Man tied to wheelchair by caretakers spent 3 minutes at the bottom of a lake, suit says

Joe McDermond with his foster mother, Kim Carlson.
Joe McDermond with his foster mother, Kim Carlson. Courtesy

A Thurston County man with the mind of a 12-month-old nearly drowned last year when he fell into Alder Lake after his state caretakers left him strapped into his wheelchair at the end of a dock, a lawsuit alleges.

Joe McDermond’s foster family says the 22-year-old’s care under state supervision has amounted to abuse and neglect over the years, and they sued the state and a state-contracted company Tuesday (Aug. 29) in Pierce County Superior Court.

McDermond has a rare seizure disorder that’s caused severe brain damage, and he grew up with the foster family because his parents weren’t able to care for him.

As an adult, he’s lived with caregivers in a variety of homes, including the state-run Rainier School in Buckley, where he was living when he nearly drowned.

The lawsuit, filed by foster mom Kim Carlson, argues the state Department of Social and Health Services was responsible for overseeing McDermond’s care.

DSHS declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Carlson said in a statement: “The goal is for Joe to receive the care he needs and deserves because of what has been done to him. The hope is that Joe will always get the respect and dignity that people like him — the most vulnerable of our population — are too often denied.”

The lawsuit seeks full funding for McDermond’s life-care plan going forward as well as other unspecified damages.

The complaint gives this account of McDermond’s life after leaving foster care:

He liked exploring his environment, exploring new places and playing in water.

Caregivers, a helmet, and sometimes a wheelchair are needed to keep McDermond from falling and hurting himself, because he tries to run around during bouts of hyperactivity.

He moved out of foster care and started living with caregivers in 2014, and in 2015 started being cared for by state-contracted workers employed by Brighton Enterprises Inc., the private company named in the suit.

The News Tribune’s efforts to get comment from Brighton were unsuccessful.

McDermond suffered various injuries in the company’s care, including bruises, scratch marks and a swollen eye. Some of those were caused by his own actions, including lunging in the bath tub. He once bit an employee, the lawsuit says.

Carlson expressed concern about the number of injuries her foster son had in Brighton’s care, and in September 2015 he moved back into the Carlson’s home.

A DSHS support plan for him later that year noted: “Highly active, energetic, runs around household. Caregiver must be present at all times to ensure safety. Caregiver must remain with Joe during all activities.”

That meant having two people assisting him when he was out in the community, the plan said.

McDermond moved to the Rainier School in March 2016, which is a state facility for adults with developmental disabilities.

An evaluation in Aug. 2016 noted he could ride in a golf cart, if he wore a helmet, seat belt, and had a staff member sitting on either side of him. He should also have a staff member on either side of him when riding in a car, and the child safety locks should be turned on, the report said.

On Aug. 23, 2016, staff took him on a group fishing trip to Alder Lake.

The resulting hospital records note he was “at the end of the dock tied in his wheelchair and then the staff heard a splash. He was found to be at the bottom of the lake strapped in his wheelchair.”

He’d been alone on the dock when he pitched his wheelchair to the side, sending him into the water, and he sunk to the bottom, records show.

Staff tried to rescue him for about three minutes. In the end, a bystander managed to get him out of the lake. A Rainier School staff member performed CPR, and McDermond was taken to a hospital with hypothermia.

Rainier School staff told the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department that none of the residents had life jackets on that day.

A DSHS Developmental Disabilities Administration worker later recommended McDermond keep living at the Rainier School, but a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled against that Sept. 16, 2016.

Today, McDermond lives at a home in Thurston County, said his attorney, Ron Meyers. Meyers said his client suffered cognitively from the near-drowning.

“Our goal is to have Joe in a situation where he can be properly cared for and loved for the rest of his life, and safe,” Meyers said. “That, clearly, is a big one.”

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268, @amkrell