ourselves but we are now forced to reconsider whether this is even possible at Seattle Children’s under the current hospital leadership.”
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.
Before you move on to the next story … Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!