Editor's note: This is the third 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 cried when he first saw the bald spots where hair had been yanked from his daughter's head.
He cried some more. His mother joined him.
"We couldn't believe what all they done to her, all of the damage," Smith said. "All we did was hug her then not let her go until it was time to go."
It was Sept. 29, 2008 - more than two months after he'd gotten a call from New York saying the 3-year-old had been found wandering alone in a diaper and T-shirt on a busy street after she and her mother moved there, along with her mother's boyfriend and his 12- and 15-year-old sons.
The mother did not respond to several attempts to get her comments on the case.
A Warren County, N.Y., Social Services official told Smith not to come to New York any sooner because he would not be allowed to see his daughter.
"She almost didn't recognize me," he said. "I cried the first 30 minutes I seen her."
He was also disturbed by the bruises on her face and jaw, injuries described in medical and court documents as being "in a fan like pattern."
And the "anterior neck bruising and abrasions extending from ear to ear."
"She was black and blue," Smith said.
An array of harm
There were other injuries, tears in sensitive areas and broken bones. Some of the broken bones had begun mending themselves while others were broken, meaning the toddler had sustained untreated abuse over a period of weeks.
Her mother told New York police she had been giving her daughter "large amounts of Benadryl for no apparent medical reason," according to court documents.
Wesley Smith, the father of the only child who died the past decade while in the care or under the supervision of the Horry County Department of Social Services office, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in part because the prosecution argued he used medicine on his young daughter in a similar fashion, saying he "chemically restrained" her.
That 2004 Smith case - and others in which a child dies and generates white-hot public scrutiny of child protective services - have caused DSS and other like agencies to err on the side of being overly cautious. That, in turn, has helped to overload the foster care system with children whose outcomes would be better if they were left or allowed to return home, according to research by the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.
In such an atmosphere, each family imperfection could become an indictment. Under the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children law, when those indictments are made by a case worker, they can quickly become the equivalent of uncontested convictions.
The saga of Johnny Smith's daughter's began when she moved with her mother to a Myrtle Beach-area house they she shared with her boyfriend and his sons. According to court documents, they admitted the crimes.
The 15-year-old was charged, but the charges were dismissed because the confessions came during interrogations without the boys' father present.
Their rights protected them from being punished.
Smith's rights haven't been enough to reunite him with his daughter.
During that Sept. 29 visit, he was staring at his worst nightmare. The 3-year-old's language development had reverted to baby talk and she was wearing diapers again, a step back from the pull-ups she had begun wearing.
He hadn't been able to protect his daughter from the abuse he had suspected was occurring.
He hadn't been able to hold his family together and wouldn't be able to rock his daughter to sleep that night as he did when she was his baby.
So he held her for most of the hour-long visit.
"When a child is that small, watching them sleep is like Christmas to me," Smith said. "I enjoy a happy child."
Having to leave
His daughter wasn't happy that day, a day he was allowed to see her only in the presence of Warren County, N.Y., social services officials. She quietly asked Smith's new wife, Cheryl, if she "could go back to daddy Johnny's house."
And he wouldn't be happy at the end of the visit.
Because he had to leave her.
Because even though he and a few family members had driven 17 hours to New York from Conway - even though he was her father, had fed and clothed and provided her shelter - he didn't have the right to take her back to the place she spent most of her young life.
Because even though her mother wasn't available - she had been charged and would be convicted in connection with the multiple attacks his daughter endured - he had to leave her there with strangers.
Because even though he had no criminal record and had tried to involve two agencies to investigate what he believed were signs of abuse, he wouldn't be allowed to walk out of that room with his daughter.
Social services officials and the laws had determined it was in his daughter's best interests that the ICPC process decide if he was a fit parent, no matter that he had done nothing to forfeit his rights.
Nor did it matter that Smith years earlier was declared fit enough during bitter court proceedings to end his first marriage to be granted full custody of his two oldest children.
"To see your child like that and not be able to take her home ... " his voice cracked, then faded. "All I felt like when I was leaving was like a piece of me was missing. And I ain't been right since."
Obstacle of poverty
The obstacles he faces in fighting for his daughter are the same as those faced by others in a similar financial situation trying to navigate an unfamiliar government system.
His bank account wasn't flush enough and his home wasn't big enough to avoid the extra scrutiny placed upon those in poverty.
He was just Johnny Hudson Smith, born on a farm in a rural part of one of the nation's poorest, most rural states.
The child poverty rate in South Carolina has increased 16 percent during the past decade, with 22 percent of its children living below the poverty line, according to the 2010 Kids Count Data Book. The state's double-digit unemployment rate threatens to send the rate even higher.
"Poor people are treated differently in terms of the child welfare system in that poor people are almost the only people in that system," said Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. "Middle-class families rarely get caught in the net."
As he was leaving that first one-hour supervised visit, Smith wondered if his daughter would begin to view him as he once viewed his father - as only a distant and infrequent presence in his life.
His father, Bobby Wayne Smith, farmed the 123 acres that's been in the family for almost a century. As a young boy, Johnny Smith helped him take care of animals and did other chores.
But when the farm industry changed in the 1980s it became harder to make ends meet. His father bought new equipment and trucks and switched to construction. He helped clear the lots where Deerfield Plantation now stands.
"It was pretty good for a while, then everything slowed down," Smith said. "Then he started driving a semi-truck. About the only time I'd seen him was about bedtime. He worked seven days a week, 360 days a year, and holidays were no exception. He did about like what I'm doing, to do what he had to for his family to live. At the time I didn't understand it, but I do now."
He's afraid his daughter won't understand why he left her in New York.
"I know how it hurt me when my daddy wasn't around me," he said.