COLUMBIA - The Department of Social Services took another hit Wednesday as details of an investigation into an infant's death were released by law enforcement.
Five-month-old Bryson Webb died in his car seat on April 22, after he stopped breathing. A friend of his mother noticed Bryson was not breathing, while his mother was inside a store.
The boy's death triggered an investigation by the offices of the Richland County Sheriff and Coroner. On Wednesday, the heads of each agency held a news conference to reveal details of their continuing investigations.
Bryson's doctor and nurses had warned his mother, 28-year-old Jennifer Coles, that her infant had to be attached to a monitor that would sound off if the boy had issues breathing or his heart slowed, said Richland County Coroner Gary Watts. The condition was the result of Bryson being born prematurely at 28 weeks.
But Coles did not use the monitor daily, said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott. The last time Bryson wore it was March 28, according to data from the monitor, Lott said. The boy's medical caretakers knew the monitor was being used sporadically, which is why a call was placed to DSS on March 3.
"DSS never followed up with that person who made the complaint," Lott said. "She would have been able to put them together, DSS with Ms. Coles, almost immediately. Where they (DSS) were calling, how they were doing it, I don't know."
In fact, it took 49 days - a day before Bryson died - for a DSS intake worker to call the person who made the complaint on April 21, Watts said.
DSS insists the agency continually tried tracking down Coles, who was allegedly transient and living in different locations. They opened an investigation on March 4, but found the family on Friday, three days after Bryson had died.
"The Department of Social Services began investigating this case immediately, which involved having a caseworker physically attempt to locate this family five different times, including at night and on the weekends," said DSS director Lillian Koller in a written statement. "Despite the very best efforts of DSS, there are tragic cases where the system as a whole is not able to prevent a child from being harmed by their own parents."
Effective immediately, DSS added a requirement Wednesday that if staff cannot find a child or family within 72 hours, they must contact law enforcement for assistance, Koller said.
Lott disputed the difficulty of finding the family. Unaware DSS was searching for them, his deputies made contact with the family a few days before Bryson died after a person called to report a woman - Coles - was being beaten by a man in public.
"We found her," Lott said. "We've been able to find her. The medical professional that reported it to DSS knew how to find her ... It wasn't impossible."
Coles has since been arrested on charges of unlawful conduct toward a child. Her bond was set at $10,000. Charges against Coles may be upgraded after the sheriff's and coroner's offices investigations are complete.
Watts said Bryson's autopsy showed no signs of trauma.
"This child was not beaten," he said. "This child was just not treated medically the way he was supposed to be treated, which ultimately led to the same ending."
Watts was among the first to publicly voice concern over issues at DSS, when he stood before the Senate's DSS Oversight Subcommittee in March. Since then, two of the committee's members - Sens. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, and Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington - have called for Gov. Nikki Haley to fire Koller.
Shealy lamented Bryson's case and "serious issues" at DSS on Wednesday. She said she did not blame DSS employees for the agency's ailments, adding they are overworked.
"Somebody has got to be responsible and it can't be the employees all of the time," Shealy said. "We've got to stop doing that."
Cynthia Roldan can be reached at 708-5891.
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