Social services officials are refusing to answer questions about why an 8-year-old Rock Hill boy was sent to live with his uncle – a convicted felon – after he was removed from his allegedly abusive father’s home months ago.
That uncle is now charged with abusing the boy, too.
The York County office of the state Department of Social Services deferred questions about the boy, his family and the case to department spokeswoman Marilyn Matheus.
Matheus said DSS is still investigating the family, assessing safety in the home and monitoring services that possibly include training and counseling. She declined to answer specific questions about the case.
Police on Oct. 13 arrested the boy’s 36-year-old uncle at his Clinton Avenue home, charging him with second-degree possession of marijuana and unlawful conduct toward a child, according to a Rock Hill police report.
Officers went to the man’s home to serve an outstanding warrant. When they arrived, they realized that he had been smoking marijuana. They found 0.15 grams of marijuana in a clear plastic bag under the living room coffee table, the report states.
They also found the boy in the house. The uncle, whom The Herald is not naming to protect the child’s identity, was arrested, while the boy was left in the care of his uncle’s fiancé. The uncle was released from jail a week later on a nearly $40,000 bond.
Police records show that officials had been investigating the boy’s uncle since July, when the York County DSS office called police to report another abuse allegation.
A DSS case worker told police that the boy’s uncle had donned a mask and began speaking in “scary voices” to frighten him, reports show.
The boy ran into the bathroom and locked the door, but the uncle opened the door and started hitting the boy in the head, the report states. He punched the boy in the eye, leaving him with a bruised right eye and red marks on his head.
When children are taken from one abusive situation to another, “it magnifies the trauma they’ve already experienced from the first abuse,” said Jane Alleva, interim director of Safe Passage, a shelter for abused women and children.
“It makes them less apt to tell people that they’re in trouble. It makes them more of a victim all through life.”
The police report says the boy had been living with his uncle while DSS was investigating a similar abuse allegation against his father.
If abuse is alleged against a parent, it’s standard for a child to be removed from the home temporarily during an ongoing investigation, said Sele Aligbe, spokesman with the state’s Department of Social Services.
In the case of the 8-year-old boy, “they (parents) must have stated that the uncle was a suitable placement for the child and that’s where the child was placed,” Aligbe said.
Court records show the uncle pleaded guilty in 1995 to assault and battery with intent to kill after he threw a cement brick at a 21-year-old man’s car and hit him in the head. The man was hospitalized with serious injuries. The uncle was sentenced to 18 years in prison, but was released in 2006. In 2009, he pleaded guilty to trespassing and was sentenced to time served.
“There should be a background check,” Aligbe said. “We do not want to take the child and put them out of harm and put them in more harm.”
On May 2, a Rock Hill parks employee told police the boy, then 7, had several large bruises on his arms and back. The boy told the employee his father had spanked him after he got in trouble at school.
Police say the father beat his son with a leather belt and wooden paddle, according to an arrest warrant. The beating caused several bruises on the boy’s upper arms, back, chest and torso, as well as several cuts on his back from splinters on the paddle.
Two days later, the boy’s father was arrested and charged with unlawful conduct toward a child, another police report shows. He was released from jail on bond the next day. He showed officers the belt he used to spank the boy, along with a ruler he uses to “pop the children’s hands,” the report states.
The father’s children were initially released to his wife. It’s unclear if the wife is the 8-year-old boy’s mother or how many children the father has.
The father has been convicted of shoplifting and driving under suspension, both misdemeanors, within the past eight years, according to the State Law Enforcement Division. The Herald is not naming him to protect his son’s identity.
“It’s tragic whenever a child is not safe and is traumatized,” Alleva said. “It’s always a risk” placing children during a DSS investigation, she said. “There is a risk factor because you’re putting kids with humans.”
If a child is removed from a home, the non-abusive parent might suggest their child be placed with a relative – a preferred option Alleva dubbed “kinship placement” that’s outfitted with less restrictions than the foster care system.
It’s a preferred solution because kids “know those people and they have the same culture or heritage,” Alleva said. “The family member can have a voice.”
But it’s not a perfect solution. Children are just as susceptible to abuse by family members as they are by foster parents, Alleva said, and for case workers, it’s a gamble.
When she worked in Kansas, Alleva said, officials performed detailed criminal background checks and ensured a relative met certain criteria before placing a child in their care.
South Carolina moves at a faster pace, she said.
State DSS case workers should always ask police to run a state criminal background check and sex offender registry checks on someone they might place a child with, said Kathleen McLean-Titus, DSS human services coordinator.
If the background checks are clear, case workers have the relative sign an affidavit confirming they’ve never been arrested or convicted of a crime. The affidavit is also signed by the biological parent and DSS, she said.
“We have to rely on the information we have at the time,” she said. “And we hope it’s accurate.”
But if a potential custodian has any kind of crime against a person on their record, she said, DSS policy prohibits placing the child with that person.
“They should be ruled out,” McLean-Titus said. If a mistake is made, “we are supposed to fix the situation.”
Both Matheus and McLean-Titus were unable to comment when The Herald asked if York County officials made them aware of the boy’s uncle’s prior conviction for assault and battery with intent to kill.
The boy lived with his uncle for at least five months before the uncle was arrested.
Alleva said the effects of repeated abuse can be long-lasting for a child.
“Everything can be stunted due to the trauma,” she said. “The more trauma you put on a child, the more that child has an uphill battle going through life.
“The future just becomes harder for them.”