Originally published: Sunday, March 8, 2009
SLED and its child fatalities committee will examine the deaths of four children in the Midlands to determine whether agencies and relatives did the right things to protect the young and vulnerable.
In a week marked by reports of dead infants, a toddler and a grammar school student, the committee will review: The shooting of a 10-year-old by a sibling who used a loaded rifle left unattended at his Kershaw County home The starvation of a toddler in Sumter The suffocation of an infant in Richland County A drug case involving siblings in Lexington County "They’ve all been sort of strange circumstances," Reggie Lloyd, director of the State Law Enforcement Division, said Friday. "We can’t prevent everything. How do you tell somebody, 'You need to feed your children ’?"
But he said the thrust of the review by SLED’s Child Fatalities Review Committee is to inquire, "Did people report things to proper authorities, and did the authorities follow up on it? æ.æ.æ.
"When it comes to the state, did we do what we should have?" Lloyd said.
The review comes against a backdrop of years of child -safety recommendations by the panel, some of which were ignored by the Legislature or slow to be adopted by the state’s child -protection agency, the Department of Social Services, according to some committee members.
DSS is doing its own internal inquiries, which so far are limited to reviews of agency records, said Virginia Williamson, the agency’s chief attorney.
The committee will take up the cases at the committee’s next bimonthly meeting, scheduled for April 1.
Recommendations usually are issued at each meeting.
The 16-member panel was created in 1993 by the General Assembly to analyze deaths of children younger than 18.
The panel reviews investigations of suspicious or unexpected deaths, finds shortcomings, discovers death trends and recommends changes to child -safety agencies and organizations as well as to the General Assembly and private citizens. Its annual reports are sent to the Legislature and the governor.
The committee sometimes has been stymied on gun control issues and suggestions for better monitoring of families in trouble.
Several times, for example, it has suggested laws to require trigger locks on guns and a specific charge for adults who leave firearms where children can get them.
"I’ve just given up," said Laura Hudson, a crime victim advocate and panel member.
"The Republicans ... are just not going to do anything with gun control," she said. "And they control both houses."
Committee members will look closely at what might have gone wrong with the safety net surrounding each of the children who died.
Many of the answers will come from DSS.
Greenwood pediatrician Gratin Smith, the panel’s vice chairman, said it often suggests that DSS follow up on cases with more in-home visits.
DSS caseworkers twice removed children from a home in Cassatt in rural Kershaw County, where deputies said a 13-year-old shot and killed his 10-year-old brother with a rifle that was leaning against a bedroom wall.
Agency records show that five Family Court judges oversaw the removal and return of the children in both instances and held 11 hearings.
But caseworkers had no contact with the family since 2007, when they were last reunited, a DSS official said.
Smith said the Child Fatalities committee continually suggests to the agency that children are more likely to remain safe if caseworkers stay in contact.
DSS’s Williamson said the extent of caseworker monitoring is determined jointly by caseworkers and other agencies that might be working with families. It varies widely and can reach to months.
Monitoring must end when a Family Court judge closes a case, she said.
Smith, the physician, said a balance between vigilance to protect children and intrusion into families can be tricky.
"Sometimes things are a lot clearer in retrospect than in foresight," he said. "I don’t think DSS is a bad agency."
Williamson said her agency listens to the committee.
"We always take their recommendations seriously, and we support their work completely," she said.
But the agency could be more vigilant for longer periods of time, some say.
Hudson said the committee pushed the agency to keep track of abuse or neglect complaints that it could not substantiate.
Keeping tabs on unfounded cases required changing the law. Now, DSS must warehouse "unfounded" reports for three years so patterns of mistreatment can be spotted, Hudson said.
"Sometimes, where there’s smoke there’s fire," she said.
CHILD NO. 1: UNSAFE SLEEP
The death of 9-month-old Curtis Williams on Feb. 8 remains under investigation by the Richland County coroner’s office, the sheriff’s department and SLED.
