Fatal fire at Arlington foster home forces changes to state policy

ARLINGTON — A 2008 house fire in Arlington that left two boys dead could lead to some changes at foster homes across the state.

One of those changes may include more in-depth fire safety training for caregivers overseeing children under state supervision. A work group also may be assigned to study issues at homes serving children with special needs, according to a report released Thursday.

The recommendations came out of the state’s second review of the fire that killed Tyler Emory, 10, and Kyler Williams, 11.

The boys were among five foster children living with Mark and Susan Lee when a fast-moving blaze ravaged the couple’s Arlington home on Nov. 22, 2008. Eight others in the house were able to escape.

A third foster boy, then 10, admitted to accidentally setting the fire. He was charged with a felony in juvenile court in connection with the deaths. A judge in January granted him a deferred prosecution and ordered him to continue counseling and do community service. He has since been reunited with his father and has moved out of state.

The state Department of Social and Health Services conducted a fatality review in April 2009. A review is conducted when a child dies unexpectedly while under state care or while receiving state services.

That review found there were no licensing violations or negligence on the part of the Lees.

The couple have been licensed foster parents since May 2001. They are licensed through Compass Health to care for children with behavioral and mental health issues.

The earlier review’s only conclusion was that there was inadequate communication and coordination among the different agencies involved with the boys. That potentially affected getting timely services to those affected by the fire.

State officials, however, later decided that they wanted a second look at the circumstances of the Lees’ home at the time of the blaze.

Former foster parents who had cared for one of the victims questioned the first fatality review findings and urged the state ombudsman for family and children to press for answers.

The second review was done in December by a committee that included state child advocates, an Edmonds police detective and a Monroe Fire captain.

The review again concluded that the Lees violated no state regulations nor had they committed any licensing infractions, said Sherry Hill, a spokeswoman for the Children’s Administration, an arm of DSHS.

“This is just a tragic event for the children and family. It’s tragic for everyone,” Hill said.

The committee, however, did see room for improvements. They found that there likely weren’t enough smoke alarms in the home, and that fire drills may not have sufficiently prepared the Lees and the children. The review also concluded that the sleeping arrangements likely weren’t ideal given the number of children with special-needs living in the home.

The Lees’ bedroom was equipped with an audio monitor and located in the basement. The foster children’s bedrooms were located on the second and third floors of the home.

The committee also determined that it was the collective responsibility of all the professionals who regularly visited the family home to be alert for potential safety issues.

The review concluded that at the time of the fire, the home likely was becoming a place that would require more supervision and safety inspections because the majority of the children had special needs.

The committee made five recommendations:

• Advanced fire safety training for foster parents, group homes and other caregivers

• Advise foster parents that their bedrooms should be accessible and within earshot of the children’s bedrooms

• Convene a work group to talk about issues at foster homes serving children with special needs and clearly define the different types of licensed homes

• Improve communications following a critical incident.

These will be considered and compared against existing policies, practices and training, Hill said.

“Any time a review makes recommendations we take a look to see how we can integrate them into what were are doing,” Hill said.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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