Politics & Government

SC Gov. Nikki Haley says she was abused as a child

SC Gov. Nikki Haley on Monday said she was physically abused as a girl by a child-care provider, offering a rare, personal disclosure that she said was meant to underscore the challenge any community faces in protecting its children.

“It doesn’t matter your background, it doesn’t matter your education, it doesn’t matter the wealth of your family,” Haley said. “Every child is subject to child abuse.”

Speaking to community and health officials in Greenville, she recalled what happened to her to illustrate that the threat of abuse always exists, and every community must grip that reality, Haley said.

Haley spoke at a press conference at Greenville Health System, where officials discussed a recent report, Silent Tears, that outlined a series of recommendations to improve the state’s response to child abuse. The report was the result of a comprehensive review by the National Child Protection Training Center of child sex abuse in South Carolina.

Haley, born in Bamberg, is the daughter of Indian immigrants. Her mother, raising three children, had a full-time teaching job, Haley wrote in her book, Can’t Is Not an Option: My American Story.

Needing help, her mother turned to a couple living in a trailer nearby to take care of Haley every morning, the governor wrote.

But after a few days, her mother sensed something was wrong, Haley said Monday.

“I never wanted to go,” Haley said. “But she didn’t know quite what it was and didn’t think anything of it.”

Haley said, “One day I came home and I had a lot of bruises and a lot of issues.”

When her mother confronted the couple taking care of her, “They packed up and they left,” Haley said. “We never got to deal with it.”

“Years later, when I walked by the trailer, I would still get a sick feeling in my stomach,” she wrote in her book.

The Silent Tears report suggests the governor appoint a bipartisan commission of legislators, court administrators, appellate and trial judges, solicitors, defense attorneys, medical and mental health professionals and — most importantly — child abuse survivors or their families impacted by lengthy court delays.

Haley, a Republican, said such a commission might not be needed since most of those entities already are involved.

“The interesting thing is, yes, it’s something we normally would think we would do,” she said. “What has been amazing is since this report has come out, everyone has started getting to work quicker than anything.”

House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister said he and Sen. Mike Fair, before the next legislative session, intend to prefile a bill that will address many of the concerns raised in the Silent Tears report. Both Bannister and Fair are Greenville Republicans.

“I suspect this kind of issue is one that gets both parties’ attention, gets a lot of support on both sides of the aisle, and I would expect not a lot of legislative resistance in the General Assembly,” Bannister said.

He also said he has discussed with Jean Toal, chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, including the report’s findings in an annual conference for judges.

The hope is, Bannister said, “we’ll start the education process of the court system and how they deal with these issues, what the effect is on the children that are abused, the victims, and how the process moving along in an orderly fashion makes a lot more sense.”

He called it “a holistic approach” to child sex abuse in South Carolina.

Michael Riordan, president and CEO of GHS, said the report is proving to be a catalyst for change in detecting and treating child abuse.

“Between all of us, we demonstrate that by working together, we have an opportunity to do more than any of us can do ourselves,” he said. “Together, we can put an end to child abuse.”

The Silent Tears study was funded with $250,000 from local businessman and GOP donor Bob Castellani and his wife, Lisa.

The report found that most of those directly involved in handling child sexual abuse cases have no undergraduate or graduate training directly dealing with child abuse cases.

Other recommendations include encouraging all colleges and universities in the state to improve their instruction on “child maltreatment” and setting a 21-credit minor offered at USC Upstate called Child Advocacy Studies as a minimum bar for college-level training.

The report also urges seminaries, law schools and medical schools to develop or expand child-protection instruction, and it advises child-protection employers to actively recruit candidates with adequate training.

Further, it urges speeding up the resolution of child sexual abuse cases. Some can take two years or longer to bring to trial, and Silent Tears suggests a goal of six months or less to resolve all child sexual abuse cases.

Thirteenth Circuit Solicitor Walt Wilkins, responsible for prosecution in Greenville and Pickens counties, has told GreenvilleOnline.com that his office is dealing with a burgeoning caseload involving criminal sexual conduct with children.

Wilkins said he wants more prosecutors to handle those cases and is urging more education and prevention, additional child-advocacy centers and training.

“We’re on the back end — the prevention and education that doesn’t work,” Wilkins said.

The Silent Tears report said that in many respects, the child-protection system in South Carolina is among the best in the nation.

Still, Haley warned that progress will be made only if all facets of a community are involved.

“When it happened to me, my parents didn’t know what to do,” she said. “They didn’t know who to go to. No one knew how to handle it.”