They were Vernon Gray’s constant companions.
Because of a developmental disability, Gray had been dependent on his parents his entire life. They made sure he was well-fed and well-groomed, and it was clear to people in the neighborhood that he was deeply loved. But by 2000, both of them had died, leaving him alone in the empty house. His living conditions grew increasingly dire, and the rats moved in.
In what could be a tough neighborhood, Gray was a beloved community fixture, known for his quiet, gentle presence and the fact that he could spot an acquaintance and immediately recall obscure details of their family tree. People worried his rodent-infested home was a health hazard and begged social workers to step in. But nothing ever came of their repeated calls for help. When police finally intervened in 2017, Gray was homeless and wandering the streets, covered with lice and nearly blind after years of neglect.
Now, officials are apologizing for the repeated bureaucratic failures that allowed Gray to slip through the cracks, admitting to KOMO that what happened was a “tragic situation” and “the agency dropped the ball here.” Last Thursday, Washington state’s Department of Social and Health Services agreed to pay the 64-year-old an $8 million settlement, which is believed to be the largest for an adult protective services case in state history.
In a statement shared with The Washington Post, a spokesman for the agency said he could not discuss specifics of the case because of confidentiality laws, but the agency “is sorry for what happened to Mr. Gray and hopes this settlement can improve his quality of life.”
Gray’s troubles started in 2000, when his mother died. For several days, he lived alongside her dead body, unsure what to do. His father, a postal worker, had died nearly two decades earlier, and for the first time, Gray was left to fend for himself. Since he didn’t understand how to pay his utility bills, it didn’t take long before his power and water were shut off.
Channa Copeland, who runs a nonprofit aiding vulnerable adults and is now Gray’s legal guardian, told The Post that she believes he likely spent more than a decade living without electricity or plumbing. He never asked for help, but neighbors began stopping by regularly to drop off hot meals, sensing he wouldn’t eat otherwise.
One thing Gray didn’t lack was money. His parents owned the house outright and had stashed tens of thousands of dollars in a suitcase in the basement, Copeland said. They also left him bonds and rare coins that could be sold for extra cash.
But Gray didn’t know how to pay his property taxes, so the house went into foreclosure and was sold at auction in 2013. At some point in the process, the cash-stuffed suitcase vanished. His neighbors only learned it had existed when they overheard a cleanup crew talking about the shocking discovery.
“His parents did everything they could do to try to set him up to succeed, but I don’t think they ever imagined anything like this,” Copeland said.
No one ever found a will indicating what was supposed to happen after Gray’s parents died. Since they were part of a close-knit community that formed around their church, Copeland thinks Gray’s parents assumed someone would step in and take care of their son. And for a while, someone did. For the first few years after Gray’s mother passed away, the property taxes on the house were mysteriously paid off. Copeland hasn’t been able to figure out who did it.
Though Gray would have qualified for a wide range of benefits and supportive services, his parents never signed him up. Copeland suspects that’s because he was born in the 1950s, when people with developmental disabilities were routinely sent to live in institutions at doctors’ behest. As an African American family, the Grays had all the more reason to fear that he would end up being mistreated in state care.
In the years after Gray’s mother’s death, neighbors watched with dismay as the house filled up with garbage, feces, rodents and so many old newspapers that they feared it would go up in flames. Starting in 2009, the Adult Protective Services division at the Department of Social and Health Services began receiving a series of panicked reports about his living situation, according to records that were cited in the tort claim filed on his behalf.
Rats had chewed their way inside the home, the agency was told, and the stench was so bad it made one visitor gag. Gray had been spotted rifling through dumpsters to find food, displayed apparent signs of mental illness, and wasn’t showering or changing his clothes. No relatives were checking up on him.
Still, the first social worker assigned to investigate in 2009 concluded that Gray didn’t meet the standard to be considered a vulnerable adult who would fall under the agency’s purview. In a report to her supervisor, she explained that she hadn’t found any proof that he was developmentally disabled, and the case was closed. A neighbor called the following year to express her growing concerns about Gray’s safety, but no action was taken because the agency had previously determined that he wasn’t a vulnerable adult.
To David P. Moody, the attorney who later filed the tort claim on Gray’s behalf, it was clear the social worker conducted “virtually no investigation whatsoever.” Otherwise, he argued, it would have been obvious that Gray had cognitive limitations.
“If you spent 10 to 20 seconds in Vernon’s presence, you would be able to tell right away that he is vulnerable, that he is extremely approachable and that he needs assistance,” he told The Post.
In 2013, after the agency was warned that Gray was at risk of losing his home, a social worker observed that he did not appear to have “any insight as to serious health and safety hazards related to his living conditions” and was “seen eating his dinner off of the top of a garbage can lid.” There was talk of getting a guardian appointed for him, but Gray never showed up at a homeless shelter where the social worker hoped to conduct an assessment that would prove he was cognitively impaired. Again, the case was closed.
That year, the home where Gray had lived for 50 years was seized over unpaid property taxes. He didn’t know where to go. For several years, he would sneak back into the rodent-infested structure through a broken window or the dog door, or sleep on the porch. After police told him to stop, he began living on the street, Copeland said. Neighbors brought him coats and blankets in wintertime, and the owner of a local cafe fed him twice a day. When he showed up with a swollen eye and busted lip, one woman feared that he had been brutally beaten.
“I attribute Vernon being alive to his neighbors and the people in the community who knew him,” Moody said. “These people were very loving and very supportive of Vernon. But they could only do so much.”
Finally, in 2016, yet another call to Adult Protective Services prompted a social worker to determine that Gray was, in fact, a vulnerable adult. But nothing came from it. His case was referred to a King County agency, which tried to find him twice with no success and later closed the case.
Nearly a year later, police found Gray wandering in traffic for the second time in 15 months and took him to the hospital. A psychiatrist who examined him concluded he was “clearly gravely disabled” with an IQ of 60, and would need round-the-clock supervision for the rest of his life because he was incapable of taking care of himself. He had also developed glaucoma and was essentially blind, hospital staff wrote.
Copeland, who serves as a pro-bono guardian for homeless and low-income individuals, was subsequently appointed his guardian. She found him a spot in a group home for adults, and began filing public records requests to try to figure out how he had been able to live in such squalid conditions for so long. What she found struck her as grounds for a lawsuit, and the tort claim was filed on Gray’s behalf in October.
Even after legal fees, the $8 million settlement will be more than the 64-year-old can spend in his lifetime, Copeland said. She’s now trying to buy back his old house from its current owners and set him up there with full-time caregivers. That way, he can return to the place that he knows best and still considers his home, and where he will be surrounded by friends and neighbors.
“I won’t be done fighting until that happens,” she said.
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