Uncle says he never hit Rock Hill child at center of DSS probe

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comMarch 23, 2013 

— He says he only meant to scare the boy.

Instead, the uncle of an 8-year-old Rock Hill boy at the center of a Department of Social Services investigation that led to a caseworker’s suspension and his father’s arrest says he has been labeled a “monster” after police charged him with hitting his nephew, leaving him with cuts and bruises.

On Friday, the uncle pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of cruelty to children and received credit for time he had already served in jail.

He had been charged with unlawful conduct toward a child, a felony.

Last summer, when the boy was 7, he was sent to live with his uncle after the boy said his father abused him with a belt and paddle. A York County DSS caseworker agreed to place the boy with the uncle, a convicted felon.

The caseworker violated DSS policies when she failed to properly check the uncle’s criminal history, which shows that in 1995 he was sentenced to 18 years in prison after pleading guilty to assault and battery with intent to kill. He spent nine years in state prison before his release in 2006.

DSS policies prohibit any person convicted of a violent crime against a person from taking custody of a child, agency officials said.

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

After The Herald began asking questions about the placement error, DSS began investigating the case. In January, officials suspended the caseworker for three days without pay, according to agency documents obtained by The Herald using the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

The caseworker has since returned to work.

After living with his uncle for a month, the boy alleged that he put on a scary mask and punched him in the head.

But the uncle told The Herald in an interview last week that he never hit his nephew, though he admits to putting on a mask to spook him.

“I am not a monster,” he said.

The night he was alleged to have hit his nephew, the uncle said, he confronted the boy about a “bad report” he received from a Rock Hill Parks and Recreation summer camp. When the boy went to get into the shower, the uncle said, he put on a mask and peeked around the corner into the bathroom.

He made a scary noise, he said, causing his nephew to jump out of the shower and hit his head on the door.

The uncle’s fiancé, who was at the home working a jigsaw puzzle, told him to leave the boy alone, he said, so he did.

The next day, his fiancé took the boy back to the summer camp, where a staff member noticed that the boy had a black eye, according to a letter signed by the camp director and submitted to a Rock Hill Police detective.

According to the letter, obtained recently by The Herald, the boy told a staff member he got the black eye after his uncle hit him. The boy repeated the accusation to the director and said his uncle often scares him at night with Halloween masks, sometimes appearing in windows or popping out from around corners.

The uncle told The Herald that he has collected scary masks as a hobby for many years. The mask he scared the boy with is white with a long scar etched from the base of the skull toward the mouth, which is sewn shut.

Family members – including his nephew – know he keeps the masks in his playroom, the uncle said.

“He didn’t have a mark on him,” he said.

“There was no mark on him at all.”

When DSS caseworkers arrived at his home, the uncle said, he told them he didn’t hit his nephew, maintaining that the boy had been in a fight at summer camp.

DSS reported the abuse allegation to police in July, police records show. In early August, detectives interviewed the boy and he again maintained that his uncle scared him and “smacked” his head against a wall. He also told police his uncle shouted, “I’m a grown man. You do what I tell you to do,” according to a court summary written by Rock Hill Police detectives and recently obtained by The Herald.

Police spoke with the uncle soon after, according to the document, and he told them that he didn’t know about his nephew’s injuries, aside from a possible bruise to the head after falling behind the bathroom door.

In October, the uncle was arrested on an outstanding warrant for unlawful neglect toward a child, according to police records. He also was charged with possession of marijuana and released from jail a week later.

The possession charge was later dismissed. The Herald’s attempts to reach the uncle over several months were unsuccessful, until last week.

When police arrested the uncle, all four of his brother’s children were spending the night at his home because their father was in the hospital, the uncle said. The children stayed with his fiancé once he was jailed.

In January, a magistrate upheld the unlawful conduct toward a child accusation against the uncle, said the uncle’s attorney, B.J. Barrowclough, deputy 16th Circuit Court public defender.

During that hearing, Barrowclough argued that when DSS interviewed the uncle in June, they noted little to no injuries on the boy.

Barrowclough acknowledged that using a mask to scare the boy might have been “inappropriate,” but it didn’t fit the criteria for unlawful conduct toward a child, a felony carrying up to 10 years in prison upon conviction.

Under state law, a person found guilty of the charge must have placed the child at “unreasonable risk of harm,” affecting the child’s physical or mental health or safety.

On Friday, the uncle pleaded guilty to cruelty to children, a misdemeanor carrying up to 30 days in jail. He received credit for the time he served in jail after his October arrest.

He continues to deny hitting his nephew, Barrowclough said.

Lisa Collins, the 16th Circuit solicitor prosecuting the case, said she thought the charge was appropriate, agreeing that the boy’s injuries were “faint.”

DSS and law enforcement acted correctly when taking the boy’s allegation seriously, Collins said, but after she investigated further, she determined that the uncle didn’t maliciously try to harm his nephew.

“The bulk of the charge boiled down to the...hideous mask,” she said.

The boy was already in an emotionally fragile state, Collins said, and scaring him repeatedly with a mask after he had been taken out of his father’s home was “cruel” – but not abuse.

The uncle’s actions “constituted a lack of judgment or maturity,” she said. His conviction nearly 20 years ago did not play a role in his being charged in connection with the boy’s allegations, she said.

“DSS said they felt (the uncle) was a good caregiver to the child, but exercised a lack of judgment or empathy to the child,” she said.

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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