Part Ic: WAREHOUSING OUR CHILDREN

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Windwood Farm’s red school house

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

Brendin and Faith

Brendin Cecere and his mom, Faith Rice, moved out of their Summerville house right before Thanksgiving three years ago following a physical fight between Rice and her ex-husband. The ordeal was particularly traumatic for Brendin, who is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

“Brendin’s whole world that he knew was done. Everything that was familiar — his routine, his home, his neighborhood — everything that he was familiar with, with the exception of school, was out of sorts for him,” Rice said. “By January, he pretty much broke down.”

Brendin, now 13 years old, threatened his mom with a knife. He hurt the dogs. He threatened to hurt himself, too.

“At that point, there wasn’t anything more I could do but place him in a facility,” Rice said. “As much as it killed me, there was nothing more I could do.”

Brendin spent nine months at Three Rivers Behavioral Health, a psychiatric residential treatment facility near Columbia, and more than a year at Willowglen Academy, a similar facility in Kingstree. Rice believes he was abused at both homes.

At Three Rivers, Brendin’s arms and chest were bruised, he told her, by a nurse who hit children with an open hand.

At Willowglen Academy, Brendin said a staff member broke his arm.

The Department of Social Services investigated Brendin’s allegations at Willowglen Academy but determined his claims were not credible, Rice said. The group home told Rice that he fell out of a window and that children with behavioral issues or special needs like Brendin tend to embellish the truth.

“I said, ‘What about these other kids that can’t defend themselves, who are not verbally expressive like my son?’” Rice said.

She couldn’t even get a copy of the official 11-page state investigation into Brendin’s injury, she said. A Department of Social Services supervisor in Williamsburg County told her the document was protected by state law because the case was determined “unfounded.”

Three Rivers Behavioral Health and Willowglen Academy, both owned by out-of-state, for-profit corporations, did not respond to questions about Brendin.

The Department of Social Services opened 100 investigations into alleged abuse and neglect at multiple Willowglen Academy facilities and 97 investigations at Three Rivers since 2000, but the agency would not tell The Post and Courier how many of these allegations it could prove.

Brendin left Willowglen Academy late last year to live with his grandparents in Simpsonville. Rice, who was recently diagnosed with cancer, didn’t feel safe choosing another group home. She’s still trying to figure out what really happened last fall.

“I spoke to the SLED (State Law Enforcement Division) department. I spoke to Nikki Haley’s office, who bounced me to Lindsey Graham’s office,” she said. “Both offices told me they are not able to handle cases like this.”

‘Looking for loopholes’

The South Carolina Department of Social Services receives hundreds of reports alleging abuse and neglect in foster homes, institutions, group homes and day care centers every year. But 10 years of DSS data shows the department rarely finds sufficient evidence to prove that a child has been abused in one of these “out-of-home” settings.

In 2010, for example, the department investigated 132 reports of abuse in group homes and institutions, but found enough evidence to prove only six cases. In theory, some cases were handed to local law enforcement agencies for investigation. But the Department of Social Services would not tell The Post and Courier how many abuse reports were handled by police or which agencies were involved.

Four years ago, this prompted some child advocates in South Carolina to question if these reports were always properly investigated. They wanted to know why the number of “founded” cases was so low.

The South Carolina Citizen Review Panels, three independent groups set up to evaluate child protective services, were particularly worried by a report that boys in a group home were sexually abusing each other as an initiation ritual.

At the time, Social Services explained that the incident was not “indicated,” or proven, by its Out-of-Home Abuse and Neglect division because child-on-child abuse is not specifically addressed in state law.

“They were looking for loopholes so they don’t have responsibility. That’s just crazy,” said Donna Xenakis, a former chairwoman of the Lowcountry Citizen Review Panel.

Only 13 reports of abuse in group homes and institutions were determined “indicated” or “founded” last year.

A team of 10 investigators at the Department of Social Services examined fewer than half of all reports filed in the 2014 fiscal year for out-of-home abuse and neglect. Some of the reports were “screened out,” the agency explained, because they did not meet the “statutory criteria” to warrant an investigation.

‘Never going to change’

Jessica Freeman’s adopted daughters Jaylin and Olivia were discovered bound together with a bungee-cord in their Tennessee home before they were taken into state custody more than 10 years ago.

“Jaylin came to me at 5 years old. She weighed 22 pounds and had STDs,” Freeman said.

Olivia, 4 years old at the time, weighed 23 pounds and also was sexually abused.

“They didn’t talk,” she said. “They weren’t potty-trained.”

The girls, now teenagers, require out-of-home treatment in group facilities in North Carolina.

