DSS evaluates procedure after error in Rock Hill child abuse case

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comJanuary 12, 2013 

  • How we got to this point 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.

    According to police records and interviews with DSS officials and the boy’s father:

    • The father, now 30, beat his son with a leather belt and wooden paddle. The beating caused several bruises on the boy’s upper arms, back, chest and torso, 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. 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 said the uncle put on a mask and began speaking in “scary voices” to frighten him. • The boy locked himself in a bathroom, but the uncle managed to get the door open and started hitting the boy in the head. 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.” • The boy returned home when the family decided to end an agreement with DSS that he would live temporarily with family members. DSS agreed with that decision. • That “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 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.

State social services officials are reviewing how caseworkers perform background checks when placing children after Rock Hill police said the agency did not request one for a convicted felon who later was charged with abusing his 8-year-old nephew.

“This case revealed our need to improve how we do background checks in these situations,” said Marilyn Matheus, spokeswoman for the state Department of Social Services. “We have recently been working with the Rock Hill Police Department on specific procedures to follow and training for our staff related to criminal history background checks.”

DSS did not take formal custody of the boy when he was taken from his father’s home in May after the father was charged with abusing him.

Instead, a caseworker agreed on a safety plan with the boy’s mother and father that temporarily placed him in the care of his uncle, Matheus told The Herald last week.

The uncle spent time in prison in 1995 for assault and battery with intent to kill after he pleaded guilty to throwing a concrete brick at a 21-year-old Rock Hill man, hitting him in the head and causing serious brain damage and two strokes.

The uncle was sentenced to 18 years in prison, but was released in 2006. In October, he, too, 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 had 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.

In all cases, caseworkers should refer to a potential custodian’s federal, state and local criminal background, Matheus said.

DSS initially told The Herald that a caseworker performed “preliminary checks” on the boy’s uncle, which 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.

But Lt. Brad Redfearn with the Rock Hill Police Department said this week that “there was no criminal history requested through our agency for that person through DSS.”

York County Clerk of Court David Hamilton, whose office performs criminal background checks for the sheriff’s office, said he would not immediately release information about whether DSS submitted such a request with the county.

It’s “more than likely,” Matheus said, that disciplinary action was taken against the caseworker who didn’t do the complete checks, but she declined to discuss what that action might have been, calling it a personnel matter.

“DSS has evidence that Rock Hill Police did share some type of information on (the uncle) with DSS,” Matheus said. “It is unclear what type of inquiry was made and when it was made.”

Police did give DSS two years’ worth of incident reports on the uncle, Redfearn said.

“A worker made an error when requesting information from the public records index before the placement, so the conviction did not show up,” Matheus said.

The public records index, which catalogues criminal charges and convictions, is made available to the public through the state Judicial Department.

“We are not satisfied that our staff thoroughly evaluated the criminal background” of the uncle, Matheus said. “We deeply regret this oversight.”

The Herald found the uncle’s felony conviction by checking records with the State Law Enforcement Division and the state Judicial Department. Both resources display the uncle’s assault and battery charge and later conviction.

DSS is still reviewing information “about inquiries our staff made,” Matheus said.

When DSS requests criminal history checks with the police department, Redfearn said, police turn to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a computerized storehouse offered to law enforcement through the FBI. Such checks return a person’s entire criminal record throughout the course of his lifetime.

Police agencies enter information into NCIC’s database, and that data remains there indefinitely.

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 the steps officials took when they first responded to the child’s home in May.

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 an inability to take care of children.

Jonathan McFadden 803-329-4082

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