The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services has agreed to pay an eight-year-old boy from Port Orchard $5 million to settle a legal case that has dragged on since 2012.
Aiden Barnum loves music, his toys, and his family. But he will never read, walk or talk. Every person who was supposed to keep him safe as an infant, including Child Protective Services (CPS) social workers, failed him.
“(The settlement) is a nice realization that in some small way the state‘s been held accountable for their mistakes,” said Melissa Barnum, Aiden’s adoptive mother.
Melissa and Bill Barnum of Port Orchard adopted Aiden when he was a baby. They knew at the time he faced a long list of health problems, which include cerebral palsy, autism, seizure disorder and epilepsy. He's also legally deaf and blind.
“It's like still taking care of a baby in the range of six to nine months old," said Melissa Barnum.
But Aiden wasn't born this way. Every single medical problem and disability he will live with for the rest of his life could have been prevented.
The first sign that Aiden was in trouble came when he was just 14 days old. He had a fractured arm. Six doctors suspected it was caused by abuse. They suspected Jacob Mejia, Aiden's 17-year-old birth father, had caused the injury.
A DSHS social worker assigned to the case concluded the baby would be at risk of "serious and immediate harm" if sent home. But that’s exactly what happened.
The social worker sent the baby home with a hand-written safety plan. But beyond that, records show the social worker didn’t follow protocols mandated by state policy and statute designed to keep the baby safe. The CPS investigator was supposed to separate the child from the suspected abuse, talk to law enforcement about the case, interview doctors, review medical records, check in on the family and form a Child Protection Team to assess the child’s risk of harm.
None of those things happened.
“Not a thing. Not one phone call. No contact with the family. No contact with any of the doctors. No obtaining any of the records,” said Aiden’s attorney, Jeff Johnson.
With no safety net to keep the baby safe, a month later, December 23, 2008, Aiden was back at the ER, this time with life altering injuries: a broken collarbone, another broken arm, four broken ribs, a brain bleed, and most devastating of all, a fractured skull. Aiden had suffered a traumatic brain injury.
"I think it was the holiday season (Thanksgiving) and people had other things to do. I definitely think Aiden was totally forgotten," said Melissa Barnum. “It is disgusting to me that people who work for an agency called Child Protective Services can so badly and so obviously screw up their job.”
The Barnums sued DSHS in 2012 for failing to protect their son. During trial, the social worker admitted she shirked her duties. When asked if CPS did anything after the suspect broken his arm to keep the baby safe - she answered: "Not that I'm aware of."
The jurors unanimously found CPS negligent in the case. But according to Aiden's lawyer, a confusing last-minute jury instruction led the panel to let the state off the hook. The Barnums appealed, won a new trial, but settled in the eleventh hour.
“We believe this settlement provides the means for this child to get care and recovery resources in order to live a full and healthy life to the extent that he is able,” said Jennifer Strus, Assistant Secretary for DSHS’ Children’s Administration.
The KING 5 Investigators aired several stories about Aiden since 2014. One of them exposed that after Aiden nearly died in 2008, no investigation was conducted at DSHS to see what went wrong and what could be improved. There wasn’t even an official meeting about the incident. That led to Governor Jay Inslee signing a new law entitled Aiden’s Act in 2015. The law makes mandatory a thorough case review whenever there is a near fatality.
While laws and policies were changing, the Barnums struggled behind the scenes to meet Aiden’s needs, and the state waged a rigorous legal defense.
“They fought us every step of the way,” said Melissa Barnum, who is disappointed the state never offered an apology or appeared to have sympathy for the tragedy.
“It would have been nice for once, for one single person to look like they even felt bad, to even look like they felt bad, that Aiden was living a completely different life than he should have.”
The Barnums say the settlement will allow them to purchase a wheelchair van. Aiden weighs 54 pounds now, and it is getting difficult to lift him out of his wheelchair and into his car seat. They are also hoping to find a home on one level. Their current home has several sets of stairs that they carry Aiden up and down several times a day.
“The best-case scenario is that we find a rambler where everything will be on one floor. (Aiden) will have access to everything and every part of the house,” said Melissa Barnum. “That was the whole point of the whole (legal) case, to make sure that Aiden is taken care of. In your heart that gets mixed up with wanting the state to say they are sorry, but really the most important part is making sure he’s taken care of, and we’ve done that.”
Aiden's birth father is serving 25 years in prison for assaulting his son.