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Orphaned and homeless - Part 1 of 2

Jury awards $150,000 to teen in SCDSS case

Posted: April 5, 2018 4:37 p.m.
Updated: April 6, 2018 1:00 a.m.
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At the age of 14, an orphan listed in court documents as “J.M.” lived on the streets of Elgin for about four months, sleeping in abandoned cars, sheds and even a burnt-out home. On March 16, a jury awarded J.M., now 17, $150,000 in a judgment against the S.C. Department of Social Services (SCDSS) concluding that the agency’s negligent actions led to his ending up on the streets. The judgment came almost exactly two years after being filed in the Kershaw County Clerk of Court’s office in March 2016.

But J.M.’s story started well before that and involves his older sister.

The case also involves former SCDSS caseworker Shallia Belton, who has been at the center of other complaints against the agency, including one in which a man was confined to a skilled nursing facility against his and his wife’s wishes. In that case, a jury awarded the couple $250,000 in June 2017.

Attorneys Robert and Deborah Butcher, who represented the elderly couple in the earlier case, represented J.M. in his case against SCDSS.

In the March 2016 complaint, the Butchers wrote that SCDSS “is responsible for ensuring that any children who are orphaned are placed in the custody of the state and provided with food, shelter, medical treatment, and the basic necessities.”

J.M., through the Butchers, alleged not only that SCDSS failed to provide him and his sister with “much needed services,” but that failing to do so ultimately left him to “roam the streets of Elgin at will with no structure, no parents, and no one to love him” from May to August 2015.

Becoming orphaned

According to a court document called a statement of disputed material facts, J.M. was detained at age 12 in August 2013 for shoplifting a pair of jeans and a pack of socks from a J.C. Penny’s store in Richland County. Richland County entered him in its youth arbitration program, but terminated services after J.M.’s parents failed to maintain communications and comply with the program.

The family, including his sister, disabled father and unemployed mother, moved to Kershaw County at the end of 2013, specifically to the Elgin area. By the end of the first semester, J.M. was failing most of his middle school classes and had been disciplined for missing detention and for using profanity. In March 2014, Richland County Family Court placed J.M. on six months probation and 20 hours of community service for the shoplifting charge.

J.M. and his sister became orphans after their parents died within months of each other.

His mother committed suicide, reportedly by shooting herself, on Sept. 17, 2014.

Almost exactly a month later, according to the disputed material facts statement, SCDSS received an intake summary report that J.M.’s father was “abusing prescription medication and that he is also selling it” and that the family needed help. An intake worker agreed, and a contract caseworker from outside the agency visited the home on Oct. 16, 2014, during which J.M.’s father denied the drug allegations. Instead, he asked for help because he was going blind and needed help paying the electric bill. The contract caseworker determined the family needed help with grief counseling and created a plan to do so.

On Dec. 2, 2014, J.M. suffered a third-degree burn to his leg from a motorcycle accident. He never told his father he’d gotten hurt. A school nurse referred him to Elgin Urgent Care and he was taken there by an 18-year-old female neighbor. The neighbor took J.M. back to urgent care six days later to have the burn checked. A doctor referred J.M. to the Augusta Burn Center, but the neighbor never told J.M.’s father about the referral. Instead, she took J.M. for a third trip to urgent care on Dec. 10, 2014.

During a home visit on Dec. 22, 2014, the contract caseworker learned from J.M.’s sister that their father was diagnosed with a cyst on his brain that was causing him to go blind. In mid-January, that caseworker conducted another home visit and learned that J.M.’s father was taking medicine for the brain tumor. During that visit, J.M.’s father finally learned of his son’s motorcycle injury.

Two weeks later, on Jan. 17, 2015, exactly four months after his wife’s suicide, J.M.’s father died. The SCDSS case manager wrote in one of her reports that J.M.’s father committed suicide. The complaint states he died of a drug overdose.

J.M. was 14 years and one month old; his sister was 15 years and four months old.

According to Deborah Butcher, there were no relatives willing to take them in.

A neighbor’s betrayal

According to the disputed material facts statement, deputies told an SCDSS case manager that a family friend, a woman who claimed she was a neighbor, was willing to stay with the children until the family made a decision.

The case manager and her supervisor placed J.M. and his sister in that woman’s care, in the home where their parents had died, using a SCDSS Safety Plan. However, the Butchers claimed in their disputed material facts statement that the plan listed the woman as a parent/caretaker, even though she was neither. Therefore, they claimed, she did not have legal custody or authority to do anything with the children. They also claimed SCDSS had no ability to justify the “illegality of this placement.”

They claimed the case manager did not fill out the safety plan form correctly, skipping over certain items and not signing parts of it. The Butchers also claimed the case manager failed to conduct a background check on the woman, which they said would have showed the woman had recently pleaded guilty to DUI.

In the disputed material facts statement, the Butchers included information from others about the neighbor who took in J.M. and his sister, claiming she was a well-known drug abuser, even buying pills from J.M.’s parents.

On Jan. 20, 2015, SCDSS transferred J.M. and his sister’s case from the case manager to Belton. The Butchers state in the disputed material facts statement that Belton never had a supervisor while working this case. According to information in that filing, the supervisor who should have been over her stated her involvement “was probably a less than 10-minute conversation” two months after Belton received the case.

The filing claims Belton never contacted the woman staying with the children, nor did Belton conduct a background check. It also claims Belton failed to have a face-to-face visit with the children during the first week she was assigned the case, something SCDSS’ own policies require.

