SEATTLE — Vernon Gray was living with rats when a social worker showed up to his Central District home, where a layer of garbage coated the floor and a squalid odor caused people to gag when they stepped onto the property.

That was in 2009, when the state’s Adult Protective Services received its first report about him. Gray, who has a developmental disability, had been living in the house alone since his mother died in 2000. Neighbors begged the state to intervene, explaining he was unable to take care of himself. They continued after Gray became homeless in 2013.

Adult Protective Services (APS) investigated Gray’s situation three times since 2009, but each time, he was left on his own.

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The agency, which is within Washington state’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), investigates reports of vulnerable adults who have been abused, abandoned or neglected. Attorney David Moody argued in a tort claim that the state failed to protect Gray, now 64.

Last week, the department agreed to an $8 million settlement, which Moody said is the largest paid by the state in an adult protective services case. The state agreed to settle the case before a lawsuit on Gray’s behalf was filed.

DSHS spokesman Chris Wright said confidentiality laws prevent the department from discussing details of cases. But in a statement, he said the agency is “sorry for what happened to Mr. Gray,” calling the case a “system-wide failure.”

This is the latest in a series of troubling and costly incidents at DSHS, which oversees a state mental-health system that has been stung by damaging federal and state court rulings and federal decertification of its main psychiatric hospital.

Adult Protective Services has struggled to handle skyrocketing reports of alleged abuse, he said. It received more than 60,000 last year, compared with 19,000 in 2012, he said. The agency says it’s working to improve how it handles cases like Gray’s, including by hiring additional investigators.

Only home he knew

Gray moved into the Central District with his adoptive parents in the 1960s. He grew up in the modest house on Martin Luther King Jr. Way and attended a school for students with developmental disabilities.

“While his parents were alive, Vernon was well-cared for. He was always well-groomed, clean, and fed,” a neighbor wrote in a declaration for Gray’s case. “His parents seemed to really love him.”

Gray continued to live at home with his parents until his mother died in 2000, two decades after his father. He lived with her body before someone came to take it away.

After that, he was alone, without any family nearby to care for him. No will from his mother was ever found. Neighbors grew concerned as they watched the house, and Gray, deteriorate.

They would bring him food. Sometimes he was shy, but other times he would want to talk, asking neighbors about their family history — his favorite topic. Neighbors described Gray as gentle in declarations for the tort claim. One attorney who worked on the settlement wrote, “It is almost impossible not to like Vernon.”

County and state social workers visited the house after receiving reports, but neighbors grew frustrated when nothing happened.

In 2013, Gray lost his home. The mortgage had been fully paid by his mother, who had left cash and other assets in the house. But Gray didn’t pay property taxes, and the county seized the house.

“Constellation of warning signs”

DSHS began to receive reports about Gray in 2009, after an investigator with King County’s health department went to the home in response.

A state social worker was assigned to investigate. She noted the foul odor coming from the house and spoke to neighbors and county mental health professionals who described Gray’s living condition and said he had trouble communicating and sometimes couldn’t recall his name, according to the tort claim.

But she closed the case, finding that Gray didn’t meet the criteria for a vulnerable adult, since he was under 60 at the time and she didn’t find mental health diagnoses or evidence he had a developmental disability, according to DSHS records referenced in the tort claim.

Neighbors continued to call the agency.

In 2010, a neighbor begged DSHS to help Gray, describing broken windows and “at least 500 rats” at the home, according to an intake report. She didn’t think Gray had electricity or heat and reported seeing him go through dumpsters for food.

“There were so many rats in and around Vernon’s house that the grass moved in waves like water as the rats ran through his lawn,” she said in a declaration filed with the tort claim. “From outside the house, I could see rats swinging from the drapes inside Vernon’s windows, and licking the condensation from inside.”

The intake worker noted that APS had previously found that Gray was not a vulnerable adult and didn’t send the report forward, according to the intake report.

The agency responded twice more. In 2013, after a neighbor reported that Gray was losing his home, a social worker showed up with police, who told Gray he couldn’t live there anymore, according to the tort claim.

The state Attorney General’s Office told the social worker it could pursue a guardianship case if APS provided services for Gray, and the county said he might be able to get the house back if APS could prove he was impaired, according to a report by the social worker. But Gray didn’t turn up to a shelter, where she hoped to assess him, and she closed the case.

After another neighbor called in 2016, a different social worker found Gray met the definition of a vulnerable adult. When she met with him, Gray declined help, but the social worker didn’t believe he had the mental capacity to do so.

The social worker referred the case to the county’s Geriatric Regional Assessment Team, which closed the case after it was twice unable to find him, according to the tort claim.

A guardian, and a way home?

After losing his house, Gray lived on the streets of the neighborhood he grew up in, surviving on food given to him by neighbors, Mount Zion Baptist Church members and the owner of a Central District cafe.

One neighbor said she believed Gray had been assaulted several times. Once, it appeared he “had been beaten mercilessly,” with a swollen eye and injured lip, according to her declaration.

He ended up at Harborview Medical Center in March 2017, after police found him walking in traffic for the second time. The hospital petitioned for Gray to receive a court-appointed guardian.

A psychiatrist determined Gray was “clearly gravely disabled” and had an intellectual disability, delusions and previously undiagnosed glaucoma that rendered him nearly blind, according to guardianship court documents. The psychiatrist determined Gray needed 24-hour supervision and assistance with daily tasks, disability support services and ongoing medical care.

“Mr. Gray has never been able to survive on his own without intensive involvement of others,” he wrote. “This disability ultimately has led to homelessness, blindness and ongoing vulnerability that put him at risk of deterioration and death.”

Gray received a guardian, who worked to get him into an adult family home.

DSHS says it’s working to improve how it handles cases like Gray’s. Spokesman Chris Wright said the department received funding to hire 100 additional Adult Protective Services investigators statewide in the next fiscal year. In King County, the agency recently began meeting regularly with prosecutors, law enforcement and area hospitals, he said.

Attorney Moody said he’s hoping social workers start to pay attention to what the community is telling them.

“As our population ages, there will be more Vernon Grays if DSHS and the legislature don’t fix the issue and hold case workers accountable,” Moody said.

Gray’s guardian, Channa Copeland, who got the claim going, also hopes the settlement taught the agency a lesson. Gray will receive about $4.7 million in a special-needs trust account to provide for his care, after attorneys fees and other costs.

Copeland’s main goal now is to get him back home, with 24-hour care. After Gray lost the house on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, it was flipped and sold for $739,000, according to the King County Assessor’s Office.

“I want to get his house back,” Copeland said. “His parents set him up and did everything they possibly could for him. I want to give him what his parents intended him to have.”

“He wants to go home. He’s always wanted to go home.”

News researcher Miyoko Wolf and staff reporter Joseph O’Sullivan contributed to this report.

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