The S.C. Department of Social Services has continued to assign dozens of children in state custody to a Summerville group home in recent months, even after agency officials were made aware that Pinelands Group Homes allegedly punishes children by boarding them up in small, dark rooms for long stretches of time, new federal court records show.
Pinelands CEO Joette Kizer denied the use of solitary confinement for children under the facility's care. She said she didn't know why court-appointed experts made such claims.
"Nobody has proven that. And nobody has witnessed that," Kizer said.
No one from DSS agreed to be interviewed on Thursday. DSS spokeswoman Pam Bryant said agency attorneys intended to file a response in federal court related to the allegations, but she did not provide other details.
Pinelands, located just off Main Street in historic downtown Summerville, admits approximately 120 children every year, Kizer said. She estimated 90 percent of them are in state custody. The group home's website explains it serves children "who exhibit severe psychological/psychiatric behaviors requiring intermediate to long term care" and that staff prepare adolescents to "return to a healthy environment at a functional level equivalent for his/her developmental stage."
But in a letter dated Nov. 5, filed in federal court in Charleston on Wednesday, two court-appointed monitors explained to Department of Social Services lawyer Holly Pisarik that they are "profoundly concerned" about the safety of children at Pinelands and are "struggling to understand how DSS has not acted sooner." The letter indicates DSS has known about the use of solitary confinement at Pinelands since last December.
The monitors acknowledged in their letter that Pinelands leadership has denied the use of solitary confinement. But they wrote "it was clear from our tour that youth are sent to ‘serve time out’ in incredibly tight, dark, partially boarded up (and, in at least one instance, unheated) rooms for long periods of time.”
The monitors explained to the DSS lawyer that the practice of isolating children is "potentially traumatizing and overly punitive" and that it violates widely accepted industry standards. "We know you share this view," they told DSS.
The monitors further wrote DSS needs to move children out of Pinelands with a "requisite high sense of urgency."
"As we have shared several times, we are unable to understand how these concerning practices had not been identified, elevated and ameliorated prior to now," the monitors wrote.
They estimated in the letter that DSS has placed approximately 40 children at Pinelands in recent months and that caseworkers, theoretically, have interviewed each of these children. Separately, DSS licensing staff should have visited Pinelands in this time frame, too, they wrote.
"Did any of these interactions and observations at Pinelands result in concerns about a child’s physical or emotional safety or were concerns raised about high risk situations?" the monitors asked.
DSS did not provide information on Thursday about the number of children the agency has sent to Pinelands or how much money the group home has been paid by the state.
"Key members of our team are not available to interview today nor to access these data points," Bryant, the DSS spokeswoman, explained in an email.
More than 4,500 children were in state custody on June 1, according to data published on the DSS website. Most live in foster homes or group homes.
Some group homes in South Carolina are paid nearly $100 per child per night. Collectively, the agency spends tens of millions of dollars every year boarding children at these congregate care facilities.
An investigation published by The Post and Courier in 2015 found that children in state custody have been beaten, sexually abused, neglected and over-medicated inside group homes and foster homes across South Carolina. The newspaper reported that DSS caseworkers manage heavy workloads that make it difficult to ensure each child's safety. At the time, DSS sent South Carolina's youngest foster children into group homes at a much higher rate than any other state in the country, even though experts have long agreed that children in state custody are better suited to live with relatives or foster families.
Some of the same findings were outlined in a 2015 class action lawsuit filed against DSS by two advocacy groups.
A settlement agreement was reached in that case in 2016, requiring DSS to improve these problems and to comply with independent court-appointed monitors who were charged with measuring the agency's progress.
But the plaintiffs in the case — the Columbia-based S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center and New York-based Children's Rights — argued in a motion filed Monday that DSS is not holding up its end of the agreement. They have asked U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel to find DSS in contempt for the agency's alleged failure to comply with the settlement.
The letter outlining the monitors' concerns about Pinelands was included in a supplemental filing this week.
S.C. Appleseed Legal Director Sue Berkowitz said she could not discuss the ongoing litigation.
Both sides are scheduled to appear in federal court on Tuesday for a regular status conference. Gergel is not expected to hear arguments related to the motion filed this week.
"It's really clear to me, as an observer, that (DSS has) been dragging their feet," said Columbia attorney Jay Elliot, who represents children, but does not represent the plaintiffs in this case. "That’s kind of emblematic of the Department of Social Services anyway."
Meanwhile, DSS finds itself without a permanent leader. Former DSS Director Susan Alford announced her retirement in July. Her replacement has not yet been named.