April 28, 2014

$10,000 bond set for mother of 5-month-old who died

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott has scheduled a news conference Wednesday to discuss the arrest of Jennifer Coles, 28, the mother of a 5-month-old who died a week ago after a report to DSS.

Bond was set at $10,000 on Wednesday for a Richland County mother charged following the death of her 5-month-old child.

Jennifer Coles, 28, is charged with unlawful conduct toward a child. Coles' bond was set by Magistrate Judge Bobbie Wofford-Kanwat.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott has scheduled a news conference Wednesday to discuss the arrest.

The 5-month-old died a week ago after a report to the S.C. Department of Social Services.

The S.C. Department of Social Services knew on March 3 that the case of a Richland County baby boy under DSS care needed an investigation but did not make contact with the family until April 25.

By that time, the 5-month-old baby had been dead three days.

“While DSS started an investigation on March 3, we were not able to locate the family despite numerous attempts until this afternoon,” said an April 25 email written by DSS director Lillian Koller to a child care advocate and obtained by The State.

Meanwhile, investigators working for Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott and Coroner Gary Watts are conducting a “criminal investigation” into the death of the baby, Lott said Monday.

Lott said an investigation does not automatically mean that criminal charges will be brought against any adult who was responsible for the child, but that law officers will be ready to press charges such as homicide by child abuse if the situation warrants.

Watts also said his agency is taking the baby’s death extremely seriously.

Although neither Lott nor Watts would comment on details of the baby’s death, Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said the baby had a heart issue and was supposed to be monitored by an electronic device.

Whether the baby’s heart was properly monitored, and how much risk that posed to the infant, are subjects under scrutiny in the baby’s death, Lourie said.

Lourie, an outspoken critic of DSS’s handling of child care matter, said he learned about details of the case from sources with first-hand knowledge of the situation.

Paige Greene, head of the Richland County Court Appointed Special Advocate program, said the child’s death raises a host of questions about how diligent DSS was in trying to track down the family once it launched an investigation.

“I can’t imagine, if a family is residing in Richland County, with all the resources we have at hand, that we couldn’t find this family,” Greene said.

Greene’s agency provides guardian ad litem personnel to independently represent the interests of abused and neglected Richland County children whose cases are in Family Court.

In some cases, Greene’s agency represents children who are also under DSS’s jurisdiction. However, in the current case, her agency did not represent the baby who died, she said.

Green said she is appreciative that several state senators have been looking into deaths of South Carolina children overseen by DSS but something more needs to be done.

“I mean, how many more children have to die?” she said.

DSS released this statement Monday afternoon:

“The Department of Social Services began an investigation on March 3, 2014, after receiving notification from a local medical provider that the child was not receiving proper medical care. Our preliminary findings show that a DSS caseworker from Richland County DSS immediately began an investigation (DSS does not contract investigations out to third-parties) and attempted to locate the child and the family.

“Based on what we are seeing in records at this point, it appears that investigators attempted at least five times to locate the family. Due to the transient nature of the family’s housing situation, DSS was unable to locate them.

“At the time of the child’s death on April 22, 2014, law enforcement also attempted to locate the family.

“The family was not located until late afternoon, in another county on April 25, 2014. While the coroner has not, as yet, determined the cause of death, our hearts go out to everyone who knew and loved this child,” the statement said.

Lourie said he didn’t blame DSS caseworkers for the baby’s death. “They are overloaded and overwhelmed.”

Lourie is one of several senators who has called for the resignation of Koller and also for Gov. Nikki Harley to dismiss Koller.

Koller has refused to resign; Haley has said she supports Koller.

Lourie said that like others, he too has questions about why DSS representatives were unable to find the dead baby’s family for six weeks.

“It’s my understanding DSS went over 45 days with information knowing the baby might have been at risk,” Lourie said. “If you can’t reach them, you can call the sheriff’s department, and they can find them.”

Koller’s handling of DSS has become an issue in the ongoing gubernatorial campaign. Independent candidate Tom Ervin has said he would fire Koller, who was appointed to her post by Haley.

DSS and Koller have already been under fire for months for failing to adequately supervise other cases involving child abuse and neglect. Highly-publicized cases of DSS-supervised children dying or being injured have been in the news.

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