Amid mounting scrutiny, DHS hit with wrongful death lawsuit 

Ki Soon Hyun’s children hope their mother’s death serves as a wakeup call for Oregon’s social services system that’s intended to protect the state’s vulnerable residents. 

Hyun’s family on Wednesday filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Oregon Department of Human Services and Mount Hood Senior Living, a memory care facility in Sandy that she moved into just two days before her death after she wandered outside the facility and went missing. The lawsuit, filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court, alleges the state agency ignored red flags and failed to intervene to protect residents. 

Hyun, 83, was found deceased last year on Christmas Day in a wooded region about half a mile from Mount Hood Senior Living. 

Hyun, who had dementia, slipped outside the facility without any staff noticing on the morning of Dec. 24. She spent the night before Christmas outside, dying alone in the frigid cold of hypothermia.

“That was the worst 24 hours of our lives, knowing our mother was lost, scared, cold and just alone by herself wondering where her family was,” Soo Hyun, one of her three adult children, said in a press conference Wednesday in their attorney’s office in Portland announcing the wrongful death suit. “We tried to be so hopeful the next morning that she could survive the elements because she survived so much in her life. But unfortunately we were gathered by the chaplain of the sheriff’s department and told us that my mother’s body was found 100 yards away in the woods.”

The facility’s staff did not contact police about her disappearance until the afternoon, several hours later, the lawsuit alleges. As a result, the search started a few hours from sunset. 

State report faults agency’s oversight

Much of the information in the lawsuit was already confirmed by the Oregon Long-Term Care Ombudsman’s office, which conducted an investigation into Hyun’s case and the Oregon Department of Human Services. The ombudsman’s office, an independent state entity, is responsible for holding the state agency accountable for its long-term care regulation. 

That report found the state agency missed red flags and could have taken action that would have prevented Hyun’s death. Before Hyun died, the interim administrator at the memory care facility emailed DHS regulators to say that they were not qualified to run the center. Agency officials suggested they find a replacement but didn’t follow up, the report said. The interim administrator was on the job when Hyun died.

“Mom fell through the cracks in the Oregon DHS system – a system that should protect and preserve the life and dignity of all Oregonians, particularly our loved ones at the end of their lives,” Alex Smith, Hyun’s other daughter and a behavioral health nurse, said. “Our mother’s death should not have happened. The safety of our seniors must be regarded at least as carefully as our daycares and schools.”

The report also found that the agency had received complaints about the facility in July and August 2023, yet failed to conduct an inspection until November that turned up inadequate staff training, understaffing and, in two instances, a lack of mandatory background checks.

The agency also waited a month after Hyun’s death before it closed the memory care facility on Jan. 26 and should have done so sooner, the report found. 

Jake Sunderland, a spokesman for DHS, declined to comment on the lawsuit. 

“We feel deeply for families and their communities anytime there is a loss of life,” he said in an email. 

In the agency’s initial response to the ombudsman’s report, the agency insisted it acted appropriately with the information it had. But the agency and its spokespeople have not answered questions from the Capital Chronicle about what improvements, if any, DHS will make in response to the ombudsman’s report. 

The report called for an independent audit of the agency’s licensing and regulation of long-term care facilities to ensure the protection of residents who are often elderly and include many with disabilities. . Hyun’s family members on Wednesday praised the ombudsman’s report and said they support its call for an independent audit of the agency. 

Lawsuit details 

The lawsuit could cost the memory care clinic and the state millions of dollars apiece. 

It alleges Mount Hood Senior Living failed residents on multiple occasions. Besides its lack of a qualified administrator, it says the facility lacked staff, failedto conduct headcounts of residents and directed police to search the facility instead of outdoors when Hyun went missing. 

The lawsuit seeks $17 million from Mount Hood Senior Living for Hyun’s pain and suffering and the family’s loss of her. The lawsuit also names as defendants Yi Zhou, the owner of Mount Hood Senior Living and Avant Senior Housing Managers and Consultants, a Washington state company. The company allegedly was responsible for training the facility’s staff and giving advice about regulatory compliance. Company representatives couldn’t be reached for comment on Wednesday.

The lawsuit also seeks up to $23 million from the Oregon Department of Human Services for its alleged lack of oversight, which includes allowing the facility to operate without an experienced and qualified manager. 

The lawsuit was filed by Kafoury & McDougal, which specializes in personal injury cases. 

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Ben Botkin - Oregon Capital Chronicle

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.