A jury found the South Carolina Department of Social Services grossly negligent for failing to investigate reports of suspected child abuse.
The case was filed after a Spartanburg County girl wound up in the hospital.
The child’s grandmother says she asked for help three times before the child was hurt but the DSS failed to respond.
The verdict is the latest black spot on an agency plagued with a history of neglecting the very children it’s supposed to protect.
Attorney Heather Stone has 10 active cases against DSS and represents the family of what the court called Baby Girl Smith.
“It’s one of the more severe cases that I’ve handled,” says Stone. “In fact, it’s one of the more severe cases that has happened in Spartanburg County DSS, too.”
Stone says by state law, DSS is required to “begin an appropriate and thorough investigation” “within 24 hours” of a report of suspected abuse.
Baby Girl Smith’s grandmother tried to warn DSS about Robert Lee Steadman, Jr, the boyfriend of the girl’s mother.
“She came up there in person and called twice and begged for them to help her,” said Stone. “And when they didn’t, the child was almost killed. And it didn’t have to happen.”
Steadman is serving 20 years for breaking the girl’s bones, biting her, and ripping out large chunks of her hair.
At the hospital, the 21-month-old also tested positive for cocaine.
In a statement, DSS calls the abuse on Baby Girl Smith “heartbreaking.” The agency says new leadership and increased resources has lead to more consistent assessment practices through new intake hubs.
The family won’t see close to that nearly $4 million award. That’s because judgements against the state are capped, in this case at $450,000. The money will go into a trust for the girl.
The verdict comes a year after DSS settled a class action lawsuit by Childrens’ Rights, promising to provide better treatment for children in foster care.
“I just think DSS needs to be held accountable for protecting children in our state,” says Stone.
Stone says Baby Girl Smith is now five and living with the grandmother who tried to stop her from getting hurt in the first place.
The money from the verdict will go towards the ongoing medical costs for baby Girl Smith, who the lawyer says suffers from physical issues and also post-traumatic stress disorder.
Here is the full statement from the South Carolina Department of Social Services:
The abuse inflicted on Baby Girl Smith in 2013 is a heartbreaking tragedy. It underscores the need for the entire child welfare community—child protective services, law enforcement, the courts, private partners, child advocates, and medical professionals—to stay vigilant in our responses to children who are at risk so that tragedies like this one can be avoided. For DSS, this requires that child welfare intake and assessment practices are continuously examined and improved, so that investigations are initiated in proportion to the level of risk to a child. In early 2015, with new leadership in the Department and increased resources approved by the General Assembly, work commenced to implement more consistent assessment practices through the Department’s new regional intake hubs, and county offices. As a result, significantly more abuse and neglect allegations now meet the test for investigation, as opposed to screening out for community intervention. The number of intake decisions in 2013 was 32,039; that number has almost doubled, to 53,126 in 2016. DSS will continue to strengthen its intake and assessment processes, and the General Assembly is supporting that effort through the funding of intake hub staff, second and third shift caseworkers, and child protective services caseworkers.