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Orphaned and homeless - Part 2 of 2

How SCDSS left a 14-year-old boy to roam the streets of Elgin

Posted: April 9, 2018 4:44 p.m.
Updated: April 10, 2018 1:00 a.m.
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Fourteen-year-old “J.M.” ended up on the streets of Elgin for four months in 2015. In 2016, his attorneys, Deborah and Robert Butcher, filed a lawsuit on his behalf against the S.C. Department of Social Services (SCDSS) claiming the agency’s negligent actions not only deprived him of his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process, but placed him in danger and led to his becoming homeless.

Along with SCDSS as an agency, the lawsuit named former caseworker Shallia Belton, who was involved in an earlier SCDSS-centered lawsuit involving an elderly man held against his will in a skilled nursing facility. In June 2017, a jury awarded him and his wife $250,000 in damages.

On March 16, a jury awarded J.M., who turned 17 in December, $150,000 for the damages it agreed SCDSS was responsible for inflicting through its negligence.

Part 1 of this series detailed how J.M. and his sister, who is two years older, became orphaned after the suicides of their mother, in September 2014, and father, in January 2015. It also detailed how SCDSS allowed a “neighbor” -- known for her drug use -- to watch the children, only to have her betray them by stealing their belongings, including electronics, cash and even their birth certificates.

Soon after, J.M. and his sister began living with an 18-year-old neighbor, her younger sister, and elderly, bedridden grandmother. It was supposed to be a temporary fix, but SCDSS closed their case once that placement was made. That, the Butchers said not only eventually led to J.M. leaving that home, but allowed him to roam the streets of Elgin for as long as he did.

Becoming homeless

According to the lawsuit, SCDSS -- through Belton -- closed the case without providing J.M. and his sister any services. Specifically, the complaint states SCDSS failed to provide grief counseling, food stamps, assistance in applying for Social Security benefits, monitoring, necessities and/or Medicaid for the minor children.

According to the complaint, there was, apparently, not enough food in the house, because, it said, J.M. only ate one or two meals a day, losing 10 to 15 pounds while living with the elderly woman and her daughter.

On April 19, 2015, the 18-year-old woman reported that J.M. went to the beach with an unidentified 36-year-old woman and did not return. It’s not clear exactly when J.M. left or how long he stayed away, but, on or about May 4, 2015, the 18-year-old’s boyfriend assaulted J.M. again, after which J.M. apparently punched a brick wall with his fist, fracturing his right hand.

Although he was referred to a specialist for treatment, J.M. later testified that the day of the fight -- May 4 -- was the day he left that home.

The complaint states that, afterward, J.M. slept:

• in an abandoned house;

• in a shed;

• at one friend’s home;

• at a second friend’s home;

• at a third friend’s home, sometimes sleeping in a closet;

• in a truck;

• in his late father’s car;

• in a fourth friend’s shed; and

• at yet a fifth friend’s home.

A statement of disputed material facts filed with the court also indicates that J.M.’s friends would slip him food, and that he would find scrap metal and sell it for food.

A school nurse tried to discuss J.M.’s lack of attendance with SCDSS. On May 20, the nurse learned J.M. wasn’t staying at the house where he was supposed to be living.

The nurse then called SCDSS and was told the case was closed.

The nurse filed a report of physical neglect to SCDSS, including that J.M. was reportedly drinking beer and roaming the neighborhood and that he had not been seen in several days.

Around this time, someone reported seeing J.M. walking the neighborhood with “no shoes, no socks (…) all dirty clothes.”

At this point, a caseworker who worked with Belton earlier became involved again, this time talking with the 18-year-old who admitted J.M. hadn’t been living with them despite repeated requests to stay with them at night and that he wasn’t going to school. Meanwhile, Belton again reported that she did not see a safety concern for J.M. in that household, writing “This child was (14) and was electing to leave the home when he felt like it and wouldn’t follow the rules.”

Getting in trouble

While J.M. was homeless, at age 14, he reportedly flipped two vehicles: a van, sometime in early May, and a Ford vehicle on May 22, 2015.

According to the disputed material facts statement, and based on Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) records, around 6 a.m. May 22, J.M. took the Ford without permission and flipped it. The KCSO charged J.M. with use of a vehicle without permission, but released him to the 18-year-old.

