Six-month-old Mason had a big smile that showed in his photo.
But in July 2015, his parents took the Laurens County boy to a hospital with severe head injuries. He was placed on life support but died the next day.
Authorities said his father had admitted to abusing the infant and he was charged with homicide by child abuse. The mother was charged with unlawful neglect of a child. The father eventually plead guilty and was sentenced to 30 years in prison, court records show. The mother pled guilty and was sentenced to 30 days time served.
Mason’s death was among the more horrific examples of a pervasive problem in South Carolina that appeared to spike dramatically in 2015.
Despite millions more dollars being spent in recent years on the state’s child welfare agency and the hiring of hundreds of workers to combat child abuse and neglect, records reviewed by The Greenville News show complaints and investigations of abuse and neglect have been on a steady march upward.
According to the state Department of Social Services, the number of complaints of child abuse and neglect received by the agency went from 27,370 in 2012 to 30,950 in 2014 and 40,463 in 2015.
The number of investigations in child abuse and neglect, meanwhile, jumped from 13,218 in 2012 to 16,501 in 2014 and 23,347 last year.
“We have a serious problem,” said state Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Lexington Republican who sits on a Senate committee with oversight of DSS.
The oversight panel has spent the past three years delving into the issue of child abuse and neglect and how the agency has handled such complaints. In a series of sometimes dramatic public hearings, senators heard testimony of children who were abused and died, of overworked caseworkers and severe staff turnover rates. A scathing report by the Legislative Audit Council in October 2014 found that thousands of the state’s children were victims of abuse or neglect and some even died after DSS chose to refer their cases to community prevention programs instead of investigating them.
Since then, a new director of the agency has been at work making changes, the system for receiving child abuse and neglect allegations has been centralized in some parts of the state to include a toll-free number, and hundreds of caseworkers have been hired in an effort to reduce caseloads to a new standard.
DSS Director Susan Alford told senators last year that the spike then in investigations was largely the result of the partial installment of the new reporting system, called intake hubs, a regional system for receiving calls and reports of abuse and neglect. She told The News much the same in a statement issued Friday:
“From our review of the data, what we know is that implementation of intake hubs is producing what we want—an increase in calls received, and an increase in our screening of reports of abuse and neglect," she said. "We don’t want to miss a report. What we have to be careful of is maintaining our staffing levels to support that increase—we need to assure we have adequate numbers of highly trained intake workers, to do timely and effective screening of incoming calls, and we need to retain enough caseworkers to manage increased caseloads. "
What’s causing underlying problem?
DSS data offers some clues as to the exact nature of the problem. The biggest single type of investigation is neglect and risk of neglect, followed by physical abuse and risk of physical abuse, according to the data. Other types include sexual abuse, educational neglect, medical neglect and abandonment.
Among the reasons for children entering foster care last year, according to the agency, neglect was by far the most common, followed by physical abuse. Other major reasons included sexual abuse, family instability, and parental drug abuse. Spartanburg, Richland and Greenville were the top three counties in the state, respectively, for foster-care cases in which negelect was a reason.
Sue Williams, executive director of the Children's Trust of South Carolina, an organization which focuses on child abuse and neglect prevention, said it is possible that with the new DSS reporting system that more cases are being found than ever before.
“Maybe it’s closer to the real number, which is a good thing that we are finding these kids and their families,” she said. “But then how do we get it where we’re not always reacting? How do we help a community help a family and support them with what they need so it doesn't escalate to a report and a child that has been traumatized?”
Across the nation, she said, the levels of abuse in states are consistent. But in South Carolina, there have been dips and spikes, most recently spikes.
“I think the primary question is, if this is the true rate of abuse and neglect, what are the ways we can decrease these rates because we prevented them from happening, not just because we are missing them?” Williams asked.
A myriad of factors can contribute to abuse and neglect in South Carolina, experts say, not the least of which is poverty.
“We have a lot of people who are under-employed, who are struggling to make ends meet,” Williams said. “Tensions are high and they are trying to meet basic needs for their family. Neglect accounts for way more kids coming into the system and a lot of that can be related to the effects of poverty.”
According to the latest Kids Count profile for South Carolina, a look at some of the factors most affecting children, 27 percent of children in the state were in poverty in 2014, up from 22 percent in 2008. A third of children in the state have parents who lack secure employment. Only four other states have a higher percentage of children in poverty.
“This is a fundamental question: Are we saying these parents are maltreating their kids because they are poor?” Williams asked. “Sometimes you go and there's holes in the floor because there’s no money to fix them.”
