WAREHOUSING OUR CHILDREN
South Carolina laws hide child abuse inside group homes
By Lauren Sausser on Jul 23, 2015 Email @laurenmsausser
Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.
An untold number of foster children in South Carolina custody are neglected, drugged, beaten and molested in group homes and institutions where the state warehouses them for millions of dollars a year at taxpayer expense.
Read the Series
Part I: Warehousing our Children: How South Carolina laws hide child abuse inside group homes
Part II: Brother repeatedly rapes sister, blames DSS
Part III: Group homes pull in millions every year from taxpayers
Part IV: Eagle Harbor Ranch: A case study in confusion
Part V: Advocates doubt plan to pull children out of institutions will work
Part VI: Other states reduce dependence on group homes
What's more, South Carolina keeps the abuse these children suffer secret by using state laws that shield group homes from almost any scrutiny.
Court records shed light on some of the worst cases, but this state-sanctioned secrecy makes it impossible for the public to weigh the difference between well-run group homes and those that resemble a Dickensian orphanage. Even parents who reluctantly send their children to these facilities for treatment can't figure out how to keep them safe behind closed doors.
When Jessica Freeman placed her daughter in Springbrook Behavioral Health last year, she had no idea the state had investigated the Greenville County home 95 times since 2000 for possible abuse and neglect — more than almost any other residential treatment facility in South Carolina. That's because the state Department of Social Services doesn't make the few records that are public readily accessible.
Freeman pulled her daughter from the facility last fall after a therapist told her that several Springbrook staff members had beaten an autistic child in an incident caught on a security camera.
“That's ridiculous,” Freeman said. “You can report a bad hamburger easier than you can report someone abusing your child.”
Springbrook administrator Mike Rowley would not discuss any specific case, but said most allegations made against the facility are cleared by the Department of Social Services.
“If we have anything substantiated, those employees are immediately terminated,” Rowley said. “We don't want them around other children.”
Two Springbrook employees have been fired for child abuse or neglect in the last three years, he said.
Despite stories such as Freeman's, South Carolina continues to send its youngest foster children into group homes and institutions at a higher rate than any other state in the country, federal data shows. This trend persists even though a growing body of evidence points out that children should grow up with their own families or in foster homes.
What are group homes, institutions?
According to the South Carolina Department of Social Services, “group or congregate care is designed to meet the needs of children/youth who are unable to live at home or in a foster family and require temporary care in a group setting.”
Some of these facilities, often called “children's homes,” are vestiges of old orphanages and they provide a variety of different services.
For example, “Level 3” group homes offer behavioral health treatment for children, while “Level 1” group homes generally keep children without any mental health diagnoses.
Most children in group homes in South Carolina have been placed there by the Department of Social Services as part of the foster system.
Institutions, such as psychiatric residential treatment facilities, are designed to offer an even higher level of care for children with more severe behavioral health needs.
Some children in group homes and institutions are considered “private placements.” Their parents retain legal custody, but have decided to place them in these facilities for treatment.
Haley's office directed questions about the lawsuit to the Department of Social Services.
Alford would not discuss the pending litigation. “Those are things that I just can't talk about,” she said.
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.”
Susan Alford, the new Department of Social Services director, said she’s focusing on foster children’s safety and well-being. She also wants to find permanent living situations for them. She admitted that DSS places too many children under 13 years old in group homes. —Paul Zoeller/Staff
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.”
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.
Charleston County School district educators teach some of the children staying at Windwood Farm in a red school house built on the Awendaw property. Other children who live at this group home attend regular, community schools. —Brad Nettles/Staff
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.”
Brother repeatedly rapes sister, blames DSS
Susan Alford, the new DSS director, said she worries about the safety of children in the foster care system. The agency is currently being sued by a woman who says that DSS failed to protect her from her brother who raped her repeatedly as the agency moved them in and out of group homes and foster homes for years. Alford would not discuss any pending litigation. FILE/PAUL ZOELLER/STAFF
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.”
Abuse allegations haunt lucrative group homes
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.”
'Incredibly powerful' industry
More than 7,000 group homes and orphanages for children across the country pull in about $8.8 billion a year and employ almost 130,000 people, according to an industry report published last year by IBISWorld, a national research firm.
