Child killers might be getting away with murder in South Carolina because the State Law Enforcement Division doesn’t have enough officers to review child deaths. Finding the money to hire those officers should be a top priority for returning lawmakers in January.
SLED Chief Mark Keel has asked the Legislature for $475,136 to hire four new officers for the agency’s Child Fatality Unit, a specialized squad whose job is to investigate every suspicious child death in South Carolina. Although the unit was mandated by the Legislature, it is apparent that it lacks the personnel to fulfill its mission.
The Child Fatality Unit gets 195 new cases each year on average, resulting in a backlog of 466 open cases, one dating to 1999. While only about 15 percent of child deaths that come before the agency end up being classified as homicides, some homicides could escape the notice of investigators.
“When you look into it in a more detailed way, you end up finding some evidence that, on the surface, does not appear to be accidental,” Keel said of many of the suspicious cases referred to SLED.
Keel cited one particular case in which Edna Hunt, a 3-year-old child, died in a Marlboro County hospital in 2011. The official cause of death was an untreated urinary tract infection, but further investigation revealed a history of brutal abuse by Alexander Carmichael Huckabee III, the boyfriend of the girl’s mother.
Last year, a Marlboro County jury convicted Huckabee on four counts – including homicide by child abuse and criminal sexual conduct in the first degree. He was sentenced to two life sentences plus another 20 years.
The possibility that a crime as savage as that might go unnoticed simply because SLED doesn’t have the officers to do thorough investigations of suspicious cases should be intolerable to both legislators and residents of this state. We need to do whatever is necessary to protect vulnerable children from predators such as Huckabee.
The Child Fatality Unit now has 10 positions, eight of them filled. Keel wants to hire four new officers to help clear the backlog and stay on top of future cases.
But some lawmakers are reticent about committing to adding the officers. State Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, chairman of the House budget subcommittee that oversees SLED’s budget, said that while he likes the idea of hiring more agents, he doesn’t know if the state has enough money to pay for it.
The state now has about $200 million in surplus money to spend in next year’s budget, which takes effect July 1. But Pitts notes that much of that will go to cover recurring expenses from this year’s budget that were paid for with one-time money.
Adding SLED agents would be another recurring expense, he said, and he can’t guarantee that lawmakers will commit to providing the money. “My guess is we’ll have $100 million or less surplus revenue to deal with, and personnel is definitely a recurring expense – an expensive recurring expense,” he said.
We realize that the state has finite resources and many important priorities. We realize that personnel costs can be budget-busters. We realize that people and services paid for by a one-time surplus can result in ongoing expenses for years to come.
But, come on, are we saying that the Legislature can’t find $500,000 more a year to adequately staff a child homicide unit – which was mandated by lawmakers in the first place? We hear a lot from lawmakers about the danger of using one-time money for recurring expenses. Well, what about one-time enthusiasm when the Legislature created the Child Fatality Unit?
It’s comforting to vote for the creation of such a unit. But the real test is sustaining it and ensuring it has the staff to do its job.