A voice on the other end of the phone told Johnny Smith his 3-year-old daughter had been badly injured in New York.
"I don't have a daughter in New York," Smith remembers thinking.
"I thought it was a joke," he said recently from his home, surrounded by farmland in rural Horry County.
His daughter had been assaulted in almost-unimaginable ways, the full details of which Smith would not be told until weeks after that July 2008 call.
"When they told me my daughter had broken bones, I thought she had been hit by a car," Smith said. "I asked, 'Do I need to pick up my daughter?' They said 'No, she's in protective custody.'"
That call would trigger what has become a more than two-year-long battle to reclaim custody of his daughter, one that could force him into bankruptcy. Even though Smith did nothing wrong - his daughter's problem began when she was taken from his home - none of the agencies involved have blamed themselves for his predicament, with most officials saying they simply followed the law and standard procedures.
After weeks of examination by The Sun News that involved consulting police, medical and court records and peppering social services officials in New York and South Carolina with questions, Smith may be close to getting his daughter back sooner than he thought possible - though that is far from guaranteed.
The child's mother, Helen Prince, who was convicted on charges in connection with her daughter's attack, declined comment for this story.
Smith's fight also highlights the role poverty plays when social services officials decide if it's OK to allow a child to be raised in a home. A federal law, the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, is at the heart of his case, just as it is for parents in similar struggles throughout the nation. The law is too inflexible, unnecessarily applied to parents and takes too long to wind its way to a resolution, akin to relying on the Pony Express in the age of the Internet, child advocates said.
"As it stands now, the system is extremely harmful to our kids," said Vivek S. Sankaran, a clinical assistant professor of law and director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. He's one of the country's top ICPC legal experts.
"It has been good in that it allows us to get information. But it has denied [children] their opportunity - their right - to live with their own parent. There should be no difference in the decision-making process if a parent lives in state or out of state."
Two words - "financially fragile" - have proved to be a major obstacle in Smith's path.
The description of him was included in key ICPC documents drawn up by the S. C. Department of Social Services months after his daughter was attacked, and it has been used by New York Family Court decision-makers to keep his daughter in foster care almost 900 miles away from the home in which she spent most of her life.
DSS said other factors were also at play and that the agency doesn't punish poor parents.
"Being that I'm a country hick in Conway, they look at me like I'm a redneck," said the 36-year-old Smith. "In my life, all I wanted is to be left alone, raise my kids and do a little farming."
A legal labyrinth
He raises two kids from his first marriage and a stepson with his new wife. He owns outright a small house, four vehicles, including a tractor, and several acres of farmland. The fight to gain custody of his now 5-year-old daughter has depleted his savings, his 401(k) and his tax refund checks.
But because the ICPC placed unrivaled power in the hands of a few, he can't challenge the DSS findings. No S.C. judge can overturn or question the agency's rationale for helping keep his daughter away.
The ICPC was intended to provide out-of-state child protection agencies information about the environment of a home in which a child might be placed to determine if it would be a good, safe fit. Child welfare reformers were agitating to have the law significantly modified about the time Smith's daughter was being attacked.
"States have been trying to improve the system," said Carla Fultz, project manager for the American Public Human Services Association, which oversees the ICPC.
When it was first enacted by New York in 1950, the law "was never really based on a constitutional foundation," she said. "We are working on new policies now to try to address a lot of the issues" raised by reformers.
But Sankaran does not support the changes because they don't deal with its obvious constitutional problems. They also wouldn't address the challenges Smith has faced.
"The new ICPC would do nothing to change the outcome in Mr. Smith's situation," he said.
Other factors beyond Smith's control contributed to his plight. Inadequate resources and growing demand spurred by a struggling economy are stressing South Carolina's child protection apparatus. About $100 million in S.C. and federal funding was cut from the DSS budget during the first year Smith's daughter spent in a New York foster home.
About 135 DSS child welfare employees, who were trained to help families such as Smith's, have been laid off since Smith's daughter was attacked.
The agency's primary spokeswoman, lead attorney Virginia Williamson, had to take a three-day furlough amid responding to questions from The Sun News about his case.
Smith's plight has unfolded during a period in which the agency failed several measures on an examination by an oversight committee, including one that said the agency is supposed to maintain children safely in their homes "when possible and appropriate."
Disjointed coordination among multiple agencies was also at play. Tucked away in several tomato boxes, Smith keeps the information, court and police documents he has collected over the past two years from the Horry County Police Department, S.C. DSS, the Warren County Department of Social Services and their counterparts in Brunswick County, N.C.