More than 67 percent of this money comes from government contributions and grants.
In South Carolina, the Department of Social Services spent more than $28 million in the 2014 fiscal year placing almost a quarter of all foster children in more than 90 group homes across the state.
Before Boys Home of the South closed in 2014, the Department of Social Services paid the group home nearly $3 million in five years, but other group homes typically make much more.
The Connie Maxwell Children's Home in Greenwood made about $11 million in 2013 from several revenue sources, according to public tax records. Epworth Children's Home in Columbia made $6.8 million. Thornwell Home for Children in Clinton made $8 million. This group home and its related organizations, affliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), compensated its president $196,000 in 2013 — $90,000 more than Gov. Nikki Haley's salary.
“There's a built-in source of waste that could be used to fund more supportive foster homes for these kids,” said Ira Lustbader, the litigation director for Children's Rights, a national advocacy group. “Something is just way out of whack in South Carolina on this issue.”
Sue Berkowitz, executive director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, said group homes make so much money because their interests are well represented by lobbyists and lawmakers.
“It's no different than nursing homes. It's more humane and cheaper for us to have community, long-term care and to keep elderly and severely disabled people in their homes, yet the nursing home lobby is incredibly powerful,” Berkowitz said. “Some of them have been just absolutely horrendous.”
Group homes are entitled to make money, she said, but children have been hurt and she doesn't think the state is doing enough to protect them.
“We're not doing what we need to do up front to figure out who needs to go where and how they should be placed,” she said.
Some state leaders, including former Department of Social Services Director Lillian Koller, tried to reduce the number of children sent to live in group homes with limited success.
In 2009 and 2010, a handful of these group homes in South Carolina closed, and others were forced to scale back operations.
These closures illustrated a national trend. Similar facilities in other states also shut their doors as the number of children in foster care dropped across the country and as federal funding and private donations dwindled. Best practices indicated children were better off living with families anyway. Koller supported this shift away from group homes.
Deborah McKelvey, the executive director of Windwood Farm in Awendaw, remembered Koller and her deputy director addressing group home employees at an industry meeting in 2011. “They said, 'We don't value what you provide any more. We don't need you.' ”
McKelvey estimated more than 500 group home “beds” in South Carolina were lost over a five-year period.
“Probably a couple of years ago, they really started making the push that they didn't want kids in residential placements,” she said. “They used words like 'languish' — like (group homes) were torture chambers. They're not.”
Koller resigned last year amid political uproar that the agency was grossly mismanaged and that children were dying on her watch.
Since then, some group homes in South Carolina have bounced back. McKelvey said Windwood is running at full capacity these days.
“Now, an influx of kids are coming in,” she said. “Our phone does not stop ringing all day long.”
All 15 group home beds at Windwood are filled with children in state custody.
“I hear and read enough horror stories to know that (group homes) are not all good,” McKelvey said. “But there's certainly a place and a need for group homes, for residential care like we have here.”
Paula Fendley, who represents many group homes in South Carolina as executive director of the Palmetto Association of Children and Families, said the whole Social Services agency needs reform. Group homes, which she estimates employ thousands of people in this state, aren't the problem.
“We need all kinds of levels of care,” Fendley said. “We need to stop demonizing DSS and stop demonizing providers and demonizing advocates and all figure out what we need to do, instead of just blaming everything on DSS.”
'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.”
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.”
Continue reading: Advocates doubt plan to pull children out of institutions will work
Will pulling children from institutions work?
COLUMBIA — Stephanie Trevitz adopted one child, then another, and finally four more from the South Carolina foster care system.
“I was afraid that if we didn't adopt them they would go to a group home,” she said.
But when her son Jake developed a sexual obsession with his sister two years ago, she and her husband found themselves turning to a group home as a last resort for help.
Jake poked a hole in his sister's bedroom wall. He stole a pair of her underwear. He searched the Internet for sibling pornography and wrote pages and pages of stories about having sex with her before his parents decided they couldn't manage him anymore.