“Both of my girls are going to need care like this for the rest of their life,” Freeman said. “It’s overwhelming, as a mom, because you want to protect them and you want to keep them safe and you reach a point when you can’t do that anymore.”

Last year, Jaylin lived at Springbrook Behavioral Health in Upstate South Carolina until her therapist told Freeman that staff members beat an autistic child in front of other children in the gymnasium.

“The reason why this stuff continues is because the children don’t have a voice to speak up,” Freeman said. “I think as long as people are quiet it’s not going to get any better.”

Mike Rowley, the administrator for Springbrook, said the facility takes every allegation seriously and self-reports any suspected child abuse case to the South Carolina Department of Social Services.

“I don’t think there’s anything we do that should be secretive,” Rowley said. “It’s a great place for kids.”

The Department of Social Services denied an open records request filed by The Post and Courier to review any “Out-of-Home” abuse reports, even reports that determined abuse allegations in the group homes were valid. State law exempts these documents from disclosure, the agency’s lawyer said.

“Confidentiality is such a big thing in child welfare,” Alford said. “By statute, a lot of what we do is not considered to be public knowledge. That’s one barrier. I think the department is trying to be a lot more transparent.”

Alford acknowledged that potential child abuse in these facilities keeps her up at night.

“We have to be concerned with their safety all the time,” Alford said. “We’re legally responsible for that by statute. We’re morally responsible for it. Of course it concerns me.”

Berkowitz, the Appleseed Legal Justice Center director, said the Department of Social Services needs to admit its problems before the agency can solve them. She doesn’t trust the department’s own data.

“These are our poorest kids, our most vulnerable kids,” Berkowitz said. “I have heard so many people over the years and seen so many reports. ‘We’re going to fix this. We’re going to fix that.’ And I just think unless there is some structure that will require this to happen it’s never going to change.”

KY AG Candidate Beshear Releases Child Abuse Prevention Plan

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Kentucky Attorney General Candidate Andy Beshear

KENTUCKY – Attorney General candidate Andy Beshear releases a seven-point plan to combat child abuse in Kentucky. The full plan, Preventing Child Abuse In Kentucky: A Seven-Point Plan, highlights Beshear’s commitment to protecting Kentucky children and families and ending the child abuse epidemic in Kentucky.

“As Attorney General, my mission will be to end Kentucky’s child abuse epidemic so that every child can grow up in a safe and secure environment,” said Beshear. “Kentucky has one of the highest physical child abuse and child abuse death rates in the country. As a father of two young children, I cannot live with this reality. It’s time to make preventing child abuse a priority for leaders across our country, and especially right here in Kentucky. I am committed to ending this epidemic and if elected, I will work with anyone, Democrat or Republican, to implement my seven-point plan and make Kentucky a safer place for our children.”

A summary of the central proposals can be found below, and the full plan is available here.

Create a Child Abuse and Exploitation Division: The Child Abuse and Exploitation Division will bring together specially trained investigators, prosecutors, and policy experts with vast experience in combatting child abusers and helping victims. The Division will work with local prosecutors and law enforcement on a statewide mission to vigorously and aggressively prosecute child abusers, sexual predators, and human traffickers.

Expand use of latest technology to combat abusers: We will work to expand Kentucky’s use of technology to identify and keep abusers out of our childcare industry so that every entity has the tools and data they need to ensure no abuser is able to outwit the system and slip through the cracks.

Regulate all sectors of our childcare industry: Currently, Kentucky law does not regulate caretakers in certain groups, such as summer camps, that care for thousands of Kentucky children each year. We need to extend Kentucky law and regulation to all portions of our childcare industry so that all our children are protected.

Integrate our non-profits’ ideas into state policy: Our regulations should adopt best practices that have been created and tested by our most effective non-profits. The Child Abuse And Exploitation Division will work to coordinate non-profit efforts to ensure we maximize our combined efforts.

Require participation in STARS program and better monitor day cares: Currently, the STARS program is only voluntary for day care providers that do not receive childcare assistance funds from the state. By mandating that all Kentucky day care providers participate in the STARS program, we can better monitor our day cares to ensure quality child programs are in place.

Conduct a thorough review of foster care system: We will push the state Legislature to conduct a top to bottom study of our foster care system that compares our current guidelines and procedures with best practices so we can make any necessary changes so that foster children can live without fear of abuse.

Promote good parenting: The number one way we can protect our children is through good parenting, which provides a safe, healthy, and nurturing home environment. Promoting good parenting will be a top goal of the Attorney General’s Office, which will be achieved by working with community organizations that aim to help strengthen families across Kentucky.

Throughout the campaign, Beshear will release additional plans that highlight his commitment to protecting Kentucky children and families. 

