South Carolina Department of Social Services Knew of Prior Incidents at the Institution
(Abbeville, SC) — Unacceptably lax policies, combined with officials turning a blind eye to child-on-child assaults at an institution licensed and supervised by the South Carolina Department of Social Services (SCDSS), paved the way for an 11-year-old Abbeville County boy to be attacked and sexually assaulted at the facility in March of 2011, charged an amended complaint filed in the Abbeville County Court yesterday.
The filing names South Carolina Governor Nikki Hailey as a defendant, along with SCDSS Director Lillian Koller, as well as other SCDSS officials and staff at the Boys Home of the South (BHOTS), where the incident occurred. The lawsuit has been brought by two South Carolina law firms and national advocacy organization Children’s Rights.
According to the amended complaint, SCDSS and BHOTS not only knew that the plaintiff, John Doe, was at risk, they failed to care for him after the assault. Doe didn’t receive desperately needed mental health treatment for months, even though he attempted to slit his wrist a week after the incident.
“From top to bottom, the circumstances surrounding this case are downright shocking,” said Thomas E. Hite, Jr. of Hite & Stone, Attorneys at Law. “But perhaps the greatest tragedy is that Doe entered foster care simply because his grandparents became too elderly to care for him. An innocent child is now left to grapple with depression and a host of other serious issues.”
South Carolina’s poor track record of recruiting a sufficient number of foster homes could have played into Doe’s fate. According to federal data, in 2010 and 2011 South Carolina was ranked 50th among all states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico for the percentage of children in foster care age 12 and under housed in group homes and institutions. SCDSS failed to find a relative to care for Doe and, because of a lack of family foster homes, placed him in an emergency shelter and then at BHOTS.
“It is unconscionable that this young boy landed in such a facility in the first place,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “While SCDSS acknowledged that most children fare better in home-like settings, the agency apparently has not prioritized the reduction of congregate care, putting kids in settings that are inappropriate for many and can leave youth vulnerable. Foster care is supposed to improve children’s lives, not destroy them.”
A 2010 SCDSS publication noted that the system “overly relies on congregate care facilities for our children, when research shows that children have better outcomes when placed in families.” As recently as September 2012, the agency reported that, “While the number of children in foster care has been steadily dropping since 2007, the market share of foster care providers has remained the same at 24% for congregate care (group homes).”
According to the complaint, Doe was attacked on March 28, 2011 by “AR,” an older boy also housed in a cottage that was part of BHOTS’ “Low Management Group Care Housing.” At the time of the attack and sexual assault on Doe, SCDSS and BHOTS employees had notice of numerous prior incidents of child-on-child maltreatment at BHOTS, including a history of incidents involving AR. Yet only days before the attack, Doe’s SCDSS caseworker visited Doe and wrote “there are no safety issues or concerns noted in the cottage where [Doe] is currently residing.”
Doe was “to be provided with 24 hour supervision,” only “16 hours of which [was] awake.” SCDSS’s initial investigation into the attack and sexual assault on Doe, completed in May 2011, found no negligent supervision because BHOTS was not required to have awake staff at the time of the incident. A second investigation, completed that July, reversed course and found negligent supervision on the part of the BHOTS “house parent” on duty, but made no findings against BHOTS.
This was not the first time inappropriate sexual activity at BHOTS was brushed aside. Between January 1, 2009 and the night of Doe’s attack, the BHOTS Defendants and SCDSS Licensing and Out of Home Abuse and Neglect (OHAN) staff received at least eight reports of inappropriate sexual activity between BHOTS residents. Two months before Doe’s attack occurred, an OHAN investigation into inappropriate sexual activity at BHOTS was returned “unfounded”–not because the investigator or OHAN supervisor questioned whether inappropriate behavior occurred, but because the “[f]acility policy allows for house parents to sleep at night and [the] incident occurred during bed hours and staff was asleep.”
The BHOTS website currently posts a letter from its new chief executive officer that states, “In 2012, residential care facilities suffered devastating declines in referrals due to a philosophical shift in care by government agencies. Several facilities in South Carolina closed permanently. At the Boys Home our census fell dramatically to a current enrollment of a few boys.”
“It is good news that the Boys Home of the South has few children in its care, giving their new director time to institute policies and practices that will protect children,” said Robert Butcher of The Camden Law Firm. “Unfortunately, it does not mean that our children are safe in South Carolina foster care. Until we see evidence that the state is actively reducing the use of congregate care, thoroughly investigating and addressing all allegations of abuse, and housing boys in a manner that is conducive to keeping them safe, we will remain vigilant.”
The initial complaint in this case was filed on April 1, 2013, in state court in Abbeville County, SC. The newly filed amended complaint adds significant detail and alleges federal civil rights violations on the part of Governor Hailey, DSS officials and staff at BHOTS.
A version of this column originally appeared in www.childrensrights.org.