The Buzz

Exclusive – Robert Guinyard’s life and death in SC’s child welfare system

What the public knows about Robert Guinyard Jr. – the 4-year-old autistic boy beaten to death with a metal rod in his Richland County home last year – comes from his parents’ trial for his murder and child advocates, who have urged lawmakers to reform the state’s child welfare system.

But confidential court documents, obtained by The State newspaper, tell much more.

Those documents show Robert’s mother faced allegations of child abuse and neglect two years before he was born.

That abuse and neglect continued and later Robert and his siblings were removed from their home and placed in foster care.

The records also confirm a statement made previously by the former leader of the embattled S.C. Department of Social Services: Social Services wanted to place Robert for adoption, severing permanently his relationship with his parents.

But a court-appointed child advocate opposed that move, hoping Robert and his parents would reunite and form a healthy family.

A year after Robert was returned to his mother, he was dead.

Who failed Robert?

Since his death, Robert has become the face of the debate over whether Social Services is doing all it can to protect children like the 4-year-old, one of 67 children who died last year after contact with the state’s child welfare agency.

Prosecutors who tried and convicted Robert’s parents say the state’s child welfare agency failed to investigate adequately complaints of child abuse in his household.

The former head of Social Services acknowledged as much.

After Robert was returned to his parents, caseworkers did not follow up on abuse allegations when they should have, Lillian Koller, the ex-director of Social Services, told a panel of senators investigating that agency. Those caseworkers are no longer with Social Services, Koller added.

Koller also told senators that her agency tried in 2010 and in 2011 to put Robert on the path to adoption.

But that recommendation was opposed by a court-appointed child advocate and a judge, said Koller, who resigned in June amid a storm of allegations that Social Services was not doing all it could to protect children.

Years in Social Services

According to court documents, Robert’s family had been involved the Social Services child welfare system and the courts for six years before his death.

Robert was 2 months old when authorities took him away from his mother, Courtney Thompson, for the first time, after witnessing her nearly fling him from a baby carrier as she “stormed” out of a court hearing involving two other children.

But Robert’s home was troubled long before he was born in 2009.

A narrative written by a court-appointed child advocate says the Richland County Department of Social Services had maintained a case concerning Robert’s family since August 2007 “due to substance abuse, medical neglect, unstable living conditions and a dirty house.”

According to the court document, several claims of abuse or neglect of Robert’s older siblings followed the 2007 allegations:

•  On March 6, 2008, one of Thompson’s children allegedly “ingested ammonia” while in her care and was taken to the hospital. Thompson said the child had an ear infection.

•  The next day, Thompson was accused of physically abusing another child in her home and, in a previous incident, one of her children. Thompson subsequently lost custody of her two older children, but they were returned to her in July 2008.

•  In November 2008, Thompson lost custody of those children again after two shootings were reported at her home. During one, when her boyfriend allegedly was shot, a child was present.

•  In June 2009, Thompson lost custody of 2-month-old Robert.

The court document also says that neither of Robert’s parents – Thompson and his father, Robert “Antonio” Guinyard Sr. – took steps to regain custody beyond visiting.

Moving to end parental rights

According to the court document, Social Services first moved to terminate the rights of Robert’s parents in March 2010. That case was dismissed “due to errors in the original summons and complaint.”

In March 2011, Thompson was arrested on charges of cruelty to children.

Three months later, Social Services filed another complaint to terminate the rights of Robert’s parents. But a child advocate recommended that Robert be reunited with his parents.

After a February 2012 hearing, a judge ruled there was not enough evidence to terminate the rights of Robert’s parents and ordered the parties to come to an agreement. That agreement resulted in Robert going home, Koller told lawmakers.

A year later, Robert was dead.

In May, a jury found Robert’s parents guilty of homicide by child abuse and unlawful conduct toward a child. The two are serving life sentences without parole but have appealed their sentences.

‘Despite some reservations...’

It is unclear from the court records how the agreement to send Robert home was reached.

Social Services deputy director Jessica Hanak-Coulter said she could not discuss any actions in the case because the records are sealed. But, she added, the documents obtained by The State newspaper were consistent with the agency’s records.

A volunteer court-appointed child advocate recommended that Robert’s sibling remain in foster care, where she had been thriving for three years. But she recommended that Robert be reunited with his parents.

The guardian, with Richland County Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, wrote that Robert’s young age meant that he likely could “adjust without any issues.”

“Despite some reservations, I believe that Robert Jr. should slowly be integrated into the home of his mother as she is going to have to learn how to care for four children under the age of four with one baby on the way,” the guardian wrote.

Efforts to reach the guardian through Richland County CASA were unsuccessful. A CASA attorney said the guardian and other CASA representatives were barred by state law from discussing the details of the court document.

“It’s commonplace for guardians to have reservations (about their recommendations) because it’s not an exact science,” said Paige Greene, CASA’s executive director. “That's, unfortunately, not unique. It is a call that guardians, as well as caseworkers, have to make with each case.

“Every time you're talking about keeping a child from his family or when a child has endured abuse ... it's gut-wrenching.”

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