It was 8 years ago this summer a photographer and I were walking through a cemetery early one morning. The sun was still rising.
We were looking for the gravesite of a 4-month-old who had been killed after suffering abuse and neglect for much of her short life, including a fractured leg that went untreated for maybe a month.
Her name was Ebony Smith. She was the first child in Horry County known to have died in suspicious circumstances while under the supervision of the S.C. Department of Social Services.
I spent months looking into her story, fully expecting to find a clear case of DSS malfeasance, particularly because Ebony had been sent back to the home where the alleged abuse took place. (She was eventually killed by an overdose of medicine, her father charged with homicide by child abuse but convicted of aiding and abetting.)
The more I learned about her life, her parents’ lives and DSS actions, the more I realized there was no clear-cut story to tell.
And in just about every DSS case I’ve looked into since, I found the same thing.
I thought back to Ebony as word spread around South Carolina, and the nation, about a Lexington County man, Timothy Ray Jones Jr., who allegedly killed his five young children and drove around in a Cadillac Escalade for days with their decomposing bodies in trash bags before dumping them in rural Alabama.
The kids’ clothes, blood and maggots were found in the Cadillac.
Their names were Merah, Elias, Nahtahn, Gabriel and Elaine Marie. The oldest was 8, the youngest just 1 year old.
DSS had received and investigated complaints about the family on multiple occasions, according to reports and information the agency released last week. Most of the complaints were fairly benign compared to others I’ve seen, and Jones and his wife suffered through a tough marriage before divorcing.
Two weeks before he disappeared with his kids, a social worker visited his home and wrote this: “Dad appears to be overwhelmed as he is unable to maintain the home, but the children appear to be clean, groomed and appropriately dressed.”
I suspect the social worker who wrote that has been replaying that visit in her head every day since Jones was captured and has found it hard to sleep at night, likely unable to get the image of those kids, their once angelic, smiling faces rendered lifeless, out of her mind.
That’s what happened with the social workers involved in Ebony’s case.
I suspect, too, that Gov. Nikki Haley has been doing some soul-searching, particularly given that DSS has been scrutinized heavily under her watch for inadequate resources and claims the agency often doesn’t detect the danger kids face in certain homes.
That kind of reaction is natural, necessary. They wouldn’t be human if they didn’t have them, and the system can’t be improved otherwise.
But I’m hoping neither of them blames herself even while hoping this opens the eyes of many of the men and women we sent to Columbia to represent us.
For in a sense, they’ve tasked DSS with the impossible: Identify homes from which kids need to be immediately removed; balance the constitutional rights of parents and children; don’t remove children from homes that are less-than-ideal but safe nonetheless; distinguish between mentally ill parents and those just coping with normal stress; point distressed families to services that are often unavailable; never make a mistake – because they will be blamed for the deaths or mistreatment of vulnerable children – and do this in a state whose General Assembly is more concerned with keeping taxes low than assuring child protective services and other child welfare programs are adequately staffed and frontline workers are paid and trained well.
Sometimes DSS mistakes have little to do with those issues and more to do with a misjudgment or a social worker who should find another line of work. Based on early reports, that doesn’t seem to be the case in the deaths of these five children.
And neither was that true in Ebony’s case. She was killed after an economic downturn convinced the General Assembly to slash the DSS budget, including halving its training apparatus. But even that was only part of the story.
She died while in the care of a mildly retarded father who had blackout-inducing seizures and had grown up in a home himself in which DSS had to intervene multiple times. Ebony was killed by an overdose of cough syrup, the label of which her father couldn’t read.
He had been left alone with Ebony because a neighbor who promised Family Court she would babysit had left town without informing DSS.
I don’t know what else will be uncovered about the Jones deaths – his lawyer said he had been coping with mental illness – and don’t know what else could have been done to prevent the deaths of Merah, Elias, Nahtahn, Gabriel and Elaine Marie.
But I know that even under perfect circumstances, DSS can’t save every child in this state who needs saving.
It’s a shame, though, that we make their jobs so hard and don’t much care until we are confronted with children’s bodies, trash bags and maggots.