The family of a 3-year-old girl who died in 2017 as a result of neglect and injuries she received in foster care filed a federal lawsuit Monday alleging the conditions that led to the girl's death were obvious and should have led to an intervention before she died.
The suit, brought by Thomas Hunziker, a grandfather of Arianna Hunziker, names as defendants a Hennepin County social worker and an Allina Health doctor and nurse as well as Allina Health Systems. Also named in the suit are the Brooklyn Park foster parents, Sherrie Dirk, who was sentenced last year to 32 years in prison, and her husband, Bryce Dirk, serving 12½ years in prison, both for second-degree murder. She is incarcerated in the Minnesota Correctional Institution in Shakopee and he is in the state correctional institution in Moose Lake.
Arianna Hunziker "was starved, dehydrated, bound, immobilized and abandoned in a home littered in trash and smelling of urine," the lawsuit says. Her weight and height dropped and she ate rocks, pea gravel, dirt, paper, crayons and trash and became socially withdrawn, along with "countless other signs and symptoms of neglect and abuse."
The suit alleges she was sedated with improperly prescribed medication and wrapped in bedsheets that left her alone and immobilized in her room. Arianna died on Nov. 6, 2017.
The suit alleges that her county social worker, Patricia Doherty, and Dr. Robert Marshall and Kristen Medhanie, a nurse practitioner, both with Allina Health, became aware of "red flags" but did nothing to help the child.
Instead, the suit says, the child's "suffering continued unchecked and unabated."
Hennepin County issued a short statement Monday: "It's a tragedy when a child dies. Our hearts go out to Arianna's family. Unfortunately, we are unable to comment on pending litigation at this time."
Speaking for the doctor, nurse and the health system, Allina issued a statement that said, "Arianna Hunziker's death is a tragedy and our hearts go out to all who loved her. Allina Health providers are trained to recognize and report any suspected cases of sexual or physical abuse. Because this case is pending, we will not be commenting further at this time."
Arianna was first removed from her mother's custody and temporarily placed with her grandparents, Thomas Hunziker, and his wife, Mary Egan, in April 2015 but "due to their advanced age they felt that it was in the best interests of the children to be raised by younger parents," the suit says. In September 2016 Arianna and her brother were placed in foster care with the Dirks in Brooklyn Park. The Dirks soon applied to adopt the two children.
The suit alleges that "Egan informed Hennepin County that there were concerns about Sherrie [Dirk] not being a fit parent, which emanated from Sherrie's own family members," but it claims Hennepin County ignored the warning and did not investigate.
The suit alleges that the Dirks "swaddled" the child for days and nights and the county social worker, doctor and nurse were aware of it, according to county records, but failed to investigate. The suit said that swaddling a child of her age in any form "is inconsistent with pediatric medical standards of care."
The child allegedly pulled out chunks of her hair, slept abnormally, wet her bed, cried often, picked at herself ,leaving sores on her body and ate trash. Her weight dropped by a large amount for her age group.
The lawsuit said that Doherty conducted a house visit of the Dirks' residence and recorded a note that read, "The house was very dirty smelling of dogs, cats and urine. Plus, clothes and shoes every place made it difficult to walk into the door, especially with the odor."
Despite her falling height and weight and other warning signs, the suit alleges, her doctor, nurse and others at Allina "never investigated, or reported any suspected maltreatment by the Dirks nor did anything to stop it."
Randy Furst • 612-201-5522