BROOKLYN PARK, Minn. — Three-year-old Arianna Hunziker had likely been dead for hours when police found her in November 2017 bound to a bed with bedsheets.
A police investigation revealed that her foster parents, Bryce and Sherrie Dirk, routinely wrapped the girl in blankets so tight that she couldn’t move, then left the child like that for several hours at a time.
Two years later, the foster parents would plead guilty to second-degree unintentional murder. A child abuse expert found that swaddling the girl along with forcing her to go for hours without food or water, left the child vulnerable to “mechanical asphyxia.”
Now, a federal lawsuit filed by the girl’s grandparents, says others are also to blame in her death after they missed or ignored clear signs that the girl was being abused. The defendants include Hennepin County Child Protection workers and medical staff at Allina Health.
One example cited in the suit: Sherrie Dirk brought Arianna several times to Allina Health in the year leading up to her death, with the health provider recording her weight each time. It showed that Arianna’s weight dropped from the 97th percentile for her age down to the 13th percentile during her last doctor visit, a month before her death.
She even shrunk in height, according to the suit.
The dramatic weight and height loss should have been warning signs, it says.
In an email, Allina 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.”
The lawsuit also claims staff at Hennepin County Child Protection knew the parents were wrapping the girl in blankets to control her emotional outbursts, but never told them to stop that practice.
“There were lots of red flags that should have gotten them involved,” said Arianna’s paternal grandmother, Mary Egan, who filed the suit along with her husband and Arianna’s grandfather, Tom Hunziker.
In a statement, Hennepin County said: “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.”
The lawsuit comes as the county digs out of another federal lawsuit, filed in 2017, accusing child protection of a multitude of failures, from failing to recognize abuse, to children being abused in foster homes.
The year before the lawsuit, about 3.6% of children in Hennepin County foster care were maltreated, according to the county’s records.
As part of a settlement reached in December, the county agreed to hire a third party to analyze its foster care system and report back what has contributed to the abuse and improvements that need to be made.
Wilder Research was selected to do the analysis, which is expected to be finished by July 2021, according to a county spokesperson.
Foster care maltreatment improved as the lawsuit made its way through the court, going from 4% in 2017 – the year Arianna was murdered – to 2.5% last year.
From ‘happy, smiling’ to outbursts
Arianna and her brother had originally been placed in foster care when she was about 10 months old with their grandparents in May 2015, after the children's’ parents were accused of neglecting them.
“She was a very happy, smiling little girl. She loved to eat. She loved us,” Hunziker said.
The grandparents worried that they were too old to be long-term care providers for the children. They asked the county for help finding another family to place them with, suggesting other families who were already interested in adopting them.
But the county placed the children with the Dirks instead. Sherrie Dirks was a maternal aunt. Under state law, foster children need to be placed with family members when possible.
The grandparents said after Arianna and her brother went to the Dirks nearly all of their visitation with the two children stopped. They worried that the Dirks were unfit parents to their grandchildren and said they shared their concerns with Hennepin County Child Protection. But they say they were ignored.
Public court reports filed by Hennepin County Child Protection workers show that social workers appeared to have no problems with the children's foster home. One report dated in August 2017 – three months before her death – said Arianna “continues to do well” with the Dirks. Her adoption had been scheduled for November 9th – just a few days before she died.
In reality, the lawsuit says the little girl turned to eating rocks, pea gravel, dirt, paper and crayons for food.
Arianna would pick at her skin and pull her hair. She didn’t want to leave school and go back home with her foster parents. They were classic signs of child abuse, yet were ignored by child protection, according to the suit.
After she started having severe outbursts, the suit says the parents responded by wrapping Arianna in bedsheets – what they called “swaddling” – so that she could not move for hours, which was how she was found the day she died.
After her death, Arianna’s social worker said in an internal email to other social workers that she had never before heard the parents talk about swaddling the girl.
But the lawsuit says that’s not true, saying there were “numerous records” in Arianna’s file that showed the Dirks were swaddling the girl for behavioral and sleep purposes.
Arianna’s doctor and nurse at Allina also ignored red flags, according to the suit, saying they knew she had several signs of child abuse but failed to act.
In addition to the sharp weight loss, the suit claims that they knew about the swaddling, but “failed to investigate what that meant, particularly given that swaddling a child (Arianna’s) age in any form is not consistent with pediatric medical standards of care.”
Two weeks before her death, Sherrie Dirk called Allina and asked for help with the girl.
She attempted to get behavioral medication for her, something that was denied by several other doctors due to her age. However, after initially rejecting it, an Allina doctor prescribed her an ADHD medication a month before her death, according to the suit.
A child abuse expert who reviewed the case found that after her death, Arianna lost even more weight after her final doctor visit on Oct. 19, dropping to the fifth weight percentile for her age, according to criminal records.
While an autopsy found that her ultimate cause of death was undetermined, severe dehydration and being severely underweight were listed as contributing factors, records show.
The child abuse expert also found evidence of “multiple physical injuries” – concluding that what Arianna suffered through was “clinically diagnostic of child torture,” according to criminal records.
Arianna’s grandparents say they are going to court hoping to force additional changes in the way local child protection officials monitor foster care.
Their lawsuit claims officials failed to protect Arianna as she was “starved, dehydrated, bound, immobilized, and abandoned in a home littered in trash and smelling of urine.”
“There are too many children that get harmed or killed,” Hunziker said.
“She was a voiceless three-year-old and the county had a responsibility to protect her,” Egan said.
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