The S.C. Department of Social Services announced late Wednesday it was changing its policy and will now require its workers to get in touch with law enforcement within 72 hours if DSS can’t locate a family or child.
The announcement came after Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott held a news conference with Richland Coroner Gary Watts to say that DSS waited seven weeks before contacting the medical professional who provided the tip to DSS employees that the life of a now-dead 5-month-old might be in trouble.
Lott said the death of the Richland County boy likely could have been prevented if DSS employees had acted more quickly. They couldn’t reach the boy’s mother. But they should have tried to call the next-best person who would know what the boy was facing – the medical professional who was concerned about how the mother was treating the boy and had called DSS.
Bryson Webb died April 22 in the back seat of his mother’s car in a Family Dollar store parking lot on Broad River Road, Lott said. The heart-monitoring device he was supposed to wear each day to alert people when he was struggling to breathe was in the car’s trunk, Watts said.
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The mother, Jennifer Coles, 28, is facing a felony charge of unlawful conduct toward a child.
“DSS never followed up with the person who made the complaint,” Lott said. “I wish they would have done more.”
Lott announced the arrest of the dead child’s mother. Watts said DSS was notified March 3 of a “life-threatening” situation the child was in.
Lott said that notification that Bryson was in danger came from a person in the medical field who was familiar with the child’s situation and could have easily provided DSS with the address of Coles, now being held at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center under $10,000 bond.
But for whatever reason, Lott and Watts said, DSS didn’t get back with the medical worker until 49 days later – on April 21, the day before Bryson died. At the time, Coles was in the store, and a friend was in the car with Bryson, Lott said.
DSS also did not contact his sheriff’s department and ask its deputies to hunt for Coles – despite the fact that DSS frequently asks the sheriff’s department to find people, and his department always responds, Lott said.
Lott said when his deputy went to track the mother down a few days ago, “We found her. It wasn’t impossible.”
On Monday, a DSS spokeswoman told The State that DSS had tried five times to find Coles after getting the report from the medical worker on March 3 but was unsuccessful. DSS did not provide details of its efforts to make contact.
In recent months, DSS has been the target of increasing criticism about children who died while under its oversight. The matter has become a topic of controversy at the State House and in the S.C. governor’s race. Gov. Nikki Haley is resisting calls to fire DSS director Lillian Koller.
Late Wednesday, DSS released this statement from Koller, stressing that the agency had just changed its policy and will now contact law enforcement for assistance within 72 hours if its workers can’t locate a child or family:
“The Department of Social Services began investigating this case immediately, which involved having a caseworker physically attempt to locate this family five different times, including at night and on the weekends.
“Despite the very best efforts of DSS, there are tragic cases where the system as a whole is not able to prevent a child from being harmed by their own parents.
“We are always looking for ways to improve our policies to protect children and families in the best and most effective ways possible – which is why effective immediately, we are adding a requirement that if our staff cannot locate a child or family within 72 hours, they must contact law enforcement for assistance.”
A DSS spokesperson also said Wednesday that after getting its initial report March 3 from the medical professional, the report was sent to a caseworker so an investigation could begin.
A Richland County DSS caseworker began investigating on March 4, 2014, using the address that the medical professional had given and going to the home “at least 5 different times,” the spokesperson said. DSS economic services records confirmed that address.
On several home visits, the caseworker left contact information and this contact information had been removed upon returning to the residence, suggesting the parent had retrieved the messages, the spokesperson said.
DSS investigation is ongoing, the spokesperson said, and it indicates the family might not have had a permanent address and that there was “an unsettled family situation.”
The spokesperson and Lott said that included the father’s arrest in a domestic violence incident in which he was charged with assaulting the mother.
Lott said whatever efforts DSS had made weren’t up to the standards people should expect if that agency is notified of a life-threatening condition that a child is in.
“I would hope that anybody that works for me would go and do as much as they could to protect someone’s life,” Lott said.
Watts said that after the baby was born prematurely in November, its heart and lungs would sometimes shut down – causing the baby to fail to breathe. The condition is known as apnea, he said.
Before Bryson left the hospital, Coles received training in how the heart monitor works – it is taped on the body – and was given firm instructions that it was a matter of life and death to keep it on him, Watts said.
The monitor sounds a loud alert if the baby stops breathing or his heart stops, at which point the caregiver is supposed to step in and do some simple resuscitation measures, Watts said.
“These episodes can happen at any time,” Watts said. “It’s critical the monitor stay on the child. ...The doctor’s order said, ‘24 hours a day, seven days a week’.”
Watts said an autopsy didn’t show any overt signs of how the child died. There were no signs of trauma, he said. “This child was just not treated medically the way he was supposed to be treated,” Watts said.
Lott went further.
“(The device) had not been hooked up to him since March 28,” he said – about three weeks. Investigators know that because the monitor can be hooked up to a computer, which then can download a record of when the monitor was used.
“She was not going to go out of her way to hook that monitor up to her son,” Lott said. “The mom knew what to do, knew how to do it, she just did not do it, and this child is dead because of that.”
Lott said unlawful conduct toward a child is a felony that carries a 10-year prison sentence and added, “There is a strong possibility the charges will be upgraded.”
Bryson is dead, but law officials are working to seek justice for him, Lott said. “Myself, the coroner, we have to speak for him.”