Abuse allegations haunt lucrative group homes
By Lauren Sausse
BELTON — The bucolic countryside surrounding Boys Home of the South belies the horror some children say they endured after state Social Services officials dumped them here.
Even as state agencies gave the group home as much as $1.5 million a year, the Department of Social Services investigated the facility three dozen times for abuse and neglect allegations since 2000.
The state won’t reveal the outcome of these investigations, but children who lived at Boys Home of the South say they were tortured and raped by employees and their peers.
A high-profile child sex abuse lawsuit forced this group home to close last year — the campus has since reopened as a Christian campground. But that was too late for John Roe, who says he was repeatedly molested by a Boys Home of the South worker more than a decade ago.
Roe, now 23, asked that The Post and Courier conceal his real name by using the pseudonym he chose for a lawsuit filed last year against the group home and the Department of Social Services. He said he reported the attacks to another staffer and his assigned Department of Social Services caseworker, but they did nothing about the abuse.
“I felt worthless that nobody would actually listen, that it wasn’t taken seriously,” Roe said. “Eventually, I gave up trying.”
The lawsuit that finally shut down Boys Home of the South made national news, but this was far from the only residential group home in South Carolina to profit handsomely off taxpayer dollars while the child welfare agency investigated the facility for maltreatment of children in its care.
New Hope Carolinas, which operates a psychiatric treatment facility in Rock Hill, has been investigated for child abuse and neglect 119 times since 2000. Six other group homes and institutions have been investigated by Social Services at least 80 times in 15 years. All of them are still open, and the investigations remain sealed from the public.
Meanwhile, tax records show that nonprofit group homes in South Carolina alone make more than $70 million a year — largely from lucrative state contracts and private donations.
Some experts maintain that group homes provide a valuable community resource, offering services for many children, particularly those who have been diagnosed with severe behavioral health issues and have nowhere else to live. Others, however, contend that the state’s dependence on these homes has allowed the industry to rake in revenue while dodging accountability for the harm done to children on its watch.
Camden attorney Robert Butcher represents several former foster children allegedly abused in state custody, including Roe. Butcher said group home directors keep quiet about the kind of abuse Roe says he suffered because they worry the child welfare agency will stop sending them new children — their main source of revenue.
“They’re making a killing on these kids,” Butcher said. “They don’t want to rock that boat.”
Furthermore, he thinks some state caseworkers downplay allegations made by children because investigating potential abuse takes time that they don’t have and Social Services has nowhere else to place them.
“They’re in the business of selling children,” he said. “Basically, they don’t do their damn jobs.”
State officials and group home supporters say these facilities aren’t a perfect fit for every child, but it’s unfair to paint them all with the same brush.
“I think there are really good foster homes and there are really good group homes. And there’s really bad of both,” said Danny Gilbert, who owns Eagle Harbor Ranch, a group home for boys in Berkeley County. “There are some people who are just collecting a check.”
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Brother repeatedly rapes sister, blames DSS
By Lauren Sausser
TRAVELERS REST — Sam Snow found work at an Upstate poultry plant when he was released from prison in March, earning $8.91 an hour hauling 40-pound boxes of raw chicken parts around the refrigerated thigh room. He needed the job, he said, and the plant hires almost anyone, even convicted child molesters.
“It’s a downgrade, but by God, I don’t have to register for killing chickens,” the 24-year-old said.
His little sister Jane, who lives nearby, graduated from high school in Kershaw County a couple of years ago, but suffers from such severe post-traumatic stress disorder that she can’t work anywhere. For years, as caseworkers shuffled them in and out of group homes and foster homes across the state, Sam raped his sister more times than she can count.
They tell it differently, but if anyone’s to blame for their sad story, both believe it’s the South Carolina Department of Social Services.
“Until I was about six, and started to actually understand what he was doing to me, I didn’t feel that it was wrong because I went to him when I was scared and I thought he was just trying to protect me,” Jane said. “I started to talk to my DSS worker about it and she was explaining that it wasn’t right, but yet she still hid it in the file.”
Jane filed a lawsuit against the Department of Social Services for its alleged failure to protect her.
Agency Director Susan Alford said she could not discuss any pending litigation.
More than 2,000 children in South Carolina are removed from their parents’ homes each year, and hundreds of them have been sexually abused, state records show. Jane and Sam, who asked that The Post and Courier conceal their identities by using false names, were both molested by relatives before Social Services swept them away from their mother. But the alternative turned out to be equally dangerous.
Unsupervised children prey on each other every night in South Carolina group and foster homes, and the Social Services agency can’t seem to stop the abuse, according to child welfare experts, former foster children and group home employees.
“When you have a bunch of young folks, a bunch of people, in one area and there’s limited supervision, a lot of things can happen,” said Michael Gaskins, executive director of Greenwood County First Steps, a program that prepares young children for school. “It’s just like our jail — people get raped in our jail. It’s because there are so many inmates and not enough supervision.”
Deborah and Robert Butcher, Camden attorneys who represent Jane and Sam, said the Department of Social Services never treated either child properly for the trauma they suffered.
“They become adults and they will re-abuse,” Deborah Butcher said. “They then end up in jail and it’s expensive for our society one way or another. You get that child treated, even though it’s expensive … they stand a good chance of never abusing again, going on to be productive citizens. That’s not happening.”
By his own count, Sam molested nine children in state custody before he turned 16, including two older teenagers who were “slightly handicapped,” he said.
It worked both ways. In one large foster home, older kids made Jane watch as they molested Sam.
Sam said he eventually served five years, nine months and 19 days in a detention facility for raping his sister, even though he calls the abuse “naked rubbing against each other,” nothing more.
“If the opportunity arose, it happened. If it didn’t, it didn’t,” he said.
In a separate interview, Jane said she doesn’t blame her brother for the abuse.
“But there’s still those feelings,” she said. “It’s always going to be there. There are some things I cannot do with a partner because of that. There’s a lot of things I won’t do, that I’m too afraid to do because of it.”
Jane continued to suffer from sexual abuse even after the state locked Sam up. Years later, when she lived with a foster family in Orangeburg, a neighbor forced Jane into prostitution. Neither her foster parents nor her state caseworker were paying close attention, she said.
“There was this 23-year-old girl who was a lot bigger than me. She saw I wouldn’t take up for myself. She forced me and two other girls into prostitution,” Jane said.
“It was a lot of different times with three different guys,” she said. “They paid her. It depended on what they had me do. Certain things cost more than other things.”
Sam said he was released from prison on his 21st birthday, then sent back for fondling another child when he was 22 years old. He denies that he did anything wrong and plans to file a lawsuit against the state for its failure to treat him for sexual aggression 15 years ago, when he said he clearly needed help.
“Instead of building jails, we should be building rehabilitation,” he said. “You send me to jail, I’m not going there to learn from my mistakes. I’m going to learn how to do them better without getting caught.”
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.”
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.