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South Carolina Laws Hide Child Abuse Inside Group Homes

South Carolina Laws Hide Child Abuse Inside Group Homes
By Lauren Sausser

An untold number of foster children in South Carolina custody are neglected, drugged, beaten and molested in group homes and institutions where the state warehouses them for millions of dollars a year at taxpayer expense.

What’s more, South Carolina keeps the abuse these children suffer secret by using state laws that shield group homes from almost any scrutiny.

Court records shed light on some of the worst cases, but this state-sanctioned secrecy makes it impossible for the public to weigh the difference between well-run group homes and those that resemble a Dickensian orphanage. Even parents who reluctantly send their children to these facilities for treatment can’t figure out how to keep them safe behind closed doors.

When Jessica Freeman placed her daughter in Springbrook Behavioral Health last year, she had no idea the state had investigated the Greenville County home 95 times since 2000 for possible abuse and neglect — more than almost any other residential treatment facility in South Carolina. That’s because the state Department of Social Services doesn’t make the few records that are public readily accessible.

Freeman pulled her daughter from the facility last fall after a therapist told her that several Springbrook staff members had beaten an autistic child in an incident caught on a security camera.

“That’s ridiculous,” Freeman said. “You can report a bad hamburger easier than you can report someone abusing your child.”

Springbrook administrator Mike Rowley would not discuss any specific case, but said most allegations made against the facility are cleared by the Department of Social Services.

“If we have anything substantiated, those employees are immediately terminated,” Rowley said. “We don’t want them around other children.”

Two Springbrook employees have been fired for child abuse or neglect in the last three years, he said.

Despite stories such as Freeman’s, South Carolina continues to send its youngest foster children into group homes and institutions at a higher rate than any other state in the country, federal data shows. This trend persists even though a growing body of evidence points out that children should grow up with their own families or in foster homes.

That’s why other states have reduced their reliance on group homes by expanding foster family programs or finding relatives for these children to live with. But South Carolina has largely resisted change, dumping tens of millions of dollars every year into privately-run group homes for no other reason than that’s how this state has always done it, some experts say.

“I can say, having done this work for 15 years nationally, that South Carolina is possibly the worst I’ve ever seen on that front,” said Ira Lustbader, the litigation director for Children’s Rights, a New York advocacy group.

More than 100 group homes and institutions are scattered across the state, ranging from rural farms to sophisticated psychiatric compounds. At any given time, they house about a quarter of South Carolina’s 4,000 foster children.

While group-home supporters acknowledge that some problems persist within the industry, they insist these facilities provide desperately needed services for troubled children who aren’t suited for normal homes and have nowhere else to live.

But even Susan Alford, named the new Department of Social Services director late last year, finds South Carolina’s numbers problematic.

“Our rate is too high,” Alford said. “We put too many children — especially in the 0 to 12 (age) range — we put too many of them in group homes. Our aim would be to try to decrease that number.”

Troubling findings

South Carolina isn’t the only state faced with these problems. Published reports across the country detail a litany of horror stories in which children and teenagers in group homes have been overmedicated for mild behavioral issues, raped by their peers and lured into prostitution while their temporary guardians aren’t watching. But many other states are moving away from this model. Meanwhile, South Carolina continues shoveling hundreds of children a year into a system rife with complaints and concerns.

The Post and Courier reviewed lawsuits, visited group homes, filed open records requests and interviewed dozens of state leaders, child welfare experts, parents and former foster children for this series. Among other things, the newspaper’s investigation found:

– Nearly a quarter of the children under 13 years old who entered the foster care system in 2013 were placed in group homes and institutions in South Carolina — by far the highest placement rate for this age group in the United States. By comparison, only 2 percent in Tennessee and 3 percent in North Carolina were placed in similar settings. The national average is 4 percent.

– Some children live for months, even years, in group homes because South Carolina fails to recruit enough foster families and the state pays them so little to participate. Some foster parents are paid less than $13 a day to raise a child.

– The South Carolina Department of Social Services spent $28.1 million in 2014 placing children in group homes — more than five times the amount the agency paid foster families. Group homes earn at least $86 per child per night.

The Department of Social Services reviews hundreds of allegations of child abuse and neglect in group homes, institutions, foster homes and day care facilities every year, yet the agency’s team of 10 investigators rarely finds enough evidence to support those claims. The state has investigated 484 allegations of abuse and neglect in group homes and institutions in the past five years, but has only been able to find evidence to prove 44 cases.

– South Carolina makes it easier to know which restaurants are infested with cockroaches than to pinpoint where children have been neglected, or worse, physically and sexually abused.

– Court records allege children who disclose that they’ve been abused in group care — by adults and each other — are often ignored because state caseworkers are so overloaded that they don’t have time to weigh the allegations.

‘Dangerous deficiencies’

In January, Children’s Rights and the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center filed a federal lawsuit against South Carolina on behalf of 11 foster children who allegedly suffered from the Social Services agency’s “dangerous deficiencies.”

The complaint contends children were abused, overmedicated, separated from their siblings, kept in solitary confinement, fed moldy bread — and the worst of it happened in group homes.

One 16-year-old girl reported that children at the Jenkins Institute for Children in North Charleston hoarded food because they were “frequently deprived.” The group home denied her medicine and feminine hygiene products, and she said a maintenance worker there asked her to take naked pictures of herself on a cellphone, according to the lawsuit.

Johanna Martin-Carrington, director of the Jenkins Institute for Children, said the allegations aren’t true. “Children make those claims,” she said. “But we know it didn’t occur.”

The lawsuit also alleges that a teenager at Epworth Children’s Home in Richland County was prescribed a “powerful psychotropic medication for the first time in his life.” The drug is used to treat bipolar disorder, even though the child had never been diagnosed and hadn’t received a mental health evaluation at the group home, the complaint contends.

At Helping Hands, a group home in Aiken County, the lawsuit claims that a 9-year-old boy’s toothbrush was smothered with feces.

Epworth Children’s Home and Helping Hands did not respond to messages about the lawsuit.

The original complaint also contends that several unnamed group home employees and state caseworkers did nothing when some children tried to report the abuse. One caseworker allegedly told a child, “She had a lot of children on her caseload and so was limited in what she could do to help her,” the lawsuit stated.

Paula Fendley is the executive director for the Palmetto Association for Children and Families, an organization that represents many group homes in South Carolina. She said similar cases filed by Children’s Rights in other states have been settled before trial.

“You can allege anything in a lawsuit, but you have to be able to prove it,” Fendley said. “If these things are, in fact, true, then I guess all of that will come out in the court.”

Alford and Gov. Nikki Haley, both named defendants in the lawsuit, agreed to participate in early court mediation, public records show.

Haley’s office directed questions about the lawsuit to the Department of Social Services.

Alford would not discuss the pending litigation. “Those are things that I just can’t talk about,” she said.

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