.jpg photo of Founder Danny Gilbert
Eagle Harbor Ranch founder Danny Gilbert

Eagle Harbor Ranch: A case study in confusion
By Lauren Sausser

Eagle Harbor Ranch is tucked away on 80 acres in rural Berkeley County and looks like a lot of other group homes for children in South Carolina. It’s secluded and picturesque. Horse pastures are hedged by white fences and a man-made lake at the end of a long gravel road is stocked with fish.

Eagle Harbor Ranch founder Danny Gilbert called it the best children’s home in South Carolina.

“We’re not the largest facility or group home. We don’t have the most money in the bank, but I guarantee you this, for a ‘Level 1,’ we have the best program in the state,” Gilbert said.

Others disagree, including Jeannie Wilson, a former house parent at Eagle Harbor Ranch who left last year. She reported two allegations of child sexual abuse at the facility, but said state investigators failed to do their jobs and Gilbert tried his hardest to keep the claims under wraps — an allegation he denies.

They offer competing points of view, and the public has no real way to determine who is telling the truth.

More than 100 group homes and institutions are scattered across South Carolina, and the state spends tens of millions of dollars every year sending children — most of them part of the foster care system — into these facilities. But what happens to them there is shielded by privacy laws that keep everyone, including their own parents, in the dark.

Department of Social Services Director Susan Alford said these cases are kept secret for children’s confidentiality.

“We just have to be very, very careful about protecting kids’ identities,” she said.

Still, Eagle Harbor’s story shows how difficult it is for the tax-paying public to find out how children are treated in these homes and how the state monitors their safety.

The Department of Social Services has investigated seven allegations of abuse or neglect at Eagle Harbor Ranch since it opened in 2004. It would not disclose how many of those cases it could prove because the results of the investigations are protected by state law, an agency attorney explained in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Post and Courier.

Gilbert said all seven of the allegations were unsubstantiated.
Wilson, who worked as a house parent at Eagle Harbor for four years, said she spoke up after learning that a child was forced to perform oral sex on another boy at the group home. She said she reported the abuse to the front office, and eventually to the Department of Social Services.

“At least three children knew about it and one child guarded the door and made sure nobody came out,” she said.

Social Services investigators never asked the right questions, she said, and the probe hit a wall.

“I kept asking, ‘What’s the outcome? What’s the outcome?’ … ‘I have all these witnesses,’ ” she said. “That went nowhere.”

Wilson said she also believes at least one former employee sexually abused a boy at Eagle Harbor. She reported her suspicions to the director, but said he wanted to keep her concerns secret.

Gilbert denied her claims and wrote Wilson’s allegations off as the complaints of a disgruntled ex-employee.

“I am confident that we’re doing an excellent job,” he said.
Justin Parker, who lived at Eagle Harbor Ranch for four years as a foster child, agreed with Gilbert.

“I didn’t want to leave. I loved it there,” said Parker, now 23 years old. “I don’t think there is anywhere else that could do any better, as far as giving you a normal life.”

Teresa Abercrombie, another former Eagle Harbor house parent, corroborated Wilson’s version of events.

“Part of the reason we left was because one of the children in the house had been a sexual predator and we had a six-month-old son,” Abercrombie said. “I have nightmares about the place.”

Neither woman believes children are safe at the group home.

“It’s very disgusting,” Wilson said. “I believe with all my heart it may have started out to do the kids good, but I think greed got in the way.”


.jpg photo of map of South Carolina and group homes
Boys Home of the South closed in 2014, following a high profile sex abuse lawsuit

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.”

‘Really sad’

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.”

Five Too Many.™

,jpg photo of poster to reduce Child Abuse and fatalities
5 Children die every day as a result of child abuse

At Childhelp, we feel strongly that if we all work together we can help bring this number from five to zero.

Close to 5 Children die every day as a result of child abuse in the United States.

“However, studies also indicate significant undercounting of child maltreatment fatalities by state agencies — by 50% or more.”

Child Abuse Statistics & Facts

Scope of the Child Abuse Issue

Children are suffering from a hidden epidemic of child abuse and neglect. It’s a widespread war against our children that we have the power to stop, and understanding the issue is the first step. Just how bad is the issue of child abuse in the United States?

Every year more than 3 million reports of child abuse are made in the United States involving more than 6 million children (a report can include multiple children).

