COLUMBIA — Twenty-two-month-old Jaidon Morris was crying when his foster mother helped him into a state social worker’s car to take him back to his parents.
A week later, Jaidon was dead of a drug overdose.
“The last thing we had said to him was, ‘You’ll be OK,’ ” recalled Dione Scotti of Spartanburg, Jaidon’s foster mother for 10 months.
Today, five years later, Scotti says: “This cannot happen again.”
Since Jaidon’s death, Scotti has been the driving force behind a proposal to change S.C. law that governs when courts should terminate the rights of parents of abused children like Jaidon, who came to Scotti and her husband after the child suffered a fractured skull.
After Jaidon’s death, Scotti contacted state Rep. Mike Forrester, R-Spartanburg, pushing for change. Three times since 2009, including this year, Forrester has introduced a bill in the S.C. House to change state law.
Twice, it has failed.
The bill, called Jaidon’s Law, would give S.C. courts clearer guidelines on when to terminate parental rights, specifically in cases where parents or guardians have a history of child or drug abuse. The bill also would require substance-abusing parents to submit to drug testing and pass treatment programs as a condition of keeping their parental rights.
The state Department of Social Services – which removed Jaidon from Scotti and her husband after a judge ordered his return to his birth parents, against the recommendation of a court-appointed advocate – says that agency can’t discuss the 22-month-old’s death. A spokesperson said the agency’s mission is to ensure “safe and thriving children” are living “with life-long families.”
But Scotti, and other children’s advocates who are following Jaidon’s Law, say current laws leave too much discretion in the hands of judges, exposing children to potential harm if their birth parents lapse back into abuse or if children in foster care are moved too frequently between their parents and foster homes.
Jaidon’s Law would clarify for judges when to terminate parental rights, said Laura Hudson, director of the S.C. Crime Victim’s Council, who also serves on a state committee that reviews child deaths and looked into Jaidon’s.
In Jaidon’s case, a court-appointed child advocate recommended against Jaidon being returned to his parents. But a judge sent him home anyway, Hudson said, adding she does not know why.
Hudson said part of the problem is Social Services’ mission – “to always be for family reunification,” in her words.
“It should be for the best interest of the child 100 percent of the time,” Hudson said of the state agency. “That is where we as a state are missing the boat.”
For Scotti, the path forward is clear.
“I don’t believe he should have ever been sent home,” she said.
“This cannot happen again,” Scotti added. “If I could write the whole law I would.”
The call they dreaded
Jaidon was almost a year old when he was hospitalized with a fractured skull and a hemorrhaging retina, injuries sustained while in the care of an uncle who was a substance-abuser, said Hudson, reviewing details of the otherwise confidential case that already have been made public.
The state placed Jaidon in foster care – with Dione Scotti and her husband, Anthony – after the boy got out of the hospital.
The toddler’s parents had “a history of drug charges and failed to demonstrate their ability to protect (him),” Hudson said.
In 10 months of foster care, Jaidon was transformed from a frail child, not used to being held, into a healthy, happy, normal kid, Dione Scotti said.
Then, Dione and husband Anthony received the call they had been dreading, telling them that a judge said Jaidon should be returned to his birth parents.
Social workers picked Jaidon up within hours. The Scottis barely had time to gather Jaidon’s things, explain to their 4-year-old son what was going on and say goodbye.
The Scottis had been trying to adopt when they took Jaidon into foster care and had hoped they might be able to adopt the toddler. They had been there for Jaidon’s first steps, his first words, the appearance of his first tooth.
A week after Jaidon was returned to his parents, the Scottis received a call that Jaidon was back in the hospital and not doing well.
“He was just on life support,” Dione Scotti said of seeing Jaidon at the hospital, unresponsive and near death. “There was nothing there. It was horrible – one of the worst days of my life.
“How do you take that?”
