A jury in Spartanburg awarded $3.75 million on Thursday to a child who had been abused for months by her mother and her mother's boyfriend. The child's lawyers argued that the Department of Social Services was warned about the ongoing abuse, but did nothing to stop it.
South Carolina's tort claims cap will reduce the jury's total award to $450,000, but Attorney Heather Stone, whose firm represented "Baby Girl Smith" in a partnership with the Foster Care Abuse Law Firm of Manning, said she has never heard of such a high award in a child abuse case in South Carolina.
"We were shocked," Stone said.
A spokeswoman for the South Carolina Department of Social Services called the case "a heartbreaking tragedy."
"It underscores the need for the entire child welfare community — child protective services, law enforcement, the courts, private partners, child advocates, and medical professionals — to stay vigilant in our responses to children who are at risk so that tragedies like this one can be avoided," DSS spokeswoman Karen Wingo said in a statement. "For DSS, this requires that child welfare intake and assessment practices are continuously examined and improved, so that investigations are initiated in proportion to the level of risk to a child."
According to a press release published by the child's legal team, the girl's grandmother repeatedly warned DSS, both by phone and in person, about the abuse, explaining she "was very worried about the child’s safety."
"She told them that the mother’s boyfriend had a recent record of domestic violence where he attacked his own grandmother," the girl's lawyers explained. "She also told them that she believed the mother and the boyfriend were using drugs. DSS failed to investigate at all. A few weeks later, Baby Girl Smith was brutally attacked by her mother’s boyfriend."
In late 2013, the child was admitted to a hospital intensive care unit with her right leg and both arms broken, multiple bite marks on her back and buttocks, and chunks of her hair missing. Her mother's boyfriend had hit the toddler several times in her face and the child's system tested positive for cocaine. She was 21 months old.
"I cried during the trial, in my closing. It was really emotional," Stone said. "The jury agreed with me. They felt it, too. I think they’re wanting (DSS) to be held accountable for doing their jobs."
Baby Girl Smith survived her injuries and lives with a relative now, Stone said, but she will suffer lifelong injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder. In a separate case, her mother and her mother's boyfriend, Robert Lee Steadman, were charged and pleaded guilty. Steadman was sentenced to 20 years in prison for felony child abuse in 2014.
When the abuse took place, Director Lillian Koller was in charge of DSS. She resigned in 2014 during a legislative investigation. Lawmakers, at the time, were concerned by the deaths of several children who had case files with the agency.
Director Susan Alford assumed control in 2015, and she told legislators in February the department needs an additional $11 million next year to hire 163 more caseworkers.
Since 2015, Wingo, the agency spokeswoman, said the department has implemented new strategies for improvement, and those have paid off. "(S)ignificantly more abuse and neglect allegations now meet the test for investigation," she said, "as opposed to screening out for community intervention."
The department will continue to strengthen its procedures, Wingo said, "and the General Assembly is supporting that effort through the funding of intake hub staff, second- and third-shift caseworkers, and child protective services caseworkers."