Research, she said, has shown that abuse covers all demographics. But there are factors which can help protect children.
Those include concrete support, such as food, clothing and shelter. “If you don’t have the basic needs met, then you're always living in a sort of tension about how to pay the next bill, when the next meal is going to happen,” she said. “Kids go home Friday and they don't eat until Monday.”
Other factors, she said, include social connections, support for families so they know they are not alone; knowledge of child development by parents; and parental resilience, being able to pick yourself up after a setback or problem.
“Each one of those has to be in place,” she said. “What that tells us is, if we’re having a spike, maybe those things in the community aren’t there.”
Laura Hudson, a longtime victims’ advocate who also serves on the state’s child fatality review committee, said she is at a loss to explain why abuse or neglect remains so pervasive.
About 600-800 children in the state, 17 and under, die each year from all causes, she said. Of that number, about 160-200 deaths are referred to the State Law Enforcement Division for an additional look because the deaths are violent, suspicious or from an undetermined cause, she said.
DSS annually reports the number of children who die in abuse or neglect situations it has investigated. That number was 14 in 2012, 24 in 2013, and 22 in 2014, according to the agency, which is still reviewing data for 2015.
Reporting also on rise
Hudson said she is pleased there is more reporting to DSS of child abuse and neglect cases.
“I can't answer why we have so many cases,” she said.
She said there has been an increase in the number of child deaths reported to SLED and the number of deaths in which DSS was involved in some way with the family.
She said economics and the lack of a “traditional home with two loving parents” could be factors.
In South Carolina, 43 percent of children in 2014 lived in single-parent families, the third-highest percentage in the nation, according to this year's Kids Count report.
Shealy thinks both poverty and a lack of education play a role in abuse and neglect cases.
“But when you look at where some of the deaths are happening, those aren’t necessarily poverty areas,” she said. “Lexington County has an issue. We’re not a poverty area of this state. Aiken County has a problem. Spartanburg. Those are three areas that I am concerned about right now.”
She said in other areas, she is concerned incidents are not properly reported. She said she also is convinced some of the abuse is generational.
DSS officials believe the increase reports will eventually level out, much as they have in some other states that introduced the centralized reporting system. But they also expect more increases as they expand the new system to the entire state, which is one reason they asked for more workers in the current budget.
Williams said her organization is focused on ways to reduce the problem.
It helps fund prevention programs throughout the state, including those aimed at strengthening families and providing home visitation to new families.
Children’s Trust also has been analyzing data from a survey of adults in the state on adverse childhood experiences. National research has found such traumatic experiences can increase the adult risk of substance use and abuse, depression, unintended pregnancies, obesity, heart disease and missed work days. For children, recurrent experience of or exposure to ACEs can also significantly impact the brain development, according to Children’s Trust.
They also offer an indicator of abuse in the population.
According to the weighted survey, 15 percent of adults reported being victims of household physical abuse as a child, 13 percent reported being victims of some type of sexual abuse and 30 percent reported emotional abuse, defined as receiving an insult, put down or being cursed by a parent or adult in the home. According to the survey, 29 percent reported household substance abuse and 20 percent reported domestic violence.
Nationally, a higher percentage of adults reported instances of physical abuse but far lower percentages of emotional abuse, said Melissa Strompolis, director of research for Children’s Trust.
She said the data is valuable for preventing abuse and neglect because many of the issues are related.
“We know there's likely to be other issues, such as substance abuse or mental illness or domestic violence or incarceration,” she said. “So for us we really wanted to take an approach in which we can prevent child abuse and neglect but we can also find a way to bring in our other partners so we can collectively increase child and family well-being.”
Children’s Trust plans a summit later this year on the data to help communities develop their own plans of action to reduce adverse childhood experiences in their communities.
There have been some bright spots, officials say, in the battle against abuse and neglect.
The overall Kids Count ranking for South Carolina this year moved to its highest mark yet, 41st, with improvements especially in health, including a lower rate of child deaths. DSS has reported a number of improvements, including lower caseloads, reduced turnover and more caseworkers.
Williams said progress in the state is slow and will take a long time.
Sen. Tom Young, an Aiken Republican and chairman of the DSS oversight committee, said he believes the primary issue behind abuse and neglect is generational poverty.
“The states that annually rank high in that report from Kids Count are states that have an educated work force, more students graduating from high school on time and higher paying jobs than South Carolina,” he said. “Many problems we face in the state in this area are the result of generational poverty. The big picture is that improving the overall educational attainment of our state’s citizens is critical to address issues related to abuse and neglect but also other problems that stem from generational poverty in South Carolina.”