4th youth caught in Md: Lawmakers craft bill to require more oversight of S.C. facilities that house troubled teens, children

All four teens who scaled the fence of the Palmetto Behavioral Health facility in Summerville last week have been caught.

COLUMBIA — All four of the Washington, D.C., youths who escaped a Summerville treatment center are now in custody, but S.C. legislators said Thursday the state still must adopt a plan to prevent future incidents.

Delonte Parker, 19, was captured around 5 p.m. Wednesday outside of a CVS/pharmacy in Laurel, Md., by the U.S. Marshals Service Capital Area Regional Fugitive Task Force. Parker escaped last week from the Palmetto Summerville Behavioral Health treatment center, where he was placed after being charged with attempted murder in Washington.

Officials refused to provide details about how Parker traveled north or where he and the other three youths are now and if any will return to the Summerville facility. Three of the four youths who scaled a 6-foot wooden fence at the treatment center on April 20 and fled were caught the next day.

Lowcountry Republican Reps. Jenny Anderson Horne, Chip Limehouse and Chris Murphy crafted legislation to require more government oversight on the 60-bed Summerville facility and the 16 other similar state-based treatment centers that house children and teens who are sexually aggressive, have substance-abuse problems, or have other psychiatric, behavioral or conduct issues. The bill is designed to stop future escapes by mandating new security standards and banning certain out-of-state violent offenders, specifically sex offenders.

'Hopefully, this will end the practice of importing criminals,' said Limehouse, of Charleston. 'Don't we have enough criminals here in South Carolina? My treatment plan is to leave them where they are and don't allow them to come to here.'

The bill, filed Thursday, follows a public outcry over the escape. The youths, ranging in age from 17 to 19, were restrained only by a relatively low fence, despite its suburban surroundings, and the facility staff was slow to provide information to law enforcement.

Information scarce

Reggie Sanders, spokesman for the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, said he did not know whether any of the four youths committed any other crimes while they were at large. The teens were committed to the local center by District of Columbia courts.

Sanders said the situation is still under investigation. He said he is limited in what information he can provide because of privacy laws that apply to youths in the agency's supervision.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Cole Barnhart said in an email that Parker was believed to be staying in a hotel in the Laurel area when he was spotted by fugitive task force members outside the drugstore. Neither Barnhart nor Summerville police Sgt. Cassandra Williams responded to requests for more information Thursday.

More public protections

The pending legislation would require residential treatment facilities for children and teens to report any escapes to law enforcement immediately along with a physical description of the youth and whether he or she has a criminal past. New security standards would also have to be put in place.

The bill would ban out-of-state sex offenders from the facilities, and lawmakers hope to expand the ban to all violent offenders.

Facilities would not be licensed if they are located within 1,000 feet of a school, child care center, park, public swimming pool or mass transit stop. Under the proposal, children and teens within the facility would have to be housed according to ages, severity of their disorders and whether they have a criminal past.

The bill ties the new standards to facility licensing and licensing renewal. 'This is designed to not only protect the community but to protect the children who are also in that facility,' said Horne, of Summerville.

The lawmakers must move quickly, if the bill is to make it into law before the Legislature's June adjournment.

'This is just the first step,' said Murphy, also of Summerville.

In the meantime, Murphy said he wants the facilities to comply with the standards laid out in the bill voluntarily, including removing all out-of-state sex offenders from their supervision.

It is not immediately clear how the Summerville facility would be affected in the short and long term, but Limehouse said if the bill passes, he would expect the treatment centers would begin phasing out the violent out-of-state youths before the facilities are due for license renewals.

Facility speaks up

Officials for Palmetto Summerville Behavioral Health said in a statement Thursday that its management and staff have cooperated fully with authorities and will continue to do so. The facility is not allowed to discuss details of individual cases, due to strict patient confidentiality and privacy laws, according to the statement.

The facility follows all safety and security regulations for compliance with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, ordinances and regulations from the local fire marshal, according to the statement. The existing fence and gate were installed for additional security in accordance with standards acceptable to state and local officials, the statement said.

What's more, the Summerville center is waiting for the state to approve a request from early 2010 to expand its security measures. DHEC did not immediately provide information about the request.

'Our facility fills a vital role in the community by helping mentally ill youths get better through appropriate treatment,' officials said in an unsigned statement. 'Palmetto Summerville Behavioral Health takes care of disadvantaged children and adolescents for whom placement options are almost completely exhausted.

'We are committed to their well-being and providing successful treatment and education for these youths who have led extremely difficult lives. Our objective is to prepare them to become productive members of society. That's why we take responsibility for their safety very seriously.'

Dave Munday contributed to this report. Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855, follow her at twitter.com/yvonnewenger and read her Political Briefings blog at postandcourier.com/blogs.