YORK — One boy’s head is misshapen, his eyes are slanted, his foot is twisted and his sleep apnea so progressive that he “snores like a man.” His brother becomes so angry that he screams and bangs his head against the floor. Both boys were once so dehydrated that their skin became rough and wrinkled, blue and gray.
Neither boy – twins born prematurely – is more than a year old.
On Wednesday, the Rock Hill mother accused of withholding their post-natal medical care after missing six scheduled doctor’s appointments pleaded guilty to both neglecting her children and carrying on a romantic relationship with a 15-year-old girl after she had been released from jail on bond. A Circuit Court judge decided that Savon Phillips-Young, 26, will spend the next five years in a state prison, away from the four children she had with a man she began dating when he was about 15. As part of a plea agreement, she will not have to register as a sex offender.
Investigation into Phillips-Young and her boyfriend, Dustin Ruff, began in March 2013 when Tri-County Pediatrics in Rock Hill contacted the state Department of Social Services about the parents missing several doctor’s appointments for their newborn premature sons, born at 32 weeks in December 2012.
At birth, the boys were about 4 pounds each, said Erin Joyner, the assistant York County solicitor who prosecuted Phillips-Young. In the following weeks, the boys missed several appointments with their pediatricians. Ruff, 19, took the boys to their first appointment in March 2013, when doctors realized the twins had only gained 1 pound since they were born.
Their parents never took them to a follow-up appointment. Pediatricians notified DSS, which noted that Phillips-Young “did not appear to know how to feed the kids,” what formula to give them and seemed disinterested in interacting with them, Joyner said. DSS took custody of the children and placed them at Piedmont Medical Center, where they were diagnosed with failure to thrive. They were later placed with a family in York County.
Police arrested Phillips-Young and Ruff, charging them with two counts of unlawful neglect of a child.
Phillips-Young denied missing appointments, claiming she and Ruff made up for the only doctor’s visit she thought they missed. She also said her sons did not have health issues, aside from one boy “having issues with spit up.”
Phillips-Young left jail on a $10,000 bond. She moved in with a family in York and began a consensual “romantic relationship” with a 15-year-old girl living at the home, Joyner said. She returned to jail after an issue with her bondsman. From behind bars, she penned several letters to the girl, listing her hopes that they would be married and able to raise “our children” together. Phillips-Young is mother to two girls and two boys with Ruff.
The girl’s mother found the letters and called police. Phillips-Young told investigators she touched the girl’s private parts and discussed keeping their relationship a secret until the girl was 17. She was charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor. On Wednesday, prosecutors reduced that charge to first-degree assault and battery and agreed that Phillips-Young will not be added to the state’s list of sex offenders. She will, Circuit Court Judge Ernest Kinard ruled, have to add her name to a statewide child abuse registry.
Before Phillips-Young entered the courtroom, Freddie McKowen, Ruff’s stepfather, sat nearly in tears. He said Phillips-Young dealt with several issues before her arrest. Since she’s been in jail, Phillips-Young has cried often, prayed more and has “accepted God,” McKowen said,
“This has been the roughest thing she’s faced,” he said. “She’s ready to make amends.”
Joyner asked Kinard to sentence Phillips-Young to six years in prison. “These cases are far more complicated than they appear on the surface,” Joyner said after the hearing about her recommendation. The plea negotiation “reflects a variety of factors, including the seriousness of the charges and (Phillip-Young’s) lack of a prior record.”
Her lawyer, York County Public Defender Dan Hall, asked for two-and-a-half year sentence.
“She knows what she did was wrong,” Hall said. “Her parental rights have not been terminated,” he said, adding that she hopes she’ll be able to reclaim her children if she complies with DSS guidelines. Those decisions will be made in Family Court. “She’s an immature individual as far as the decisions she made and her parenting skills,” Hall said.
After Kinard sentenced Phillips-Young to five years, McKowen said he doesn’t feel the ruling was fair, “not by a long shot.”
“I’m devastated. (The judge) wasn’t looking at it the way I would’ve looked at it,” he said. “I know she’s done wrong ... she’s 26 years old; she didn’t know right from wrong.”
The twin boys, now more than 4 pounds, face an “uphill battle,” their foster father said. One of the boys undergoes walk therapy to help him deal with a twisted foot and elongated leg. He attends speech therapy to help his jaw muscles form properly, and his swallowing reflexes are abnormal.
“He still gags today when more than an ounce or two of water is put in his mouth,” the foster father said. The boy was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome, a condition resulting from a fetus’ exposure to alcohol that leaves the child with physical deformities, behavioral problems and cognitive disabilities.
His brother tilts his head to one side and his neck is “locked up and stiff.” Most of his problems, his foster father said, are “emotional.”
“He will scream until he vomits,” his father said. “He will beat his head on the floor.” He was diagnosed with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Both boys were dehydrated when they were placed in foster care and had rough, wrinkled and discolored skin, the foster father said. They still suffer from tremors.
Exposure to alcohol in the womb will likely leave both boys with lifelong brain damage, said Cathi Neesam, a prevention specialist at Rock Hill’s Keystone Substance Abuse Center.
“Alcohol affects the baby’s brain,” she said. “Once that brain damage is done, it’s done. It’s a 50/50 gamble a mother takes when she chooses to drink during pregnancy.”
Medical experts don’t know how much alcohol it takes to affect an unborn baby, but most doctors caution mothers not drink while pregnant, Neesam said. “Because ... the brain is being affected, you can’t do anything” to treat the syndrome, she said.
Phillips-Young turned down the chance to speak in court. All she did was look over at her few supporters in the courtroom and mouth, “I love you.”
Jonathan McFadden • 803-329-4082