Suspicious Child Deaths in S.C.

SLED asks for $475,000 to eliminate backlog in suspicious child deaths

abeam@thestate.comNovember 10, 2013 

— Three-year-old Edna Hunt died in a Marlboro County hospital in 2011.

The official cause of death was an untreated urinary tract infection. But that did not tell the whole story.

Local and state investigators uncovered a history of brutal abuse of the toddler by Alexander Carmichael Huckabee III, who was dating Hunt’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. A judge sentenced Huckabee to two life sentences plus another 20 years. Hunt’s mother is also in prison on a 20-year sentence.

SLED Chief Mark Keel points to the Marlboro case as one of the reasons that he is asking state lawmakers for $475,136 to hire four new officers for SLED’s Child Fatality Unit, the legislatively required squad that investigates every suspicious child death in South Carolina.

That unit gets 195 new cases each year on average, contributing to a backlog of 466 open cases. The oldest open case is from Edgefield County in 1999.

“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 child deaths referred to SLED.

The Child Fatality Unit has 10 positions – eight are filled – to investigate suspicious child deaths, a specialized field that often breaks the stereotype of traditional police work, advocates say.

“This is not the type of investigation that requires dogs and blue lights and guns,” said Laura Hudson, a longtime victims’ advocate who, as a member of the state Child Fatality Advisory Committee, reviews suspicious deaths and makes recommendations to the legislature. “It’s usually a very methodical investigation when a child dies, and it takes a special skill set.”

Hudson said about 15 percent of the cases that come before the Child Fatality Advisory Committee end up being classified as homicides.

Now, however, a new case can sit for months before SLED has an officer who can investigate it, Keel said.

“The longer a case goes on without being worked, the less chance we have of trying to solve it.”

A spokesman said Gov. Nikki Haley has not finished compiling her executive proposal for next year’s state budget, which would take effect July 1. But, the spokesman added, the first-term Republican “certainly supports the goal of making sure South Carolina’s children are the safest in the world.”

State Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, chairman of the House budget subcommittee that oversees SLED’s budget, said he also likes the idea of hiring more agents to investigate child deaths.

But he does not know if the state has enough money to pay for it.

Lawmakers will have roughly $200 million more in the state’s general fund to spend in next year’s budget, according to preliminary estimates from the Board of Economic Advisors. But much of that “new” money will have to be spent to cover recurring expenses from this year’s budget that were paid for with onetime money, Pitts said.

“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,” Pitts said.

Investigating suspicious child deaths

SLED now has 10 officers who investigate suspicious child deaths. SLED Chief Mark Keel wants legislators to include four more in next year’s state budget.

195 — Number of suspicious child deaths referred to SLED for investigation each year, on average

466 — SLED’s current backlog of child deaths to investigate; the oldest is from 1999

15% — Percentage of suspicious child deaths in S.C. eventually classified as homicides.

$475,136 — Cost to add four additional SLED agents to investigate suspicious child deaths

$200 million — The amount of “new” money that state legislators will have to spend next year in the state’s general fund budget

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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