Eagle Harbor Ranch is tucked away on 80 acres in rural Berkeley County and looks like a lot of other group homes for children in South Carolina. It's secluded and picturesque. Horse pastures are hedged by white fences and a man-made lake at the end of a long gravel road is stocked with fish.
Eagle Harbor Ranch founder Danny Gilbert called it the best children's home in South Carolina.
“We're not the largest facility or group home. We don't have the most money in the bank, but I guarantee you this, for a 'Level 1,' we have the best program in the state,” Gilbert said.
Others disagree, including Jeannie Wilson, a former house parent at Eagle Harbor Ranch who left last year. She reported two allegations of child sexual abuse at the facility, but said state investigators failed to do their jobs and Gilbert tried his hardest to keep the claims under wraps — an allegation he denies.
They offer competing points of view, and the public has no real way to determine who is telling the truth.
More than 100 group homes and institutions are scattered across South Carolina, and the state spends tens of millions of dollars every year sending children — most of them part of the foster care system — into these facilities. But what happens to them there is shielded by privacy laws that keep everyone, including their own parents, in the dark.
Department of Social Services Director Susan Alford said these cases are kept secret for children's confidentiality.
“We just have to be very, very careful about protecting kids' identities,” she said.
Still, Eagle Harbor's story shows how difficult it is for the tax-paying public to find out how children are treated in these homes and how the state monitors their safety.
The Department of Social Services has investigated seven allegations of abuse or neglect at Eagle Harbor Ranch since it opened in 2004. It would not disclose how many of those cases it could prove because the results of the investigations are protected by state law, an agency attorney explained in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Post and Courier.
Gilbert said all seven of the allegations were unsubstantiated.
Wilson, who worked as a house parent at Eagle Harbor for four years, said she spoke up after learning that a child was forced to perform oral sex on another boy at the group home. She said she reported the abuse to the front office, and eventually to the Department of Social Services.
“At least three children knew about it and one child guarded the door and made sure nobody came out,” she said.
Social Services investigators never asked the right questions, she said, and the probe hit a wall.
“I kept asking, 'What's the outcome? What's the outcome?' ... 'I have all these witnesses,' ” she said. “That went nowhere.”
Wilson said she also believes at least one former employee sexually abused a boy at Eagle Harbor. She reported her suspicions to the director, but said he wanted to keep her concerns secret.
Gilbert denied her claims and wrote Wilson's allegations off as the complaints of a disgruntled ex-employee.
“I am confident that we're doing an excellent job,” he said.
Justin Parker, who lived at Eagle Harbor Ranch for four years as a foster child, agreed with Gilbert.
“I didn't want to leave. I loved it there,” said Parker, now 23 years old. “I don't think there is anywhere else that could do any better, as far as giving you a normal life.”
Teresa Abercrombie, another former Eagle Harbor house parent, corroborated Wilson's version of events.
“Part of the reason we left was because one of the children in the house had been a sexual predator and we had a six-month-old son,” Abercrombie said. “I have nightmares about the place.”
Neither woman believes children are safe at the group home.
“It's very disgusting,” Wilson said. “I believe with all my heart it may have started out to do the kids good, but I think greed got in the way.”
Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.
Continue reading: Advocates doubt plan to pull children out of institutions will work