At 10 a.m. that same day, the KCSO received a call from a woman stating that her 12- and 13-year-old granddaughters had run away the night before. During their work on that case, deputies learned that the 18-year-old told J.M.’s school that he had -- at age 14 and without a driver’s license -- picked up the two girls in Camden, more than 21 miles away. J.M. the two missing girls and another child were reportedly later seen roaming the neighborhood. Authorities found all four children in a neighbor’s home they had broken into, after which the homeowner filed a burglary report.

In the disputed material facts statement, J.M. said he was taken back to the 18-year-old’s house where her grandmother told him “she didn’t want me there anymore.” He asked deputies to take him to the Department of Juvenile Justice because he was “tired of being homeless.” Nothing in the court documents the Butchers provided indicated that happened.

In the disputed facts statement, one deputy is attributed with saying that if SCDSS had told him J.M. was missing, he would have entered J.M.’s name into the National Crime Information Center, made sure he was OK and spoken with whoever reported him missing.

But because SCDSS had closed the case, that never happened.

In fact, in a footnote in that part of the disputed material facts statement, the deputy is quoted as saying, “I’ve never come in contact with that before, nothing to this -- I mean, like I said, I deal with juveniles quite a bit. And something like this and this severity, I couldn’t see them just closing the case out and just letting him basically out there on the streets.”

Despite this, Belton claimed she asked two other KCSO deputies to place J.M. in emergency protective custody if they found him. Those two deputies denied she ever made such a request and there are no records of it, according to the disputed material facts statement.

On May 26, 2015, J.M.’s school reported he had accumulated 38 absences, including 20 after being placed with the woman and her granddaughter. On May 27, the 18-year-old told the school she no longer wanted her name associated with J.M.

At some point, one of the other SCDSS caseworkers met with J.M. at the young woman’s home, despite his not actually living there anymore. The caseworker claimed J.M. agreed to stay there, but the disputed material facts statement said J.M. disappeared the next day. He reportedly would come back and knock on his sister’s window at 2 or 3 a.m. to ask for food.
The caseworker went back to the home on June 17, 2015, to conduct a home visit. The 18-year-old said although she had seen J.M. the day before, she didn’t want him staying there because $340 had disappeared and she suspected he took it along with a cell phone.

A few days later, the caseworker and Belton conducted a “guided supervision staffing.” The resulting harm statement and safety goals read almost exactly as a similar March 20, 2015, report, except for acknowledging J.M. was actually staying with someone else in the neighborhood.

The caseworker and Belton, using a 0-10 point scale said that while they rated J.M.’s sister safety as 10, they were unable to gauge J.M.’s because they didn’t know where he was actually living.

And, despite the 18-year-old’s situation, they wrote that they had no concerns for her parenting abilities. Their only recommendations were obtaining SLED checks and incident reports on the adults in the home and for follow-up visits with the children, despite not knowing where J.M. was staying.

Family Court issued a summons to J.M. for truancy on July 13, 2015, with a hearing set for Sept. 14, 2015. A week later, on July 20, 2015, the caseworker and Belton concluded the investigation they started on May 20 and wrote, “Based on the investigation, there are no safety concerns for the minor children J.M. and (his sister).” That was despite Belton writing in the guided supervision staffing report that SCDSS was concerned J.M. would not follow the rules of the home, decided on his own to reside somewhere else and was participating in at-risk behaviors, such as drinking alcohol.

The Butchers, writing in the disputed material facts statement, concluded that Belton and the other caseworker were more concerned about closing the case than with J.M. or his sister’s actual safety.

A month later, Aug. 19, 2015, a new report of neglect was filed with SCDSS. The person making the report noted that J.M. wasn’t registered for school and that, when contacted, the 18-year-old did not where he was or with whom he was staying. The next day, a SCDSS regional intake supervisor emailed Belton relaying the allegation and asked if a missing or runaway report had been filed.

Belton answered, “There was.” The Butchers pointed out in the disputed material facts statement that there was no evidence Belton was telling the truth. Yet, that statement ended up in the intake supervisor’s summary.

Fortunately for J.M., during the last week of August 2015, he moved into another home with a couple who are now his legal guardians.

A second chance

On Sept. 14, 2015, Kershaw County Family Court issued an order requiring J.M. to attend school regularly until his 17th birthday. In exchange, the solicitor’s office dropped trespassing charges connected to the March 22 flipped vehicle case.

That same day, the court also issued an order granting custody of J.M. to the couple with whom he was living.

