CONWAY — Johnny Smith pitched a party Saturday at his home in a rural section near Conway to celebrate the homecoming of his daughter and to thank friends and relatives who helped him through his struggle to have her returned to his care.
The child's obvious enjoyment of the gathering belied the trauma she suffered following the breakup of a nine-year live-in relationship between her father and Helen Prince.
After being attacked and abused while in New York, then taken from her mother and placed in a foster home for two years, the child arrived back at the Smith home early on Nov. 5.
Last Monday, Johnny Smith and his wife, Cheryl, whom he wed just over two years ago, enrolled the child in kindergarten - where Cheryl said the child is adapting well and receiving good reports from her teacher.
When asked if she liked her new surroundings, the girlshyly nodded "yes." But before dashing off to get acquainted with cousins and other kin who gathered for the party, she said her favorite thing about kindergarten was the frozen treats she gets there.
"I really like the red and green slushies," she said with a big smile.
The Sun News is not naming the child because she is a victim of abuse, but the family gave permission to use her image.
Relatives that included grandparents from both Smith's and Prince's families gave the child hugs and kisses as Smith grilled hamburgers and hot dogs to feed the welcoming crowd.
"Just seeing her playing means all the world to me," Johnny Smith said as two dozen beef patties sizzled on his grill. "I'm just tickled to death to have her home. Now I just have to work out all the bills that have piled up. If I can just get through the holidays, I'll be one happy fellow."
Nearby, the child's 90-year-old great-grandmother, Lila Roberts, smiled as she sat in her wheelchair and watched the girl running about the yard with cousins who'd gathered for the reunion.
"I'm so glad I don't know what to do," Roberts said. "I had hoped that I'd live long enough to see it. Just look at her. She hasn't met a stranger yet."
The scene was a far cry from the day in July 2008, when two motorists found the then-3-year-old child wandering alone on busy Route 9 in Queensbury, N.Y., and called authorities. Unbeknownst to Smith, Prince had taken the child to Warren County, N.Y., after their live-in relationship ended and she started a relationship with a new boyfriend in Conway.
Clad in a shirt and diaper, the child had gotten away from the hotel room in which she was staying with Prince and
the sons of her new boyfriend. The child had been brutally attacked and sexually abused by those boys and, according to court documents, the boys told police they began abusing the child in Conway, then continued the abuse in New York.
After Smith's protracted struggle to bring his daughter back to South Carolina, a Warren County court judge last month granted him and his new wife full custody of the 5-year-old girl. The judge also ruled that Prince could have therapeutic visits with the girl while in the presence of a psychiatrist.
"It was two in the morning last Friday when we got back home," Cheryl Smith said.
"She was asleep so I put her to bed, then I went to bed myself because I had to work the next morning."
She's employed as a shift manager at a Socastee sandwich shop, she said. Johnny Smith said he's looking for a job after being laid off by a tractor firm for which he worked 10 years and another job he had landed servicing mechanical equipment with a restoration firm.
Advocates for change say Smith's case underscores problems in the Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children.
South Carolina legislators plan to consider changes to the law during the next session of the General Assembly. And S.C. DSS officials have already started rethinking how they implement the law.
After The Sun News published the story about his struggles, several Grand Strand residents donated money to help offset Smith's expenses, volunteered free legal help and a neighborhood "adopted" the family through the upcoming holiday season to provide gifts and other necessities.