“We couldn't punish him for it. He's mentally ill,” Trevitz said. “We had to watch him 24/7. It was 10 months. It was horrible ... I was screaming for help.”
Trevitz's story illustrates the dilemma South Carolina parents face as they try to care for a troubled child they can't control, a child who could pose a danger to others.
There aren't enough resources in the community to treat children like these, so Trevitz and other parents say they had no other option but to check their sons and daughters into psychiatric residential treatment facilities — decisions that left them dispirited and conflicted.
Some state leaders say South Carolina should offer families a better, at-home alternative for their troubled children. But even supporters of the idea question whether it could actually work.
A fledgling project called the Palmetto Coordinated System of Care would keep children with severe behavioral health problems out of group homes and institutions and offer them the same services at home, or at church and school.
The state Medicaid agency hired Gywnne Goodlett to set up the Palmetto Coordinated System of Care last year. She said the program — still just an idea — is based on the premise that medical professionals and therapists can treat these children in the community, allowing them to live at home rather than locked up inside expensive group
“If you do this right, you save money,” Goodlett said.
It costs the state Medicaid agency approximately $100,000 a year to house one child like Jake in psychiatric residential treatment.
“How much can you do for a family with $100,000? A ton! You can probably serve two families or three families,” Goodlett said.
The Palmetto Coordinated System of Care would also provide parents with relief workers to give them time away from home and “crisis stabilization” experts who are better trained than police to handle mental health emergencies — like a meltdown in the supermarket or a fistfight between siblings.
Group homes occasionally are necessary, Goodlett acknowledged, but this doesn't explain why South Carolina spends millions of dollars on some children who languish for years in these institutions.
“The month of their 19th birthday, they leave the facility and go to a homeless shelter,” she said. “And what did we create? Someone who knows how to live in an institution and does not know how to live on their own.”
Federal law demands that children, even the most difficult ones to raise, live in the “least restrictive” setting possible. But some child advocates argue that the Palmetto Coordinated System of Care won't work. They say it's unrealistic, that some children just can't function in a normal family setting.
“It sounds good on paper. It looks good on paper. I helped create it and it still doesn't meet the needs of my own family member,” said Kelly Troyer, whose adult son lives in a group home in West Ashley.
Troyer participated in a flurry of meetings last year to develop the Palmetto Coordinated System of Care. She now doubts it will succeed. Troyer also had to send her son away from home when she couldn't control his outbursts. He is diagnosed with autism, a mild intellectual disability and bipolar disorder.
Paula Fendley, executive director of the Palmetto Association for Children and Families, attended some of those meetings, too, and expressed serious doubts about the Palmetto Coordinated System of Care. Fendley's association represents many group homes in South Carolina.
“At some point, we have to critically think through whether the 'least restrictive level of care doctrine' makes sense for South Carolina,” Fendley said. “We shouldn't just go to the lowest possible level of care first, and allow children to fail their way up to the higher levels of care. That makes no sense.”
The state wants to reduce the amount of money it spends on costly residential treatment facilities, Fendley said, but some children with severe behavioral health problems will always be safer in group homes that offer intense, on-site services. The Palmetto Coordinated System of Care doesn't acknowledge this reality, she said.
“To me, it's just a cost avoidance model, really,” she said. “It's not about 'What does this child and family need?' ”
Children prone to starting fires, those who have been sexually abused or have threatened to hurt themselves can't be treated in the community, some experts say. They're too dangerous.
Trevitz, for example, and her husband couldn't deal with Jake on their own. Now he lives at Palmetto Summerville Behavioral Health, a residential treatment facility that offers around-the-clock services for children and adolescents with severe emotional needs.
“We had tried everything else. We knew with Jake that this was beyond our ability to handle in the house,” Trevitz said. “I'm exhausted. I'm tired.”
Other states have tried to implement similar “coordinated systems of care” with varying success. The Palmetto Coordinated System of Care is based on a Louisiana model that's already saddled with problems, said Sara Godchaux, a New Orleans attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“I think that really it hasn't lived up to what it's supposed to be on paper, for a multitude of reasons,” she said.
There aren't enough relief workers, crisis stabilization experts and other health care providers in Louisiana who offer this kind of in-home treatment, Godchaux explained. And the state doesn't pay them enough to participate.