A little more than a week later, Belton and one of the caseworkers began searching for J.M. and his sister’s living relatives. The other caseworker sent an email to SCDSS’ Kershaw County attorney and Belton about possibly placing J.M.’s sister with the children’s uncle. According to the disputed facts filing, SCDSS made another series of false statements in their attempt to gain custody of J.M.’s sister, including that prior to closing their case in May, the agency had an agreement with law enforcement that if J.M. was located, he would immediately be brought into emergency custody.

The court granted permanent custody to the couple J.M. was living with in March 2016.

At some point during this entire chain of events, J.M.’s sister became pregnant. Deborah Butcher said his sister was not named in the complaint, and that there is no additional action on her behalf, because she “wanted SCDSS out of her life. Presently, she is taking care of her baby.”

Butcher said the couple who took J.M. in did so even though they had no obligation to do so.

“They are neighbors who saw that he was sleeping in sheds and roaming the streets,” she wrote in an email. “They are not foster parents. I was amazed at their kindness. They have a few children of their own. The night I met with them, we were concerned because there was no spare bedroom for J.M. (The father) does construction, and that night, he put up a wall in an existing bedroom so that J.M. could have his own room.”

Butcher reports that J.M. did well after re-enrolling in school. She said his grades improved and he even made student of the month once.

“However, once he turned 17, he felt that he needed to not ‘take’ from (his guardians) and began working to support himself. He dropped out (of school), but has plans to get his GED. He wants to obtain his college degree and get his contracting license.”

‘Deliberately indifferent’

On behalf of J.M., the Butchers called for two causes of action: negligence and violation of J.M.’s Fourteenth Amendment rights to the due process of law by SCDSS and Belton.

SCDSS’ negligence, which the complaint states was “willful, wanton, careless, grossly negligent, and failed to exercise even (the) slightest care,” was shown by:

• failing to take custody of J.M. and provide for his necessities, benefits and treatments;

• leaving J.M. in the care of an incapacitated person and an 18-year-old girl who was unqualified to care for a 14-year-old child and his 16-year-old sister; and

• exposing J.M. to violence and drugs, and abandoning him without necessities such as shelter, food, water, education, and medical care.

Furthermore, the complaint alleged that SCDSS’ breach of its duty was the cause of J.M.’s physical, emotional and future damage.

As for J.M.’s Fourteenth Amendment rights, the Butchers wrote in the complaint that the agency and Belton “through its unconstitutional practices, policies and procedures … was deliberately indifferent in failing to place J.M. into the custody and care of the state,” including “placing him in the care of an invalid and an inappropriate person” (the 18-year-old). Furthermore, they stated SCDSS and Belton were “deliberately indifferent in creating a situation that substantially increased J.M.’s risk” of hunger, being assaulted, using drugs, living homeless, not attending school, not receiving medical treatment, and delinquency.

The Butchers concluded that J.M. suffered as a result of SCDSS and Belton’s violation of his constitutional rights. As such, they asked the jury to award him compensatory damages, punitive damages and the costs of the action.

The jury did just that on March 16, awarding him $150,000.

“I believe the main thing that convinced the jury is the mere idea that SCDSS felt that they had no obligation to an orphan,” Butcher wrote in her email. “Additionally, each and every SCDSS worker (who) touched this case failed to take J.M. or the sister into care.”

Butcher said SCDSS held out the idea that they had custody of J.M., when it actually did not.

“In this case, they were placing J.M. and sister with unfit and unlicensed foster parents. First a woman who claimed to be a neighbor,” but wasn’t, according to Butcher, and then with the 18-year-old trying to take care of her bedridden grandmother and younger sister. “Both J.M. and his sister deserved to be taken before a family court judge. There would have been oversight. A guardian ad litem would have been appointed. They would have had appropriate supervision, medical care, a bedroom, food, clothing, etc. SCDSS failed to go through the process of law, which was a safeguard to ensure the children were taken care of.”

Despite SCDSS’ faulty decision to place J.M. and his sister with the 18-year-old, Butcher had high praise for the young woman.

“(She) did an excellent job of attempting to take care of these kids. She was not mature enough to handle two additional teenagers. Additionally, she had already dropped out of school herself,” she said.

And, Belton and SCDSS’ attorney said the agency had no intention of providing services, Butcher said their only reason was that “they did not have an obligation.”

According to the disputed facts filing, Belton left SCDSS in December 2016. In June 2017, the Butchers said Belton was working for the S.C. Foster Care Review Board.

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.”

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