Abuse allegations haunt lucrative group homes

John Roe, who said he was abused at Boys Home of the South in Belton, lives in Greenville now and filed a lawsuit against the group home and the Department of Social Services last year. Roe said he often visits Falls Park on the Reedy in downtown Greenville to fish and relax.

BELTON — The bucolic countryside surrounding Boys Home of the South belies the horror some children say they endured after state Social Services officials dumped them here.

Even as state agencies gave the group home as much as $1.5 million a year, the Department of Social Services investigated the facility three dozen times for abuse and neglect allegations since 2000.

The state won't reveal the outcome of these investigations, but children who lived at Boys Home of the South say they were tortured and raped by employees and their peers.

A high-profile child sex abuse lawsuit forced this group home to close last year — the campus has since reopened as a Christian campground. But that was too late for John Roe, who says he was repeatedly molested by a Boys Home of the South worker more than a decade ago.

Roe, now 23, asked that The Post and Courier conceal his real name by using the pseudonym he chose for a lawsuit filed last year against the group home and the Department of Social Services. He said he reported the attacks to another staffer and his assigned Department of Social Services caseworker, but they did nothing about the abuse.

“I felt worthless that nobody would actually listen, that it wasn't taken seriously,” Roe said. “Eventually, I gave up trying.”

The lawsuit that finally shut down Boys Home of the South made national news, but this was far from the only residential group home in South Carolina to profit handsomely off taxpayer dollars while the child welfare agency investigated the facility for maltreatment of children in its care.

New Hope Carolinas, which operates a psychiatric treatment facility in Rock Hill, has been investigated for child abuse and neglect 119 times since 2000. Six other group homes and institutions have been investigated by Social Services at least 80 times in 15 years. All of them are still open, and the investigations remain sealed from the public.

Meanwhile, tax records show that nonprofit group homes in South Carolina alone make more than $70 million a year — largely from lucrative state contracts and private donations.

Some experts maintain that group homes provide a valuable community resource, offering services for many children, particularly those who have been diagnosed with severe behavioral health issues and have nowhere else to live. Others, however, contend that the state's dependence on these homes has allowed the industry to rake in revenue while dodging accountability for the harm done to children on its watch.

Camden attorney Robert Butcher represents several former foster children allegedly abused in state custody, including Roe. Butcher said group home directors keep quiet about the kind of abuse Roe says he suffered because they worry the child welfare agency will stop sending them new children — their main source of revenue.

“They're making a killing on these kids,” Butcher said. “They don't want to rock that boat.”

Furthermore, he thinks some state caseworkers downplay allegations made by children because investigating potential abuse takes time that they don't have and Social Services has nowhere else to place them.

“They're in the business of selling children,” he said. “Basically, they don't do their damn jobs.”

State officials and group home supporters say these facilities aren't a perfect fit for every child, but it's unfair to paint them all with the same brush.

“I think there are really good foster homes and there are really good group homes. And there's really bad of both,” said Danny Gilbert, who owns Eagle Harbor Ranch, a group home for boys in Berkeley County. “There are some people who are just collecting a check.”

More than 7,000 group homes and orphanages for children across the country pull in about $8.8 billion a year and employ almost 130,000 people, according to an industry report published last year by IBISWorld, a national research firm.

More than 67 percent of this money comes from government contributions and grants.

In South Carolina, the Department of Social Services spent more than $28 million in the 2014 fiscal year placing almost a quarter of all foster children in more than 90 group homes across the state.

Before Boys Home of the South closed in 2014, the Department of Social Services paid the group home nearly $3 million in five years, but other group homes typically make much more.

The Connie Maxwell Children's Home in Greenwood made about $11 million in 2013 from several revenue sources, according to public tax records. Epworth Children's Home in Columbia made $6.8 million. Thornwell Home for Children in Clinton made $8 million. This group home and its related organizations, affliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), compensated its president $196,000 in 2013 — $90,000 more than Gov. Nikki Haley's salary.

“There's a built-in source of waste that could be used to fund more supportive foster homes for these kids,” said Ira Lustbader, the litigation director for Children's Rights, a national advocacy group. “Something is just way out of whack in South Carolina on this issue.”

Sue Berkowitz, executive director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, said group homes make so much money because their interests are well represented by lobbyists and lawmakers.

“It's no different than nursing homes. It's more humane and cheaper for us to have community, long-term care and to keep elderly and severely disabled people in their homes, yet the nursing home lobby is incredibly powerful,” Berkowitz said. “Some of them have been just absolutely horrendous.”

