The judge looked squarely at the parents seated before him. Never beat the child again, he said, demanding to know if they understood.
"If there was a second time this occurs, there may be a strong possibility that you will lose your rights to be parents of your children," Family Court Judge Paul W. Garfinkel told them. "The state may take away your children and you will never see them again."
In addition, criminal charges may be filed.
"You must understand the seriousness of what has happened, and that you have been given a second chance, and this will be the last chance you are given," he continued. "My job is to protect the interest of the children, and if there is any future problem, I will put the interests of the children above yours. That is a certainty."
With that, Garfinkel wrapped up the hearing.
This time, the state's child welfare system delivered good news: The youngster, who had been struck with a belt hard enough to leave a mark or bruise, was returning to his parents; the case was being closed.
The outcome is not always so positive in Family Court.
Sometimes adults do horrible things. There's the father who threatened a man with a knife while his child looked on. Or the man whose children saw him shoot his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Or the case of a girl who was sexually assaulted by a neighbor after she was locked out of her house after school.
Some children are found with marks on their bodies from extension cords or bites. Others suffer broken bones and brain injuries.
At any given time, abuse or neglect places about 5,400 children in the state's foster care system where they are supposed to be protected while abusive adults are rehabilitated or adoptions can be arranged.
The South Carolina Department of Social Services, with an annual budget of $1.2 billion, investigated 18,337 reports of abuse or neglect in 2007 and confirmed that 12,762 children had been affected, according to the latest complete data from the Child Welfare League of America. Last year, the volume of reports and investigations, and the number of children confirmed abused, were about the same, according to the agency.
A growing imbalance between demand for child protection and available resources has made the agency's work more difficult as it deals with drastic budget cuts.
The agency lost nearly $50 million in state money and an accompanying loss of at least $50 million federal matching funds between June 2008 and December 2009. The cuts have created or exacerbated a number of problems.
--Department staffing was reduced by 500 positions, to 3,849, along with a hiring freeze and unpaid furloughs.
--Case loads of child welfare workers have grown substantially, which often prevents the workers from effectively monitoring individual cases.
--Families, many of them poor, must pay thousands of dollars out of their own pockets for court-mandated treatment programs with little or no assistance from the state.
Court-ordered treatment can include substance abuse, anger-management and parenting courses. Typically required, too, is an initial drug assessment, a parental fitness assessment and random drug testing. About 80 percent of child welfare cases result from drug and alcohol abuse, Family Court attorney and guardian ad litem Ellen Babb said.
It is up to the defendant to complete and pay for the prescribed treatment plan, Babb said. Neither the Department of Social Services nor the court provides parents with a list of resources. The parents, many without access to regular transportation, are supposed to figure out who to call and where to go, she said. If they fail to abide by the court's orders, they risk losing their children.
Child victims of abuse and neglect depend on a competent, well-funded and adequately staffed social service and legal system. The stakes are high: Research shows that abused children are more likely to become abusive adults, struggle with poverty and crime and endure emotional and physical health consequences.
The direct annual costs associated with maintaining the child welfare system nationally are estimated to be $24 billion, according to a 2001 report by Prevent Child Abuse America. The indirect costs to society -- crime, mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, loss of productivity because of unemployment and underemployment, special education services and increased use of the health care system -- are estimated at $69 billion a year.
The state Department of Social Services, despite drastic budget cuts, is processing more allegations of abuse than ever. Caseworkers in populous counties typically handle 35 cases at a time, and sometimes as many as 45, according to the agency. That's more than double to triple the 12 to 15 case load recommended by the Child Welfare League of America.
Often, the large case loads and limited ability to service them mean case workers don't have the necessary time to work with families on abuse issues , and the children likely will be placed in foster care instead. The children also are more likely to remain in foster care longer.
In one case, the Department of Social Services petitioned Family Court to terminate parental rights, but lost the case despite extreme evidence of abuse, Babb said. The case had been open for months, she said, but the backlog and limited resources -- there are only four DSS child welfare attorneys in Charleston County, and only one working on termination of parental rights cases -- prevented the agency from moving ahead efficiently.
What's more, these constraints led the agency to introduce just one expert witness, and not the doctors who attended to the children, Babb said.
When the agency resorted to arguing that documented abuse and neglect required action, a different judge agreed, preventing three children from returning to their mother, who nevertheless has not relinquished her parental rights. This threw the children into a strange limbo, Babb said. They are effectively stuck in foster care until they "age out" at 18, and are on their own as adults.
"Our system is broken," Babb said.
The state judiciary, too, is in big financial trouble. Gov. Mark Sanford vetoed a bill May 12 that would have increased civil court fees temporarily and generated $21 million. The veto sent ripples of worry throughout the court system and prompted a forceful response from Chief Justice Jean H. Toal.
"In the absence of the civil fee increases ... the Judicial Branch will be forced to immediately lay off judges' law clerks, reduce significantly the number of court reporters and administrative assistants and cancel many terms of court," Toal said.
A recent annual review of procedures and outcomes at the Department of Social Services painted a dire picture.
The Child and Family Services Reviews, a federally mandated report issued in February, found that the agency "was not in substantial conformity" with federal requirements for "child and family outcomes."
The assessment attributed the state's low performance to:
--Severe budget cuts.
--"The lack of a clearly defined family-centered practice model" that engages parents.
--A shortage of foster homes and overuse of institutional placements such as emergency shelters and group homes.
--Court-system delays and shortcomings.
Kathleen M. Hayes, the department's director, published a response calling the report's findings "deeply disturbing for the state -- but not surprising."
"Our state has not invested the resources it needs to meet the treatment, protection, and prevention needs of families where children are at risk," she wrote.
In Charleston County, 16 of 23 agency outcomes were identified in a February 2008 internal report as "areas needing improvement," including several concerning the continuity of family relationships and all of the "well being" outcomes (adequate number of visitations, family involvement in case planning, education needs, physical and mental health).
A worsening problem
Reported cases of abuse and neglect seem to have increased during the past two years, officials say, though it is difficult to know precisely why. A struggling economy adds stress to family life and can trigger short tempers. But it also is possible that agencies have seen a rise in reported cases even as the total instances of abuse remains relatively steady.
Social service officials say most child abuse and neglect go unreported; reported cases likely make up just a tenth of the total.
The guardian ad litem, an unpaid volunteer who typically has no formal social work experience, plays a critical role in abuse cases, according to social services and guardian program administrators. The volunteer conducts an independent investigation then devises solutions that take into account the best interests of the child.
But that program, too, has been struggling. Last year, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled that the guardian program no longer could use professional lawyers; as of July 1, all guardians must be unpaid volunteers. That forced the program to train and maintain a larger pool of volunteers, said Lois Richter, program director for Charleston and Berkeley counties.
Kamila Szymczynska-Sas, a student at Charleston School of Law, signed up for the guardian ad litem program about a year ago. She was among a group that underwent 30 hours of training, becoming one of about 160 volunteer guardians in Charleston County.
She was assigned her first case last summer and since then has investigated three other cases. The training was excellent, she said, but it could not prepare her fully for "the harsh reality of abuse and the limitations of the system."
Despite that reality, the goal is to restore nuclear families, Richter said. That happens most of the time. When reunification isn't possible, the next best solution is custody by a relative. Failing that, there is foster care.
Richter said abuse comes in many forms. "There are times parents lose control and spank a child too hard. I get that. If you leave a mark, you're in trouble."
Sometimes, she said, the abuse is vicious.
"There are just some things done to children I don't understand."
Reach Adam Parker at email@example.com or 937-5902.