Editor's note: This is the second in a six-part series of in-depth columns by columnist Issac J. Bailey to examine a Conway father's two-year struggle to bring his daughter home from a New York foster home.
Johnny Smith peered at the cell phone picture of his daughter taken by friends in early April 2008. The 3-year-old's jaw seemed swollen, and a reddish bruise marked the middle of her forehead.
The picture was snapped just weeks after the 3-year-old moved with her mother, Helen Prince, into a home with her new boyfriend and his 12- and 15-year-old sons.
His journey over the next two years illustrates the challenges faced by an increasingly stretched child protective services agency, as well as those experienced by a man with few financial resources to navigate that system to protect his daughter.
Smith, who had lived with Prince for nine years, saw his daughter infrequently in the first few weeks after Prince moved out. He continued to pay for day care costs but was allowed to pick her up only occasionally and was usually supervised by a day care worker during 15-minute visits, per Prince's instructions.
She had custody, and his name wasn't on his daughter's birth certificate. That oversight would complicate his quest and eventually led to a paternity test that verified his fatherhood.
Prince did not respond to messages for comment.
Smith and Prince were working with a counselor to establish a visitation schedule, but when those talks broke down, he consulted two lawyers. One said it would take $3,500 to begin legal custody proceedings; the other said it would cost $4,600. The price was steep for his modest income, but he planned to move ahead with the process.
When friends told him that the boys his daughter now lived with had beaten her with a 2-by-4, he said he took his concerns about his daughter and reports of threats by Prince's family to Horry County police.
An officer told Smith it was a family matter and referred him to the S.C. Department of Social Services office in Conway, he said. But records of what he reported to authorities are scarce.
"It can not be verified that he came in to speak about his children," said Sgt. Robert Kegler, Horry County police spokesman. "I spoke with [the officer Smith said he met], who doesn't recollect him from two years ago. Law enforcement and DSS work together in cases of abuse. We begin with an initial report with the specific allegations of the abuse."
An incident report dated April 10, 2008, does document Smith's complaints that he had been threatened by Prince's family. An officer wrote that "all parties have been advised that this matter is a family court matter." Smith said it was then he also mentioned the suspected abuse.
Smith said he went to DSS a week later after a day care worker said she spotted bite marks on his daughter. He remembers being taken into Room 18 at the Conway DSS office. A DSS worker jotted down notes, took names and asked what Smith needed the agency to do, he said.
"Please, just check on my daughter because these pictures frighten me," he said he told the case worker.
No record here
DSS spokeswoman Virginia Williamson said her agency has no record of his attempts to report his allegations.
Horry County DSS "found no information about Mr. Smith coming to DSS to make this report," Williamson said. "It may be that the staff member he talked to is no longer with the agency. A worker who does not record and follow up on a complaint like this one would have committed a serious violation of policy. Unfortunately, we cannot identify who may have been involved. ... If someone who is working in our office failed to follow up on his complaint, we want to know who it is."
The DSS worker told Smith they'd check into his claims, he said. He had no way of knowing the budget-constrained Conway staff would receive 1,754 similar complaints about abuse that fiscal year, only 823 of which fell under DSS jurisdiction.
Of those that were investigated, 28 percent were "indicated," DSS lingo signaling there was evidence "that abuse or neglect had occurred or that there was a substantial risk of abuse or neglect."
He had no way of knowing that vindictive husbands, wives, neighbors and family members help overload the DSS abuse hot line with false claims, forcing workers to spend time chasing phantoms in the midst of trying to identify real abuse and abusers.
Statewide in 2009, roughly 175 DSS case workers investigated 18,000 claims of abuse - 7,000 of which turned up evidence of abuse or neglect.
The department fielded another 10,000 complaints that were not within its legal powers to examine - DSS can't investigate claims that your neighbor committed abuse while trying to discipline your child while she played in your neighbor's yard, for example - this during a fiscal year in which the General Assembly enacted across-the-board cuts that reduced the agency's budget by $100 million through the loss of state and matching federal funds.
Smith gave DSS the address where his daughter was living, just as an official had asked. He said he visited the agency again two weeks later.
"They told me they couldn't follow up on it because it was a bad physical address," Smith said.
Prince's boyfriend owned a small landscaping business. He ran it out of the home where they stayed. That officially made it a business address.
DSS can't examine claims of child abuse at such locations and he needed to take his claims to the police, Smith said he was told.
"DSS would not refuse to follow up on a child abuse report/complaint simply because the reporter was unable to provide a residential address versus a business address," Williamson said. "In fact, DSS would open an investigation even without a complete address."
Smith felt stuck as he grew more concerned about his daughter. He would find out later the danger facing his daughter was far worse than what he feared.
According to court documents, the 12-year-old and 15-year-old told police in New York they had begun sexually abusing and assaulting her in the house Smith said he urged Horry County police and DSS to investigate.
In July 2009, South Carolina failed seven benchmarks on a federal report assessing its child welfare system, including Safety Outcome 1 - "Children are, first and foremost, protected from abuse and neglect."
The "2010 Kids Count: A South Carolina Perspective" ranked the state 45th of 50 states in child welfare, showing no improvement over the past 20 years.
"Being ranked 45th continually for the past two decades causes serious concern for the next generation of children," Sue Williams, chief executive officer of The Children's Trust of South Carolina, said when the study was released. "As a state we must begin to have a concentrated focus on the well-being of our children in a holistic manner."
Weeks after Smith went to DSS, he received a cryptic MySpace.com message from Prince. It was sent July 19, 2008, 10 days before his daughter would be found alone on Route 9 in Warren County, N.Y.
"Im not in the state of south carolina any more good luck finding me ... BYE," it read.
After asking everyone he knew about her whereabouts, he went back to the Horry County police department.
There was nothing they could do because Prince had legal custody of his daughter, Smith said he was told.
"It is going to depend on the family court order and what it says," Kegler said.
"I was thinking I was never going to see my daughter again," Smith said.
He would. When he did, he knew things would never be the same.