“The kids are enrolled in this program but there are no services,” she said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center sent the federal government a letter last year outlining its concerns with the Louisiana model.
South Carolina might face some of the same problems, Goodlett said. The state is trying to roll out the Palmetto Coordinated System of Care slowly and thoughtfully, but Goodlett doesn't know how many children will qualify to participate or when their families can start signing up for services. That likely won't happen this year.
“I think it's going to take longer than that,” she said. “I'm frustrated. I'm a very impatient person by nature, and I wanted it yesterday.”
Other states reduce dependence on group homes
About twenty two percent of South Carolina's children in state custody live in a group setting — much higher than the national average of 14 percent. The bedrooms at Eagle Harbor Ranch, located in rural Berkeley County, house two clients to a room.
Five years ago, some of the problems plaguing Connecticut's Department of Children and Families could have been ripped right from South Carolina's playbook.
Children were dying. Caseworkers were overloaded. Foster families were in short supply.
The agency perpetually resisted change, despite a class action lawsuit settlement that required sweeping reform.
The Connecticut department's most “urgent focus” was the high number of children in group homes, according to a report published earlier this year by the Annie E. Casey Foundation called “The Connecticut Turnaround.”
Gov. Dan Malloy, a Democrat elected to Connecticut's highest office in 2010, wanted to decrease the number of children in group settings and increase family placements — and he appointed a new commissioner to the Department of Children and Families to make it happen.
“From the get go, I remember them appearing on the local NPR station, speaking specifically, in a focused way, about those twin goals,” said Gary Kleeblatt, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. “That was at the top of their agenda.”
On Jan. 1, 2011, about a third of the 4,780 children in Connecticut's custody lived in group homes.
In fact, more than 350 of those children lived in out-of-state group homes because Connecticut had run out of available beds.
Four years later, those numbers have been cut in half. Now, fewer than 16 percent of children in state custody in Connecticut live in a group home.
In South Carolina, about 22 percent of children in state custody live in a group setting — much higher than the national average of 14 percent.
Federal data shows South Carolina places about a quarter of its youngest foster children — those below 13 years old — into group homes and institutions when they enter the system. The national average for this age group is only 4 percent. South Carolina's placement rate for these children is the highest in the country.
“We know kids do better with families,” said Kristina Stevens, administrator of clinical services for the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. “The research is abundantly clear.”
Making the change in Connecticut wasn't easy, she said. “You'd like to flip a switch and do it all at one time, but you can't.”
First, the department focused on reconnecting the youngest children in state custody with relatives or friends. More than 30 percent of children in state custody in Connecticut now live with relatives or close kin, compared to 21 percent four years ago.
This shift automatically lowered the number of children in group homes and it also reduced the total number of children in state custody.
“These are two trends that go hand in hand,” Stevens said. “I don't think you can stress enough how interrelated those things are.”
Also, by reducing the amount Connecticut spent on group homes, the state was able to reinvest some money into “community-based services” that allow children to live at home or with relatives. Those services include in-home or in-school therapy sessions.
Kleeblatt said Connecticut will spend an estimated $129 million on group homes during the 2015 fiscal year, about $63 million less than the state spent four years ago.
Connecticut isn't the only state that recently made progress on this front. Tennessee also drastically reduced the number of children living in group homes.
In 2000, 28 percent of children entering the Tennessee foster care system were placed into one of these facilities. Now, more than 90 percent live in family settings.
Children's Rights, a national advocacy group, forced the Tennessee and Connecticut child welfare systems to make these changes by filing separate class action lawsuits against the states.
In January, Children's Rights filed a federal lawsuit against South Carolina on behalf of 11 foster care children.
The South Carolina complaint cites federal data that shows South Carolina places its youngest foster children in group homes and institutions at a higher rate than any other state in the country.
Ira Lustbader, the litigation director of Children's Rights, called both Tennessee and Connecticut success stories.
“That takes a strong shift in priority to recognize that (group homes are) harming kids,” Lustbader said. “South Carolina has just stubbornly not taken that on for whatever reason.”