Abuse allegations haunt lucrative group homes
By Lauren Sausser
‘One size doesn’t fit all”
State lawmakers agreed with Fendley that the issue is nuanced.
Sen. Tom Alexander, R-Walhalla, said South Carolina could use more foster families, but group homes should remain an important part of the mix.
“I think what you’ve got to have is a variety of options for the Department (of Social Services),” said Alexander, a member of the state Senate committee that reviews Social Services funding every year. “One size doesn’t fit all.”
The former Department of Social Services director didn’t see it that way, he said.
“It was almost like we were trying to dismantle the (group) homes,” he said. “Obviously I’m a tremendous supporter of foster parents and foster homes, but in every situation that’s not what’s available.”
A handful of small group homes in Alexander’s rural Upstate district make more than $5 million a year, tax records show. Some of them opened their doors decades ago and employ dozens of people in a region hit hard by the recent recession. Unemployment around Walhalla topped 14 percent a few years back.
“I know (group) homes that we have in our area, they’re very loving, they’re faith-based,” he said. “Ultimately, we’ve got to do what’s best for the children … I’m not interested in numbers and statistics driving what’s in their best interest.”
Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, a member of the Senate DSS Oversight Committee, said she wants to evaluate how the child welfare agency spends its money and where foster children should be sent, but she said overhauling Social Services may take several years.
“I think what we did several years ago, we eliminated some of our good group homes,” Shealy said. She doesn’t want to watch that happen again. “This is not something we can solve in one six-month session.”
When the Department of Social Services finally moved John Roe out of Boys Home of the South in 2005, his new foster mom noticed he needed help.
Roe wore diapers. He couldn’t control his bowel movements. A doctor wrote down in his medical record that the scars on his urethra suggested he had been sexually abused.
Abbeville attorney Heather Hite Stone, who also represents Roe, said he will likely need medical care and therapy for the rest of his life.
“He doesn’t want this to ever happen to any other kids and I don’t either,” Stone said. “It’s just really sad.”
But some child advocates say South Carolina isn’t trying hard enough to change the status quo.
They believe reducing the amount of money this state spends on group homes would immediately free up funds to recruit more foster families, some of whom now earn less than $13 a day to raise children in state custody.
Susan Alford, the new Department of Social Services director, said the agency needs to make it easier for potential foster families to sign up.
She said internal data indicates for every 1,000 families who express interest in fostering children in South Carolina, only 300 of them make it through the months-long process.
“One of the things we really want to do is get serious about foster care recruitment,” Alford said. “We do believe we need to have more foster homes for kids so they don’t have to go to group homes if we don’t think that’s the best treatment option for them.”