DSS criminal background check incomplete in Rock Hill child abuse case

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comJanuary 5, 2013 

  • Why ‘kinship placement’? There are 54,000 children in some type of kinship care in the state, according to a 2012 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization that helps disadvantaged children.

    “Studies have shown that kin care increases child safety, stability…and well-being,” said Sue Williams, executive director for the Children’s Trust of South Carolina, a nonprofit organization aiming to prevent child abuse, neglect and injury. “It holds family bonds and promotes stronger family reunification.

    “Keeping a child with extended family or friends, when appropriate, helps the child maintain their identity, their culture and their sense of family.”

    “Everyone working on behalf of an at-risk child needs to fully communicate, share information and act quickly in the best interest of the child,” Williams said. “The complete picture of what is going on in a child’s life comes together with full disclosure from family, teachers, health care providers, law enforcement, social services.”

— York County’s office of the state Department of Social Services agreed to place an 8-year-old Rock Hill boy into the care of his uncle – a convicted felon – without doing a comprehensive background check on the uncle, agency officials confirmed on Friday.

The boy had been removed last year from his father’s home after allegations of abuse. But DSS officials didn’t take custody of the boy or formally place him with the uncle, spokeswoman Marilyn Matheus said. Instead, they “immediately” agreed on a “safety plan” with the boy’s parents, who decided that their son should temporarily stay with his uncle.

But the uncle had spent time in prison for assault and battery with intent to kill.

The county caseworker investigating the abuse ran a local criminal history check on the uncle, Matheus said, but did not check his criminal past with state or federal agencies.

In October, the uncle, 36, also was charged with abusing the boy.

The Herald is not naming any family members involved in the case to protect the boy’s identity.

DSS only played an “intervention” role in the case, Matheus said, instead of actually taking custody of the child. DSS’ kinship placement policy lets the family recommend relatives who can take care of their children when they’re taken from a home, officials say.

“The child never left his family,” Matheus said. “The family knows more about family members” than DSS.

Before those relatives take custody of the child, DSS is supposed to conduct federal, state and local criminal background checks on them and check to see if they’re listed on a sex offender registry, said Kathleen McLean-Titus, DSS’ human services coordinator.

“We have to rely on the information we have at the time,” she said, “and we hope it’s accurate.”

In this case, a DSS case worker ran “preliminary checks” on the boy’s uncle, Matheus said, which only looked at his criminal history with the Rock Hill Police Department and York County Sheriff’s Office. Records at both agencies didn’t show the man’s criminal activities from the 1990s, she said.

State DSS officials began investigating the county office’s handling of the case after receiving questions from The Herald. That investigation, Matheus said, included scrutinizing steps and procedures officials took when they first responded to the child’s home in May.

The Herald found the uncle’s felony conviction by checking records with the State Law Enforcement Division and the state Judicial Department.

Court records show the uncle pleaded guilty in 1995 to assault and battery with intent to kill after he threw a concrete brick at a 21-year-old Rock Hill man’s car, hitting him in the head. The uncle was sentenced to 18 years in prison, but was released in 2006.

According to the original arrest warrant, the brick caused extensive injury to the man’s brain. He was hospitalized with serious injuries at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, court records show, and the man suffered two major strokes before he lapsed into a coma.

In all cases, caseworkers should refer to a potential custodian’s federal, state and local criminal background, Matheus said. It’s “more than likely,” she said, that disciplinary action was taken against the caseworker who didn’t do the complete checks.

Matheus said she could not discuss what that action might have been, calling it a personnel matter.

When abused children are taken out of a home, social services agents should place them with relatives when possible to avoid foster care placement, according to guidelines at the Children’s Law Office at the University of South Carolina School Of Law.

Certain factors, such as child protective services history and state and federal criminal background checks, cannot be waived, DSS guidelines state.

If a potential custodian has any kind of crime against a person on his record, Matheus said, DSS policy prohibits workers from leaving the child with that person unless the charge has been expunged, or if the criminal allegations don’t indicate their inability to take care of children.

“They should be ruled out,” McLean-Titus said. If a mistake is made, “we are supposed to fix the situation.”

Subhead

The family’s case began May 2, when a Rock Hill parks employee told police the boy, then 7, had several large bruises on his arms and back. The boy told the employee his father had spanked him after he got into trouble at school.

Police said the father, now 30, beat his son with a leather belt and wooden paddle, according to an arrest warrant. The beating caused several bruises on the boy’s upper arms, back, chest and torso, the warrant states, as well as several cuts on his back from splinters on the paddle.

Two days later, the boy’s father was arrested and charged with unlawful conduct toward a child, another police report shows. He was released from jail on bond the next day. The charge is still pending.

After the father’s arrest, the boy went to live with his uncle.

About a month later, on June 21, the boy told a DSS caseworker his uncle had abused him.

The case worker told police the boy alleged that the uncle put on a mask and began speaking in “scary voices” to frighten him, reports show.

The boy locked himself in a bathroom, but the uncle managed to get the door open and started hitting the boy in the head, a police report states. He hit the boy in the eye, leaving him with a bruised right eye and red marks on his head.

At that point, the boy was placed in his grandmother’s care.

The DSS caseworker reported the boy’s allegation against the uncle to police on July 17, and police began a criminal investigation.

In August, DSS restored custody of the boy to his parents just after school restarted. The parents agreed to abide by a “safety plan,” agency officials said, but they did not elaborate on the plan.

The boy “returned home when the family decided to end an agreement with DSS that he would live temporarily with family members,” Matheus said. “DSS staff assessed the situation” and agreed with the family’s decision.

The boy’s father told The Herald the “safety plan” included DSS monitoring while the father attended anger management classes and the boy received counseling.

On Oct. 13, police arrested the boy’s uncle and charged him with unlawful conduct toward a child stemming from the June 21 allegation of abuse. The charge is still pending.

Two weeks later, DSS removed the boy and his three siblings – two boys, ages 4 and 7, and a 9-year-old girl – from the parents’ home after the 8-year-old made another abuse allegation against his father.

When DSS took all four children from their father and mother in October, they placed them in foster homes in Clover and Lancaster, the father said.

The 8-year-old told a caseworker his father had hit him in the chest and threatened to tell people he was a liar if he reported the incident.

The four children were returned to their parents in November, and that case was closed when a judge determined officials didn’t have probable cause to take the children from the home in the first place. No charges were filed in connection with that allegation.

The father told The Herald in a recent interview that he was only disciplining his son in May, when the abuse is alleged to have happened. He said his son makes up stories and misbehaves at home and school.

He feels that he was arrested “for being a father,” he said, and he denies the arrest warrant’s allegations that splinters from the paddle he used cut his son’s skin.

The day the boy’s father allegedly abused him, he had been suspended from school, his dad said.

“So yeah, I gave him a whupping,” the father said, but not with a belt that left bruises. “If I don’t chastise my son, he’ll be doing something out in the streets.”

Jonathan McFadden 803-329-4082

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