HENNEPIN COUNTY, Minn. — Hennepin County will pay more than a million dollars to settle a lawsuit brought by the family of Arianna Hunziker, a toddler who was murdered by her foster parents while under the supervision of the county.
Hunziker was just 3 years old when she was found "severely malnourished and dehydrated”. She’d been bound to her bed with sheets which had been wrapped around her neck and body.
Her foster parents, Sherrie and Bryce Dirk were convicted of Arianna’s murder. Sherrie Dirk was Arianna’s aunt and Hennepin County had placed the little girl and her brother with the family.
“There were a lot of red flags,” said Hunziker’s paternal grandmother Mary Egan.
Egan and Tom Hunziker had been caring for Arianna and her brother prior to her placement with the Dirks.
“She was a very happy, smiling little girl. She loved to eat. She loved us,” Hunziker said.
But the couple believed their grandkids could have a better life with younger caregivers. They had hoped to remain part of the kids’ lives but say the Dirks cut them out.
They later learned of the severe abuse Arianna endured.
The grandparents told KARE 11 when they filed the lawsuit that Hennepin County had failed to properly protect the girl and that Allina Healthcare staff had failed to notice tell-tale signs that she was being neglected.
“I just think they were ignoring, really, signs of child abuse and weren’t stepping up and protecting her,” Egan said.
As part of the lawsuit settlement, Hennepin County will pay $1.3 million — much of the money going to Arianna’s surviving siblings. The county has already agreed to major foster care reforms as part of a different class action lawsuit.
“The fact that the county stepped up and was willing to show a level of accountability really matters,” said the family’s attorney Jeff Storms.
In a statement, Hennepin County told KARE 11: “Arianna’s death is tragic. The county expresses its deepest sympathies to Arianna’s family, friends, service providers, and all others who have been impacted by her passing. One of the county’s greatest duties is to protect children, and the county and its personnel feels this loss very deeply. The county has made historic investments into its children and families programming in recent years and will continue to do so.”
The lawsuit against Allina continues.
According to court documents, Arianna routinely saw Allina providers. And yet no one sounded the alarm about signs Arianna was harming herself — or her extreme weight loss while in the Dirks’ care.
As a toddler, instead of growing, records show she dropped from the 98th percentile in weight to the 5th percentile in just a year. And she didn’t get any taller.
“For the light to not go off about this extreme weight loss which is really indicative of starvation, severe starvation, that’s very tragic,” Storms said.
Allina issued a statement to KARE 11 saying: “Arianna Hunziker’s death is a tragedy, and our hearts go out to all who loved her. Because this case is currently in litigation, we will not be commenting further.”
Storms says Arianna’s family doesn’t want to see another child suffer the way she did. They want mandated reporters, like healthcare workers, to pay more attention to signs of neglect.
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