Part Ib: WAREHOUSING OUR CHILDREN

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Susan Alford, the new Department of Social Services director

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

Funding foster families

The federal lawsuit hinges on the widely-accepted premise that social services caseworkers in South Carolina are overwhelmed with work. They don’t have time to keep track of all the children that they’re charged to protect.

A Legislative Audit Council report published last year shows more than 30 percent of caseworkers statewide were each assigned at least 50 children to monitor, and a few were assigned more than 75. The Child Welfare League of America, a national advocacy group, recommends each caseworker manage no more than 17 families per month.

The Legislative Audit Council report and a string of child deaths prompted Statehouse hearings and calls to reform the child welfare agency. Former DSS Director Lillian Koller, who tried to scale back the number of foster children in group homes, resigned under pressure last year.

Still, the General Assembly has failed to pass any sort of major legislation to reform the Department of Social Services.

“It’s not something that legislators get excited about because there’s no glory in this,” said Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, a member of the Senate DSS Oversight Committee.

“I know that everybody wants to talk about roads and jobs, and we do need to talk about those things and those are important, but if we don’t save our children, we don’t need our roads.”

Appleseed Legal Justice Center Director Sue Berkowitz said the Legislature needs to broaden its probe into the state agency because child deaths aren’t the only problem it faces.

“There’s so much more going on,” she said. “What hasn’t been focused on is what’s happening to our kids once they go into the system.”

Data provided by the Department of Social Services shows about a quarter of the 4,000 foster children in South Carolina lived in a group home, an emergency shelter or an institution on April 1. Experts, including the Department of Social Services director, say that’s too many.

“The goal in child welfare is for you, as much as possible, to keep kids in families,” Alford said. “If you can’t keep them with their biological family or put them in kinship care, then you’re looking at foster care as the next best alternative. That should be your first priority.”

A national report published by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation this year said group homes aren’t designed to offer the “individualized nurturing” that children need.

“In many cases, a child ends up living in a group placement simply because an agency has not found an appropriate facility,” the report’s authors wrote.

On May 1, 2, 310 foster homes were licensed to accept children in South Carolina — too few for the nearly 4,000 children in the system. But the child welfare agency can’t recruit enough families, partly because they’re paid so little to participate. Foster parents only make between $12.77 and $17.27 per child per night — no more than $6,303 a year to clothe, feed and care for a child.

In response to a public records request filed by The Post and Courier, the Department of Social Services said it spent $28.1 million in the 2014 fiscal year to house children in group homes and institutions, but only $5.5 million on foster families.

Critics argue it makes no sense that the state spends more than five times the amount of money to house less than a quarter of all foster children in group homes because many of them shouldn’t be there in the first place.

“It’s bad for kids, but it’s also a total waste of taxpayer money,” said Lustbader, of New York’s Children’s Rights. “That’s the part that doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves.”

Some group facilities for children earn additional income from other agencies. The state Medicaid agency, for example, spent $23 million during the 2015 fiscal year on South Carolina children in psychiatric residential treatment facilities, which offer the highest level of care.

Most “Level 3” group homes — a step down from residential treatment facilities — pull in $151 per child per night, or more than $50,000 per child per year. “Level 1” and “Level 2” group homes largely accept children without any psychological problems and earn either $86 or $98 per child per night.

Meanwhile, a 2012 national report shows only five states paid foster families lower rates than South Carolina. Even some group-home advocates acknowledge these foster family payments aren’t sufficient.

“It’s less than you would pay to board your dog,” said Deborah McKelvey, the executive director of Windwood Farm, a combined “Level 3” group home and psychiatric residential treatment facility for boys in Awendaw.

South Carolina needs more foster families, she argued, but some group homes offer children a measure of security that a traditional family can’t provide.

“I know the national picture says children under 12 shouldn’t live in a group setting,” she said. “I say children under 12 frequently are too afraid to bond with a family. They feel safer in a group setting where they know somebody is awake 24 hours a day watching their back.”

Children eat family-style meals together at Windwood Farm, she said. They go to the beach. Windwood almost resembles summer camp, complete with an obstacle course, ponds for swimming and fishing, and a fitness trail, she said.

Jody Tamsberg, chairman of the Windwood Farm board of directors, said that even though South Carolina agencies pay Windwood significantly more than foster families to care for children in state custody, those payments don’t cover its bills. The nonprofit group home still must raise at least $500,000 a year to break even, he said.

“I love good foster families and there are lots of them, but even the good ones, they can’t take a kid that’s been abused, that’s on eight medications, that’s totally out of control,” Tamsberg said. “There’s got to be a place where they can come, stabilize, be safe and have skilled professionals — nurses and doctors — tend to them.”