The abuse death of 5-year-old Soren Chilson that ended in court this week with her mother and a Purple Heart veteran going to prison is over, but the fight to protect other South Carolina children from abusers appears ready to start.
State Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, and Sen. Wes Climer, R-Rock Hill, both say they are so appalled by the crime that each plans to talk to other legislators, in the S.C. House of Representatives and Senate, about introducing legislation that would stiffen penalties for abusers and those who cover up the crimes.
Soren died in Lancaster in 2013 after weeks of beatings at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. Her mother covered up the beatings and did nothing to stop them, court testimony showed.
“No hell is hot enough for people who abuse children. This child died from abuse,” Norman said. “We do need tougher laws. Something has got to be done. Children can’t stand up for themselves. We have to stand up for them.”
Vickie Gleason, Soren’s mother, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for child neglect after text messages showed in court that she knew of the abuse at the hands of her then-boyfriend Phillip Gleason, and tried to cover up the crimes. Phillip Gleason, an Iraq War veteran and Purple Heart recipient wounded in 2006, claimed PTSD and brain injury before pleading guilty to weeks of abuse that ended with Soren’s skull crushed.
“This crime of abuse is so severe a child died, shocks the conscience. It is appalling,” Climer said. “We must use this opportunity to look at whether our sentencing guidelines are strong enough.”
Climer said he will urge legislators to look at whether laws need sharper teeth for adult inaction and cover-up of abuse.
“There is not a harsh enough penalty for the abuse in this case,” Climer said. “This little girl’s suffering and death is as bad as it gets.”
Soren’s death is similar to a 2012 North Carolina case that prompted state and federal action. Kilah Davenport was beaten by her stepfather. She is believed to have died in 2014 but her body was never recovered. Laws passed afterward stiffened penalties and reporting requirements in cases of child abuse.
Norman and others already have introduced bills that would make it more difficult for abusive parents to regain custody once their children have been taken away by S.C. social services. Soren’s case is different: Her abuse was covered up until she was already dead.
Soren’s grandfather, Donald Chilson, said he would be willing to help push any tougher laws. He mentioned the idea of naming the law in honor of Soren, but a recently enacted state law would prohibit that.
“That little girl, my granddaughter, was a defenseless child,” Chilson said. “She couldn’t defend herself from him. And her mother, she allowed it.”
Soren died in March 2013. In the past four years, her grandfather has been so distraught that he could not go to her grave in rural Lancaster County. His son Jeremy, Soren’s father, died months before Soren died.
“I could claim post traumatic stress disorder if you use the nonsense they tried to use, but the only one who was hurt in this thing was Soren,” Donald Chilson said. “There is no reason this had to happen. None.”
Finally this week, Chilson went to the grave. He found no gravestone.
He immediately made arrangements to have a monument made that will be installed in the coming weeks. Chilson will pay for it.
It is the next step in a grandfather’s journey to protect other children.
“I don’t know what we can do to stop this from ever happening again to another child, but we owe it to every child to try,” he said.