On Jan. 26, 2015, another caseworker received a call from a Kershaw County deputy who said the children’s uncle could not locate J.M. or his sister. According to what this other caseworker learned, the woman with whom the children were supposed to be staying had gone to the Augusta, Ga., area, leaving the children with the 18-year-old female neighbor and her elderly grandmother.

The next day, J.M.’s sister went back to their house and discovered the woman had robbed the home of all valuables, electronics, cash and important papers, including the children’s birth certificates.

It does not appear SCDSS did anything to help the children recover their property.

What SCDSS did do -- specifically, the case manager -- was place J.M. and his sister with the 18-year-old neighbor and her bedridden grandmother, despite the agency having investigated that home on prior occasions and listing unsafe, unclean conditions. According to the disputed material facts filing, that caseworker used an affidavit of alternative placement as if it were a custody document, and without ever communicating with J.M. The affidavit is supposed to be used for the “possible placement” of children.

In fact, J.M. thought the arrangement was temporary until “we found out what we were gonna do.” He and his sister believed they were under SCDSS custody. According to the disputed material facts statement, SCDSS’ own expert testified that any justification for leaving J.M. and his sister in “custodial limbo” should have lasted no more than 10 days. J.M. said he was told the safety plan was for 45 days.

The filing also claims neither Belton nor the other caseworkers involved ever conducted any kind of check to investigate the elderly woman or her granddaughter, counter to agency policy. Despite the placement, SCDSS never offered any financial assistance to the family nor conducted a new assessment of the home.

Meanwhile, the contract caseworker, who had still been involved in several aspects of the case, closed out her part and turned it back over to SCDSS and Belton. The Butchers state in the disputed facts filing that neither Belton nor anyone else at SCDSS reviewed the contract caseworker’s file.

The Butchers also stated that, between Jan. 20 and March 13, 2015, there is no evidence that Belton ever met with or contacted J.M., his sister, or the 18-year-old supervising them.

As it turns out, according to the disputed material facts statement, SCDSS received a report of neglect within this family’s home in January 2014. That, the Butchers claimed in the filing, would have made them unqualified to be a licensed foster home. Various accounts listed in the filing show that the home was unclean, and that the mother of the family was quickly deteriorating in health. The filing also claims that Belton and another caseworker knew the daughter’s 21-year-old boyfriend was living in the home and that he could be violent and had problems with drugs.

In February 2015, the 18-year-old woman’s boyfriend assaulted J.M -- even while giving J.M. drugs -- the Butchers claimed in the disputed material facts statement.

First contact

On March 2, 2015, Elgin Urgent Care made an appointment for J.M. to see a doctor to look at his burn. A nurse also contacted SCDSS about the patient’s “chronic inability to get patient care at a burn center as directed since December.”

In response to that contact, Belton went to Elgin Urgent Care and, according to notes recorded in J.M.’s records, asked to obtain information from his medical records and speak with someone about the missed appointments.

J.M. was seen later that evening by a doctor who wanted him to undergo wound management care for the leg burn. More specifically, they wanted him to receive a skin graft at the Augusta Burn Center. He saw another doctor two days later who asked him to return in two weeks to check the wound again.

On March 13, 2015, Belton and the other caseworker visited J.M. and his sister. According to the Butchers, this was the first time either of them had ever “laid eyes” on J.M.

Despite seeing that J.M. slept on the couch, the Butchers state in the disputed material facts filing that Belton recorded he had his own bedroom. Belton also claimed that J.M.’s father never took J.M. for medical treatment, however, the Butchers state that was because J.M.’s father did not know about J.M.’s injury.

Belton and the other caseworker also testified that they did not know the 18-year-old’s boyfriend was living in the house, despite the March 13 visit. Belton claimed that if she’d known about the boyfriend, SCDSS would have asked the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) about him.

A week later, March 20, 2015, Belton conducted what is known as a guided supervision staffing with a regional SCDSS consultant. That staffing included a danger statement by SCDSS stating, in part, that the 18-year-old was “taking good care of the children” and that they were doing better in school with higher grades.

The Butchers claimed in the disputed material facts filing that this was not true. Belton also apparently claimed that J.M. said they were “better than they have ever been and happier” and that the “school reports that they have observed improvement in appearance and academic performance.” These statements were also untrue, the Butchers said in the filing. Belton also claimed SCDSS had visited the children four times, instead of only the two visits recorded by the agency on Jan. 26 and March 13, 2015.

Belton closed the case on March 20, the day of the guided supervision staffing. Her only recommendation, per the disputed material facts statement, was for J.M. and his sister to obtain counseling.

By closing J.M.’s case at that time, the Butchers claimed SCDSS failed to follow any of its own policies. Because of that, they said, no one outside of the neighbor’s home knew the 18-year-old’s grandmother kicked J.M. out of the house in early May.

Or did they?

One of the more egregious things Deborah Butcher said happened as a result of SCDSS closing its case is that when J.M. ended up on the streets, the agency never filed a missing persons report.

And yet, “SCDSS and Shallia Belton were aware for several months that … J.M. was living on the streets and did nothing to find him,” the Butchers wrote in the complaint.

In an email Thursday, SCDSS Public Information Officer Chrysti Shain said the agency is “carefully reviewing the outcome of the trial in Kershaw County and considering its appellate options. Regardless of the next steps taken in this particular case, the department is committed to serving vulnerable children and adults with courage, compassion and competence.”

(Coming in Part 2: What led J.M. to leave, where he stayed, how his attorneys believe SCDSS continued to fail him and where he is today.)

 

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