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special report

Local child advocate helps draft law addressing child abuse

Earlier this month, Gov. Henry McMaster signed a statewide response plan for child abuse cases, establishing protocols for how agencies in South Carolina should handle allegations.

The Statewide Child Abuse Protocol act outlines “best practices” for agencies tasked with investigating or responding to the allegations, from the moment abuse is reported through the end of treatment for the victim. Agencies are pinpointed by sections, such as law enforcement, the department of social services and the solicitor's office, among a few others.

“Child abuse and neglect is a constant issue in our state and around the country,” said Michael Leach, the director of the South Carolina Department of Social Services, in a press release. “This legislation makes sure that a child that experiences abuse will receive the same standard of how abuse allegations are handled by investigative agencies no matter where they live in the state.”

Dorchester Children's Advocacy Center executive director Kay Phillips helped draft the protocol.

Previously, South Carolina did not have a standard for agencies responding to child abuse. Phillips realized the state needed a set of standardized guidelines after attending a seminar where she learned many states already have such guidelines in place.

“We realized that depending on where the cases were, things were maybe not handled the same, or there was no continuity across the state in how the cases were handled,” Phillips said. “This protocol solves that problem.”

There are 17 children advocacy centers (CACs) scattered throughout the state and nearly 1,000 that operate nationwide. Every state has a network of its own CACs. 

Members of the federal Children's Justice Act task force pledged to support the state's push for protocol, and in response, Phillips said, members of South Carolina's CAC network formed to create the draft. Several CAC directors, including Phillips and Tom Knapp, executive director of the South Carolina Network of Children's Advocacy Centers, worked on the draft for more than a year before submitting it to the Joint Citizen and Legislative Committee on Children. It was ultimately passed by the House and Senate and signed by McMaster.

“Today is the culmination of years of work to establish a protocol for our statewide response to the public health crisis that is child abuse,” said Knapp in a press release the day the act was signed. “The South Carolina child abuse response protocol will strengthen our statewide response for children and families who have been impacted by child abuse and will help them to heal and thrive in what is undoubtedly one of the most difficult times in their lives.”

Phillips said the protocol is crucial. The past year and a half have brought more stressors into homes and families. As a result, Phillips says, advocacy centers have seen the number of abuse cases go up.

“These are much more stressful times for families,” Phillips said. “We definitely think that has increased issues within families and increased child abuse.”

On top of added stress from COVID-19, children have spent more time in their homes and less time around other people, specifically their teachers and school staff, who are typically the first to notice signs of abuse.

“We did notice that when school did start back up this year there was an increase in child abuse reports,” Phillips said. “The school is really in many, many times the first line of defense for kids because they are the ones that have their eyes on the kids every day. They are many times the first point of contact where a child may say something to them or they notice something.”

The Dorchester CAC serves children from birth to 17 years old, but there are also resources for young adults or those who are experiencing elder abuse. The South Carolina Department of Social Services has a 24-hour hotline where community members can report abuse by calling 1-888-227-3487.

“If you notice something or you suspect something you need to report it to either child protective services or law enforcement,” Phillips said. “Err on the side of safety for the child. If there is something suspicious, then report it.”