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.”