The United States has one of the worst records among industrialized nations – losing on average between four and seven children every day to child abuse and neglect.

A report of a child abuse is made every ten seconds.

Did you know 5 children die every day due to child abuse and neglect?

Yearly, referrals to state child protective services involve 6.3 million children, and around 3 million of those children are subject to an investigated report.

In 2012, state agencies found an estimated 686,000 victims of child maltreatment, 3 but that only tells part of the story.

This would pack 10 modern football stadiums

Health Impacts of Child Abuse

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention links adverse childhood experiences (which include other household dysfunctions along with abuse and neglect) with a range of long-term health impacts.

Individuals who reported six or more adverse childhood experiences had an average life expectancy two decades shorter than those who reported none.

Individuals who reported six or more adverse childhood experiences had an average life expectancy two decades shorter than those who reported none.

Ischemic heart disease (IHD), Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), liver disease and other health-related quality of life issues are tied to child abuse.

Mental Health Disorders, Addictions, & Related Issues

  • Risk for intimate partner violence
  • Alcoholism and alcohol abuse
  • Illicit drug abuse
  • Smoking & drinking at an early age
  • Depression
  • Suicide attempts

Sexual & Reproductive Health Issues and Risk Factors

  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Unintended pregnancies
  • Early initiation of sexual activity
  • Adolescent pregnancy and Fetal death

In one study, 80% of 21-year-olds who reported childhood abuse met the criteria for at least one psychological disorder.

Financial Impacts of Child Abuse

The long-term financial impact of abuse and neglect is staggering.

For new cases in 2008 alone, lifetime estimates of lost worker productivity, health care costs, special education costs, child welfare expenditures and criminal justice expenditures added up to $124 billion.

This could send 1.7 million children to college

Child Abuse Fatalities

We must learn to recognize early signs of abuse in order to help save the 5 children that die every day from child abuse and neglect.

In 2012, state agencies identified an estimated 1,640 children who died as a result of abuse and neglect — between four and five children a day. However, studies also indicate significant undercounting of child maltreatment fatalities by state agencies — by 50% or more.

That’s roughly ¼ of your child’s elementary school class.

More than 70% of the children who died as a result of child abuse or neglect were two years of age or younger. More than 80% were not yet old enough for kindergarten.

Around 80% of child maltreatment fatalities involve at least one parent as perpetrator.

4.5 Estimated Child Fatalities Per Day Attributed to Child Maltreatment.

Behavioral Health and Crime Related to Child Abuse

Substance Abuse and child maltreatment are tragically and undeniably linked.

In a study of 513 children exposed to drugs in-utero, rates of abuse were two to three times that of other children in the same geographical area.

As many as two-thirds of the people in treatment for drug abuse reported being abused or neglected as children.

14% of all men in prison and 36% of women in prison in the USA were abused as children, about twice the frequency seen in the general population.

Children who experience child abuse & neglect are about 9 times more likely to become involved in criminal activity.

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1. CDC, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study
2. Child Maltreatment, 2012
3. Kids Count
4. CDC, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study
5. Brown, D. et. al. Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Risk of Premature Mortality; Am. J. of Preventative Medicine (2009) Vol. 37, Iss. 5
6. Amy B. Silverman, Helen Z. Reinherz, Rose M. Giaconia, The long-term sequelae of child and adolescent abuse: A longitudinal community study, Child Abuse & Neglect, Volume 20, Issue 8, August 1996, Pages 709-723.
7. Hillis, SD, Anda, RF, et. al. The association between adverse childhood experiences and adolescent pregnancy, long-term psychosocial consequences, and fetal death. Pediatrics; 2004 Feb; 113(2):320-7
8. Fang, X., et al. The economic burden of child maltreatment in the United States and implications for prevention. Child Abuse & Neglect (2012), doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2011.10.006
9. Jaudes, P. K., Ekwo, E., & Van Voorhis, J. (1995). Association of drug abuse and child abuse. Child Abuse and Neglect, 19(9), 1065-1075.
10. GAO
11. Swan, N. (1998). Exploring the role of child abuse on later drug abuse: Researchers face broad gaps in information. NIDA Notes, 13(2).
12. Harlow, CW. Prior Abuse Reported by Inmates and Probationers. Washington, DC: US Dept. of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999