A year later, Seattle Children's remains troubled by racism issues

Since Dr. Ben Danielson resigned last year, some say the hospital is making progress, but others think the leadership has fallen short to rectify its history with racism.

An exterior view of Seattle Children’s Hospital

People still have concerns about the hospital’s treatment of people of color, a year after Dr. Ben Danielson resigned over the issue. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Community members have demanded more from Seattle Children’s since a beloved physician and leader, Dr. Ben Danielson, resigned last November, alleging the institution had failed to address racism in its medical facilities. One year later, the medical center’s critics, including Danielson, say its leaders have not done enough. 

“You take a person who’s drowning 300 feet below the surface and you bring them up 100 feet and then you get celebrated for saving them,” Danielson recently told Crosscut. “They’re still drowning.”

People with ties to Seattle Children’s recently expressed their frustrations with the hospital’s leadership. In their eyes, those at the top have fallen short in taking responsibility and acting transparently over the past year. These individuals said they want to see more clarity about the institution’s struggle with racism and equity, more accountability of the alleged harm that has occurred, and new leadership. 

One former employee among those who want change in the hospital’s top brass spoke of an alleged incident last March. During a staff meeting, the individual asked why emails announcing the resignations of people of color from Seattle Children's Foundation Board of Trustees did not include the same praise as emails for white people who were leaving. The person who shared this story wished to remain anonymous because of fear of professional repercussions resulting from Seattle Children’s prominence in the community. 

The individual, who identifies as a person of color, recalled getting a roundabout answer. The person who was questioned eventually made a comment to the group, wondering if those who distrust leadership should be working there. 

The former employee viewed this as a veiled threat. 

“It was quite shocking and kind of stopped me in my tracks a bit,” the individual said. “I started getting texts from colleagues saying, ‘Did he just say that to you?’ and I had emails coming to me saying, ‘Did he just threaten your job?’” 

The incident in March was not the only reason why this person left the job, but it contributed. The former employee has had a long history with Seattle Children’s, having worked at the institution for more than a decade 一 similar to Danielson. 

Danielson resigned from his leadership role at the hospital's Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic. This sparked community backlash against Seattle Children’s, a hub for the region’s medical needs.

He called out Seattle Children’s leadership for failing to address racism, including disproportionate security calls on patients of color and inadequate translation services. A year later, the hospital is working to rebuild its reputation and highlight actions it will take to remediate the harm. 

“I think that Seattle Children's Hospital has decided to treat this like a PR issue, not a people issue,” Danielson said.

Last Thursday, the hospital published a 40-page quarterly report that outlines progress on its actions related to anti-racism and equity. Many of the interviews in this story were conducted before the report was published. In the introduction letter, CEO Jeff Sperring said the institution will continue working toward more equitable outcomes, but that the process will take time. 

“When we released the action plan, I stated that Seattle Children’s was not yet the anti-racist organization we must be,” he wrote, noting that the hospital plans to stay the course and continue giving updates on its progress.  

Among the changes at Seattle Children’s this year was the addition of Andrew Lee as the chief equity, diversity and inclusion officer. Lee acknowledged in an interview with Crosscut that there is more work to do, but he was optimistic about the future and had faith in those at the top.

“I know that the leadership is 100% committed to this,” he said. 

Dr. Ben Danielson left Odessa Brown Children's Clinic at Seattle Children’s last year over his concerns that the hospital had failed to address racism in its facilities. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

No confidence in leadership 

Doubts about Seattle Children’s leadership have come from both outside and inside the hospital.  

In September, dozens of physicians and scientists in leadership roles took part in a survey about Seattle Children’s, confirmed on the condition of anonymity by two people who participated. Of the 50 who responded to a question about whether they had confidence in Sperring as CEO, more than half said no. The results were given to the Seattle Children’s Board of Trustees. 

Srilata Remala, a former foundation board member, does not expect much to change at Seattle Children’s until Sperring leaves. 

“He is not suited to lead this organization through an anti-racist plan,” she said of Sperring. “I don’t think he’s a leader that can do that because of my own personal experience and conversations with him around how he follows up and is in this role and his views on being an anti-racist.” 

Remala announced on Twitter in March that she had recently left the foundation board, which she described in a Crosscut interview as the epitome of white philanthropy, throwing money at causes for Black and brown communities and believing that is enough. 

“Speaking up and being an advocate and saying that families deserve to be treated equitably is what changes the system,” she said. “Believing what happened to Dr. Ben is what changes the system. Demanding better from leadership at Seattle Children’s is what changes the system.”

Community members came to know Danielson as a fixture at Odessa Brown, a wing of Seattle Children’s in the city’s Central District that generally serves people of color and low-income individuals. 

Danielson’s departure set off a chain reaction of rebuke. 

A petition demanding racial justice from the hospital has garnered more than 32,000 signatures. Jim Hendricks, who held a leadership role at Seattle Children’s, was forced to leave after a complaint saying he had used racist language resurfaced. Media outlets put a spotlight on a 2012 report that found security was disproportionately called on Black patients at Seattle Children’s. And an investigation was launched to examine race- and equity-related policies and practices at the hospital. 

“I know that for many people at the hospital, many great people, this has just been a year of suffering,” said Danielson, who now works as a clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “And that suffering comes in different forms and from different places. But it is absolutely something that has been contributed to by inadequate leadership at the board level and at the CEO level.”  

People gather to listen to speakers at a rally for Black health equity at Laurelhurst Playfield Park in Seattle on Jan. 9, 2021. The group came to show solidarity with Dr. Ben Danielson, a renowned pediatrician and medical director at Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic who resigned in November to protest what he says were racist patterns at Seattle Children’s Hospital. (Jen Dev/Crosscut)

Demanding accountability 

This past year, Seattle Children’s hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to lead an investigation into Seattle Children’s that included interviews with more than 1,000 stakeholders. Seattle Children's withheld the findings, which sparked an instant backlash. The hospital cited concerns for confidentiality of those who participated. 