Group homes are entitled to make money, she said, but children have been hurt and she doesn't think the state is doing enough to protect them.

“We're not doing what we need to do up front to figure out who needs to go where and how they should be placed,” she said.

Some state leaders, including former Department of Social Services Director Lillian Koller, tried to reduce the number of children sent to live in group homes with limited success.

In 2009 and 2010, a handful of these group homes in South Carolina closed, and others were forced to scale back operations.

These closures illustrated a national trend. Similar facilities in other states also shut their doors as the number of children in foster care dropped across the country and as federal funding and private donations dwindled. Best practices indicated children were better off living with families anyway. Koller supported this shift away from group homes.

Deborah McKelvey, the executive director of Windwood Farm in Awendaw, remembered Koller and her deputy director addressing group home employees at an industry meeting in 2011. “They said, 'We don't value what you provide any more. We don't need you.' ”

McKelvey estimated more than 500 group home “beds” in South Carolina were lost over a five-year period.

“Probably a couple of years ago, they really started making the push that they didn't want kids in residential placements,” she said. “They used words like 'languish' — like (group homes) were torture chambers. They're not.”

Koller resigned last year amid political uproar that the agency was grossly mismanaged and that children were dying on her watch.

Since then, some group homes in South Carolina have bounced back. McKelvey said Windwood is running at full capacity these days.

“Now, an influx of kids are coming in,” she said. “Our phone does not stop ringing all day long.”

All 15 group home beds at Windwood are filled with children in state custody.

“I hear and read enough horror stories to know that (group homes) are not all good,” McKelvey said. “But there's certainly a place and a need for group homes, for residential care like we have here.”

Paula Fendley, who represents many group homes in South Carolina as executive director of the Palmetto Association of Children and Families, said the whole Social Services agency needs reform. Group homes, which she estimates employ thousands of people in this state, aren't the problem.

“We need all kinds of levels of care,” Fendley said. “We need to stop demonizing DSS and stop demonizing providers and demonizing advocates and all figure out what we need to do, instead of just blaming everything on DSS.”

State lawmakers agreed with Fendley that the issue is nuanced.

Sen. Tom Alexander, R-Walhalla, said South Carolina could use more foster families, but group homes should remain an important part of the mix.

“I think what you've got to have is a variety of options for the Department (of Social Services),” said Alexander, a member of the state Senate committee that reviews Social Services funding every year. “One size doesn't fit all.”

The former Department of Social Services director didn't see it that way, he said.

“It was almost like we were trying to dismantle the (group) homes,” he said. “Obviously I'm a tremendous supporter of foster parents and foster homes, but in every situation that's not what's available.”

A handful of small group homes in Alexander's rural Upstate district make more than $5 million a year, tax records show. Some of them opened their doors decades ago and employ dozens of people in a region hit hard by the recent recession. Unemployment around Walhalla topped 14 percent a few years back.

“I know (group) homes that we have in our area, they're very loving, they're faith-based,” he said. “Ultimately, we've got to do what's best for the children ... I'm not interested in numbers and statistics driving what's in their best interest.”

Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, a member of the Senate DSS Oversight Committee, said she wants to evaluate how the child welfare agency spends its money and where foster children should be sent, but she said overhauling Social Services may take several years.

“I think what we did several years ago, we eliminated some of our good group homes,” Shealy said. She doesn't want to watch that happen again. “This is not something we can solve in one six-month session.”

When the Department of Social Services finally moved John Roe out of Boys Home of the South in 2005, his new foster mom noticed he needed help.

Roe wore diapers. He couldn't control his bowel movements. A doctor wrote down in his medical record that the scars on his urethra suggested he had been sexually abused.

Abbeville attorney Heather Hite Stone, who also represents Roe, said he will likely need medical care and therapy for the rest of his life.

“He doesn't want this to ever happen to any other kids and I don't either,” Stone said. “It's just really sad.”

But some child advocates say South Carolina isn't trying hard enough to change the status quo.

They believe reducing the amount of money this state spends on group homes would immediately free up funds to recruit more foster families, some of whom now earn less than $13 a day to raise children in state custody.

Susan Alford, the new Department of Social Services director, said the agency needs to make it easier for potential foster families to sign up.

She said internal data indicates for every 1,000 families who express interest in fostering children in South Carolina, only 300 of them make it through the months-long process.

“One of the things we really want to do is get serious about foster care recruitment,” Alford said. “We do believe we need to have more foster homes for kids so they don't have to go to group homes if we don't think that's the best treatment option for them.”

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.

Continue reading: Eagle Harbor Ranch: A case study in confusion