Williams was unresponsive when a foster mother checked on him in a bed at her St. Andrews-area home, authorities said.
The child-protection agency had placed the baby in foster care the night before because police found him and his natural mother in a Cayce motel room filled with marijuana smoke.
Preliminary autopsy results found the anti-allergy drug Benadryl in his system, Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said. Neither drug contributed to his death, Watts said.
Watts wonders whether the caseworker or the foster mother were properly trained in safe sleeping procedures. The child was found face down amid sheets and a fluffy comforter, he said.
That "is totally against all (best) practices," Watts said, adding the home had a crib where the baby should have slept.
Further, the coroner said, caseworkers need to follow up to "make sure (foster parents) follow the guidelines."
DSS takes issue with that.
"We have no reason to believe that this foster parent didn’t have the necessary training," said DSS spokeswoman Marilyn Matheus.
No one has been charged in the boy’s death. But the mother, Katrina Jivers, 22, is charged with putting the boy in dangerous circumstances for exposing him to a drug. She also is wanted on similar charges involving his 2-yearold sister, who police say tested positive for cocaine.
The toddler is with other foster parents.
CHILD NO. 2: MALNUTRITION CASE
An emaciated Sincere Isaac, 17 months old, died of starvation Monday in the Sumter home he shared with four other children , authorities said. At 8 pounds, 14 ounces, he had gained about 4 pounds since birth, Sumter County Coroner Harvin Bullock said.
His twin sister, Treasure, weighed 9 pounds and was in serious condition at Palmetto Health Richland hospital late last week, Sumter Police Chief Patty Patterson said.
Inside the filthy home, officers found food, canned goods and a few jars of baby food, she said.
Parents Kevin Dewayne Isaac, 25, and Marketta Sharnise Mc-Cray, 23, are charged with homicide by child abuse and unlawful conduct toward a child , Patterson said.
The siblings, ages 9, 6 and 4, are in DSS custody.
Investigators have no indication either parent had mental issues or substance abuse problems, Patterson said.
Victim advocate Hudson said she wonders whether postpartum depression played a role.
As far back as 1997, the Child Fatalities panel has recommended longer postpartum hospital stays for Medicaid patients, so they can be observed for symptoms.
Sincere and his twin went to the doctor for a checkup about a month after birth, but police found no other records of medical treatment.
Investigators are not aware of schools, doctors or any agency receiving reports of mistreatment, Patterson said.
CHILD NO. 3: HOME ALONE
A parent was not home when the Cassatt teenager fired a .22-caliber rifle at his younger brother in a squabble over where they would sit to watch a movie. Five children - the eldest 15 - were home because schools, expecting bad weather, had closed. The teenager is charged with murder. DSS had placed the children in foster care for two months in 2001 because of neglect, and for three years, ending in 2007, because of conditions in the home, the agency said.
The parents did what caseworkers asked and regained custody, Williamson, the agency’s lawyer, said. The agency monitored the family for a few additional months, she said.
Privacy laws prohibit disclosure of details of the case or whether anyone reported having suspicions of unsafe conditions.
Kershaw deputies charged father Gary Travis Roberts, 44, with unlawful neglect of a child , a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Pediatrician Smith said lawmakers have ignored the committee’s request to make it a misdemeanor for an adult to leave a dangerous weapon unsecured where a child can reach it.
"Any sort of anything that is considered gun control is very unpopular," Smith said.
CHILD NO. 4: SUFFOCATION CASE
The oldest of the cases dates to February 2008, when a 3-month-old died in Richland County in what was ruled an accidental asphyxiation, Coroner Watts said.
Mother Kathyrine Myers, 20, at the time told authorities she rolled over on the baby as the two slept in an adult bed.
But last month in Ann Arbor, Mich., during an investigation there into a forgery case, Myers confessed to smothering the child, Watts said.
She has been charged with homicide by child abuse and faces up to 20 years in prison.