4 escapees only had to scale fence

Wade Spees // The Post and Courier

Four teens hopped the fence of the Palmetto Summerville Behavioral Health facility and escaped Wednesday. One remains at large.

SUMMERVILLE -- No real security is legally required at the children and adolescent treatment center where four teens with a history of criminal violence scaled the fence and ran away Wednesday.

And the center's staff made no timely effort to alert police or residents in surrounding neighborhoods, authorities said. Police were still waiting Friday for a photograph to be supplied of the teen who remained on the loose.

Among other concerns raised by the escape from the Palmetto Behavioral Health treatment center in Summerville are whether:

--Older juvenile criminal offenders should be treated at an inpatient/outpatient center treating children.

--A 19-year-old offender should have been treated at a children-and-adolescent center.

--More regulation is needed over a health care industry that operates in some aspects without any direct state oversight.

A multi-state police search continued Friday for Delonte Parker, 19. He is described as a black male, about 6-feet-2 and 170 pounds. The three other runaways, an 18-year-old and two 17-year-olds, were captured Thursday and returned to the center.

They were committed to the center by District of Columbia courts under the auspices of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Center. Authorities did not reveal what charges they faced in Washington.

District officials described the teens as having violent criminal histories, and a police source told The Washington Times that Parker is a serious offender. An official in Washington told The Post and Courier that he has been charged with attempted murder.

Juvenile records are kept confidential. Parker was arrested in 2008 for fleeing a police officer, according to D.C. Superior Court records obtained by the Times, and was later found guilty of tampering with a monitoring device.

On its website, the Summerville center bills itself as offering a wide array of inpatient treatments geared to children and adolescents 6 to 17 years old. Among disorders treated are sexual aggression, substance abuse and post- traumatic stress.

Authorities would not reveal what the four teens were being treated for at the center.

The compact campus consists of a main building, smaller buildings and open grounds that sit between a nursing home and an assisted- living facility near Summerville Medical Center and residential neighborhoods along Midland Parkway.

It is surrounded by a 6-foot-tall wooden fence with another 18 inches of lattice on top. The dormitories have steel doors.

No clients were outside Friday, but there are signs, including a volleyball net and a shelter, that they spend time outside.

When asked Friday about security in place at the center and whether it would be improved in the wake of the escape, a staff member would not comment and referred The Post and Courier to a news release issued Thursday.

The release said the confidentiality and privacy laws precluded the center from giving more information.

Police were notified of the runaways an hour after they occurred at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. Nearby neighbors were not notified.

Summerville police Sgt. Cassandra Williams said the incident is not considered an escape in South Carolina because the behavioral center is a private facility, not a correctional facility.

The three teens who were captured were returned to the center without any criminal charges filed against them, although they could face penalties from the Washington, D.C., authorities who committed them, she said.

"Obviously we've got a huge hole in the regulations here in South Carolina," said S.C. Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston. He called on the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to restrict the age and level of criminal offender allowed at that type of center, and to prohibit accepting out-of-state clients with criminal backgrounds.

Or, he said, the Legislature would act on it within two weeks.

"A violent sexual predator has no business in one of these inpatient/outpatients facilities to start with," Limehouse said. "Why in the world are we taking violent sexual predators from out of state? That's farcical."

The center operates under a DHEC license for children and adolescent treatment centers and is licensed for 60 beds.

The regulations for that kind of center restrict measures such as use of restraint or isolation, and require the facility to have windows that can be opened for ventilation. The center is not required to report runaways, just hospitalizations and deaths.

"As far as who comes there, we don't have any authority over that. I don't know that anybody does," said DHEC spokesman Thom Berry.

In a news release, the D.C. youth center described the Palmetto center as a "secure placement facility." Asked what that entailed, Reggie Sanders, D.C. Human Services Department spokesman, said, "I think you would have to call the center and ask them that."

Residential centers across the country treat criminal- offender juveniles as regular clients, as well as juveniles from foster care and private homes, said Steve Rublee, director of the Medical University Institute of Psychiatry. He ran a children and adolescent residential facility for seven years.

There is a range of how restrictive the individual facilities are, but "it's a pretty restrictive environment in total," he said. Clients routinely are admitted from out of state.

"They are kids who don't have an immediate crisis but have long-standing problems and need long-term care," he said. The facilities in general are capable of handling clients with various levels of security, depending on staff and facilities, he said.

Kari Sisson, American Association of Child Residential Centers national director, said clients "go AWOL all the time." She was unfamiliar with the Summerville center, which is not an association member.

"Based on (the runaways') histories, you'd think they would be placed in a facility that can meet their needs and the needs of the community," she said. "There are facilities that are more of a locked place that can treat children with these needs."