Top Seattle Children's doctor forced to resign after complaints of racism

The move follows a pledge that the hospital would undertake a ‘rigorous’ review following the departure of Dr. Ben Danielson.

Seattle Children’s sign

Seattle Children’s Hospital on Jan. 8, 2021. The hospital has said it will undertake a "rigorous" review following accusations of racism. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

A prominent official at Seattle Children's Hospital was forced to resign Friday, after a decade-old complaint that he had used racist language resurfaced in recent weeks — part of the expanding fallout after a beloved doctor in the Black community, Dr. Ben Danielson, quit last month in protest of what he said were patterns of racism at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

“Yesterday, I asked for Dr. Jim Hendricks, president of Seattle Children’s Research Institute, to step down,” Children’s CEO Dr. Jeff Sperring said in a statement.  

Among Danielson’s allegations, first reported by Crosscut on Dec. 31, was that a member of Children’s leadership had used racist language, including the n-word, around and toward Danielson and yet still retained his post. Danielson declined to identify the member of leadership to Crosscut, but Children’s named him in a statement on Saturday.

According to the statement from Children’s, a complaint against Hendricks was investigated in 2009 and found no wrongdoing. Nonetheless, Sperring said he asked for Hendricks’ resignation after hearing from staff, patients and members of the community in the days since Crosscut’s first report. 

“We have patients who need hope, care and cures and cannot afford any distractions that might compromise the services we provide,” he said in the statement.

A request for comment from Hendricks had not been returned at the time of publication. 

Sperring said earlier this week that Children’s would undertake a “rigorous” review of “policies, practices and barriers that get in the way of Children’s becoming an anti-racist and truly equitable and inclusive institution for our patients, families and workforce.”

Whether those efforts and the resignation of Hendricks will satisfy the community remains to be seen.

The actions come after Danielson resigned in November as the medical director of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic. His decision was in protest of what he described as both systemic and specific racism and a larger “disregard for people who don't look like them in leadership” at Seattle Children’s Hospital, Odessa Brown’s parent institution.

His allegations were numerous. He said his voice and the voices of other staff and patients of color were marginalized. Speaking out was discouraged, he said. Odessa Brown, he said, was lifted to a pedestal for fundraising but then forgotten when it came to daily care. He believed that Children’s did not take seriously its written commitments to equity, especially when it came to translation services and how security treated patients of color. 

His allegations that a member of leadership used racial slurs were his most specific. That this person remained in his post was a reminder of how Children’s was not committed to racial equity, Danielson said. 

At a time of heightened scrutiny of systemic racism, particularly in the American health care system, Danielson’s exit has struck a deep nerve in Seattle and surrounding communities. Danielson, one of few Black leaders in the medical world, helmed Odessa Brown for over 20 years, where he became synonymous with the clinic’s mission of respecting its mostly Black and brown patients who may feel marginalized in other institutions. Beyond being just a revered medical practitioner, Danielson has become a respected public figure as well, advocating for underserved communities and better public health.

Reaction to Danielson’s resignation has been overwhelming — a combination of grief that he would no longer treat patients, respect that he took a stand and anger at Seattle Children’s Hospital for its alleged failings.

A petition, started by a group of community members calling themselves the “coalition for Dr. Ben,” has received about 10,000 signatures. On Saturday, community members protested outside of Children’s. Both Danielson and Children’s Hospital have been inundated, respectively, with messages of support and demands of accountability. On Friday, the rapper Macklemore, while atop the Space Needle during the Seahawks’ flag raising, wore a sweatshirt that read, “I Believe Dr. Ben Danielson.”

A group of high-profile figures in the local worlds of politics, medicine, law and culture sent a letter last month after hearing of Danielson’s exit, demanding a meeting with Children’s leadership and an investigation into his allegations, which Children’s agreed to last week. Local elected officials, including King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay and state Rep.-elect Kirsten Harris-Talley have called for answers and accountability as well.

Shayla Collins, the parent of two children who use Odessa Brown, said she was shocked to hear of Danielson’s exit and allegations. “I immediately sent him an email, not knowing if he would read it or not, to tell him how proud I was of him,” she said. “As a Black person, we understood that, with his stature and who he is, that he was continuing to fight and it was not easy for him to do this day in, day out.”

Foxy Davison has three children who use Odessa Brown, two of whom have sickle cell anemia. Her emotions since hearing of Danielson’s resignation have been complicated. “For me, it was like, oh shoot, I’m not ready to fight because I’m also recovering from such a sadness here,” she said. “This hurts like hell that he had to leave.”

Both Collins and Davison added that their grief and anger over Danielson’s exit is made more complicated by the fact that Children’s remains their kids’ provider. 

“We have this sense of, we can’t really say too much because I have to have a good enough relationship with the institution,” said Davison. 

Children’s acknowledged both Danielson’s outgoing protests and the concerns of the community around him when it announced the workplace review.  

“The recent departure of Dr. Ben Danielson at the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic and resulting media coverage shined a light on many areas where we must engage and examine our system and processes,” read a statement from the hospital last week. “These events also made clear that we need to examine parts of our organization where we might not even see overt systemic racism.”

The hospital announced it was creating a committee, made up of board members and representatives from the community, that would hire and work with an outside expert to “assess our organization’s anti-racism, diversity, equity and inclusion practices.”

“They will examine policies, practices and barriers that get in the way of Children’s becoming an anti-racist and truly equitable and inclusive institution for our patients, families, and workforce,” the hospital said. The assessment will include recommendations for concrete actions “to achieve equity and dismantle systemic racism within our organization.”

That investigator will also reexamine the complaint against Hendricks. 

Danielson did not immediately return an email seeking comment. 

Odessa Brown’s significance in the Black community was built over decades. It opened in 1970 with the mission of serving those who felt left out of larger institutions. But if it began as an anchor for the city’s Black population in the Central District, in recent years it has come to symbolize the loss of that same community. While the clinic remains in the Central District, many of the people it was intended to serve no longer do, pushed out of the city by gentrification. 

Danielson became the clinic’s medical director in 1999. For many families, he and the clinic are inextricable. It’s heartbreaking that his exit was under the current circumstances, said Davison. 

“Dr. Danielson has done so much for our community,” she said. “There should have been so much noise raised for what he has done and contributed. He should be honored by Children’s. Our community honors him."

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