Jaidon died from an overdose of hydrocodone, the active ingredient found in his grandmother’s prescription cough medicine. A powerful pain killer in the same family as morphine and heroin, hydrocodone can cause breathing problems and cardiac arrest, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
Last year, Jaidon’s grandmother, Donna Lynn Phillips, was convicted of homicide by child abuse and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Jamie Edward Morris, the child’s father, was found guilty of aiding and abetting homicide by child abuse and sentenced to eight years.
Doug Richardson, the assistant solicitor for Pickens and Greenville counties who prosecuted the case, said neither defendant ever admitted to giving Phillips’ prescription cough syrup to Jaidon.
“My theory was the child was fussy in their care, and they started to medicate him with cough medicine, probably just to make him sleep because they didn’t want to hear the child cry,” Richardson said.
Shortly before his death, Morris and Phillips returned Jaidon to his mother and told her the child needed to see the doctor. The mother said she checked his diaper the next morning.
Jaidon was unresponsive.
Current state law, Scotti says, removes children from parents or guardians to protect them. But that same law also ends up favoring those same parents, saying they should be reunited with their child, sometimes to the child’s detriment.
The proposed changes could have kept Jaidon from going home and saved his life, Scotti said.
Forrester’s bill would require the court to order parents and guardians who lose their children due to substance abuse to pass random drug testing and successfully complete a substance-abuse treatment program before regaining their parental rights. Failing a number of drug tests over a period of time would be grounds for losing parental rights.
The bill also would add to the law more specific definitions of abuse and neglect to include sexual abuse, reckless neglect and giving birth to a child who tests positive for drugs or fetal alcohol syndrome.
In cases where the court finds evidence of abuse and neglect, state law already requires that an abusive parent’s name must be added to a state registry of child abusers. Jaidon’s Law would eliminate the ability of Social Services to request a waiver to that requirement.
The bill also establishes hospitalization as a result of abuse or neglect as grounds for terminating parental rights.
‘A serious business’
Some child advocates following the bill say its language may need some adjusting.
References to medical diagnoses and testing – especially when used to determine whether a parent is fit to care for a child – need more scrutiny from the medical community to ensure scientific accuracy, said Olga Rosa, director of forensic pediatrics at the University of South Carolina.
Additionally, requiring substance-abusing parents to submit to drug tests and treatment plans — and pass them, or else lose their parental rights – only will work if parents have access to the services they need to be successful in their treatment programs, she said.
“Termination of parental rights is a serious business,” said Rosa, a child-abuse pediatrician who conducts medical evaluations in cases of suspected child abuse. “We have to be careful and be clear that we have provided the resources to the parents.”
Striking the right balance between protecting children and parents is difficult in proposals that could result in permanently breaking up families, said George Milner, board chairman for S.C. Children Come First, an advocacy group for abused, abandoned and neglected children.
There need to be “crisp guidelines as to when the General Assembly wants the parents’ rights to be terminated, so that these children can go ahead and get adopted” and get into a permanent home, Milner said.
“If this parent is not making substantive progress ... then you’ve got to go for termination,” Milner said.
Social Services “generally agrees” with the bill “and (also) believes that families and individuals who need services should have access to them,” said child welfare director Jessica Hank-Coulter.
‘He can be remembered’
For the Scottis, the aftermath of Jaidon’s death went beyond his funeral.
They awaited the resulting criminal charges and sat through the week-long criminal trial of the child’s father and grandmother.
Since Jaidon, the couple have served as foster parents to other children and have adopted a daughter.
Dione Scotti hopes one outcome of her efforts will be that more people will become involved in foster care. Now, there are “not enough people fighting for foster kids and fighting for changes in the system,” she said. “Somebody has to do it.”
After years of effort, Scotti now realizes how slow, and uncertain, the legislative process can be.
“It’s really devastating, just waiting and hoping and hoping,” she said. “There’s more changes (in state law) that really need to take effect.
“We’re trying to get something passed where he can be remembered,” she said. “If his life could change one other child, it would be worth it.”
Reach Self at (803)771-8658