"I'm convinced that DSS is handling a large percentage of cases correctly, but these cases ... frustrate me because there are multiple errors in all of them and you would think that something would be caught along the way in the process, and it's not," said Rep. Tracy Edge of North Myrtle Beach, who heads up the legislative committee which controls DSS funding. "When a case goes bad, it goes real, real bad. Hopefully they are few and far between."
DSS officials say they were simply following the law and said even a missed deadline did not affect the outcome. New York officials, who wouldn't speak specifically about Smith's case, gave similar responses about the process.
If New York and South Carolina officials are right - that they followed the law appropriately - then it is the law and the system in which it operates that has kept Smith from his daughter for more than two years and threatens to strip him of his parental rights because of the uncontested judgment of a DSS social worker.
Battered and lost
Before getting caught up in the system, Smith's daughter lived the first three years of her life with him and her mother, Helen Prince, Smith's former common-law wife, in a small trailer home on the farmland he owns with his siblings. His daughter liked trying to ride her pet goat.
After a strained separation period, Prince moved out in early April 2008, taking their daughter to live with a new boyfriend and his 12- and 15-year-old sons. Smith continued to pay for his daughter's day care and other bills as he tried to work out a private custody agreement with Prince.
A few of Prince's co-workers began to tell Smith they saw bite and other marks on his daughter and showed him photos of the injuries. During that time, Prince was only allowing Smith to see his daughter during occasional, short, supervised visits at the day care.
He went to the Horry County Police Department and told them about threats he said he received from Prince's family. He asked them to investigate what he thought were signs of child abuse. They referred him to DSS, he said.
So he took his allegations to the state's protective agency. Both agencies recently said they had no record of his complaints about his daughter's care on file.
Just nine days before Smith got the phone call from the Warren County Department of Social Services, he received a taunting MySpace.com message from Prince, telling Smith she left the state with their daughter, saying it was unlikely he'd be able to find them.
He didn't know she had taken his daughter to New York.
Or that the safest his daughter had been between the time he got the message from Prince and the phone call from Warren County was when, dressed in a shirt and diaper, she crossed busy Route 9 in Queensbury, N.Y., alone near an Outback Steakhouse and a Budget Inn.
Two motorists stopped for her and called authorities. That's when the system began to successfully protect her from further physical harm.
By that time, she had suffered broken bones, bruises and abrasions from sexual assaults, hemorrhages in both eyes and bald spots where hair had been yanked out. The injuries were so appalling that a powerful New York senator and prosecutor used her case to push for tougher child abuse statutes.
"There's no way [Prince] did not know about those injuries and that they should have been treated," Warren County Sheriff Bud York told the (N.Y.) Post Star newspaper at the time. "And then you also have the issue of her not watching the kid and letting her get out into traffic. She needs more than a misdemeanor."
Punished for nothing
All Smith wants is for his daughter to come back home.
He said a DSS official in Conway told him, "If I'm not a pedophile, it will be easy to get my daughter back."
He's not a pedophile, nor does he have a criminal history.
He still doesn't have his daughter.
Since that conversation more than two years ago, millions of Americans, including Smith, have been laid off. He has remarried and watched a grandmother die.
Prince was charged, convicted and spent eight months in a New York prison for her role in their daughter's abuse. She was freed early last year and moved to Brunswick County, where months later she was charged with similar offenses involving another man and his children.
When that man declined to show up in court as a primary witness against Prince, those charges were dismissed, according to Brunswick County court officials. Smith befriended the man because of the similarities of their cases and helped him move to a different state after the man said he was frightened by threats he received from members of Prince's family.
Brunswick County officials said they have received no reports of threats and have not said if they have followed up on those claims.
That means Prince can continue to fight for custody of the daughter who was so badly battered case workers in New York had to battle back tears when a judge read a list of her injuries aloud, according to the Post Star.
Since Smith's conversation with the DSS official who said it would be easy to get his daughter back, his daughter has likely learned to understand gender differences, how to follow three-step instructions and the definitions of words such as spoon and cat, among other speech and language development skills that usually occur between the ages of 3 and 5.
Or her development may have been slowed or compromised because of the extensive damage she sustained. Her father has not been given access to her full medical records and was rebuffed in his attempts to have her visit her Conway home during the holidays.
He has been allowed occasional, phone and supervised visits after 17-hour drives to New York. All of that and more happened during the two years Smith's daughter has been in a New York foster home, meaning she's spent 40 percent of her life in the child protective services system of a state a long drive up I-95 North.
"I want to know what I did wrong," Smith said he thought long ago.
He found out later it matters little that the answer to his question is: nothing.
Contact ISSAC BAILEY at firstname.lastname@example.org or 626-0357.