Cynthia Huffman resigned from the hospital’s board of trustees in early August over the decision to withhold the findings. 

“I reached the conclusion that I was no longer able to have any impact from within,” she said. 

As public pressure mounted over the course of a few days, the hospital elected to release conclusions and recommendations from the investigation. The full assessment was not published. 

The investigation found, for example, that the hospital did not adequately investigate the allegation that Hendricks called Danielson a racist epithet; knew about disparities in security calls for years, but did not seriously act to minimize them; and had a fraught relationship with the Odessa Brown clinic. The Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance called for both Sperring and the board chair to step down after the findings were released.     

A few weeks later, the hospital published a Health Equity and Anti-Racism Action Plan, which outlined ways it would achieve specific recommendations, including hiring to increase and sustain diversity, building a culture of inclusion and communicating transparently about progress and challenges. 

“It was probably one of the worst action plans I’ve actually ever seen that admitted literally nothing and put some bogus metrics together, to try to show that they’re being, whatever, anti-racist,” Remala said. “Whatever that means to them.” 

On top of wanting more details of the findings, Huffman was also frustrated with the action plan published in September, which she felt was a rewriting of the recommendations.

“I want the hospital to stop hiding behind public relations communications,” she said. “They’ve disrespected the community, and they just haven’t accepted or acknowledged that, and that’s really disappointing to me. I’d like them to go through that action plan and really convince me that they’re actually doing something, ’cause I don’t see it from there.” 

That disrespect impacts the people in Huffman’s life. A friend, who is Black, shared an anecdote with Huffman about an incident at Seattle Children's. 

The friend had asked if someone could stay with her child, who was in a wheelchair, so she could go to her car. The friend was told there was not staff who could do that. If the friend had been white or a hospital donor, Huffman thinks someone would have been made available. 

“Maybe not immediately,” she said. “Maybe they would have said, ‘Let me call and get somebody,’ but would not have been given that, ‘No sorry. We can't help you.’ ”

Many lay equity and racial concerns at the feet of Seattle Children’s CEO Jeff Sperring. “I know that for many people at the hospital, many great people, this has just been a year of suffering,” said Dr. Ben Danielson, “And that suffering comes in different forms and from different places. But it is absolutely something that has been contributed to by inadequate leadership at the board level and at the CEO level.” (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Money leaves the hospital  

Seattle Children’s lost moral and financial support in the last year. 

Micki Flowers has been a longtime supporter of Seattle Children’s. She, Huffman and Danielson worked to establish the Friends of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic Guild, an organization that advocates for and financially supports the clinic. Flowers resigned from the organization and the hospital’s Guild Association a few weeks after the hospital’s action plan was released. 

In a letter given to Crosscut announcing her resignation, she cited her frustrations, including the hospital’s reluctance to release the investigation report in full. She was also critical of the action plan, which she described as vague. 

She told Crosscut she could no longer financially support an institution that was not accountable to its community. 

“I now fully realize that covering up racism is far less deplorable or actionable to people than other misdeeds that are harmful,” she said. “I believe if the Seattle Children's CEO had covered up or ignored financial malfeasance for years, I'm positive he would have been fired.”

While concerns about leadership may linger for the public, the interim senior medical director at Odessa Brown, Dr. Shaquita Bell, has personally felt supported. “I think Children's has really basically given us a blank check, I mean not just metaphorically speaking,” she said. “I've not run into barriers. So not to say that it's been easy, but I will say that I'm seeing much more of the walking of the walk in this last year.” Dr, Bell  sits for a portrait in this April 17, 2017, file photo. (Matt Mills McKnight/Crosscut)

Walking the walk

Dr. Shaquita Bell, who became the interim senior medical director at Odessa Brown after Danielson’s departure, was part of the task force that worked on the action plan released in September. She understood the public’s disappointment toward it, and initially she felt the same.

“It felt like this moment of missed opportunity,” she said. “We didn’t get what I thought we’d get out of it. Now the caveat I would say to that is my opinion has changed over the last three months.” 

Bell has seen opportunities for staff and the community to give feedback to Seattle Children’s and was impressed with the quarterly report published by the hospital. 

Seattle Children’s mentioned in the latest report several actions it has taken as part of its effort to improve equity, including: 

  • The board of trustees’ approval of a long-term financial plan dedicated to Odessa Brown, including a $125 million endowment. 
  • The formation of a team that will partner with community representatives, patients and families to work on replacing of the Code Purple policy. Code Purple refers to the intercom call for security and a mental health professional and has been historically used on Black patients at Seattle Chidren’s at a disproportionate rate. 
  • The expansion of the recruiting team to increase workforce diversity. Part of this effort involved engagement with historically Black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions. 
  • The launch of the hospital’s app in Spanish to assist families in connecting to resources during a visit or stay. 

The institution also outlined challenges it faced over the past three months, including  recognizing the need for vendor-level changes to offer more expansive language support. And it noted that members of its workforce “are at different points in their journey” when it comes addressing issues related to racism and equity, diversity and inclusion. 

“Recognizing these differences, a variety of tools, resources, education and support are continually being developed and offered to support people wherever they’re at,” the hospital said in the report.

While concerns about leadership may linger for the public, Bell has personally felt supported. 

“I think Children's has really basically given us a blank check, I mean not just metaphorically speaking,” she said. “I've not run into barriers. So not to say that it's been easy, but I will say that I'm seeing much more of the walking of the walk in this last year.” 

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