The South Carolina Department of Social Services (SCDSS) was created to serve the citizens of South Carolina via assistance and protection programs designed to ensure the safety of children and adults who can not protect themselves. However, SCDSS may have fallen short in a recent case involving a one-year-old baby. The State reports that a lawsuit has been filed accusing the South Carolina DSS of failing to protect a baby from the abusive home in Pickens County where he was living prior to his premature death last year. The lawsuit alleges that the Department of Social Services had been involved with the child’s family for several months before his death, but had allowed the baby and his siblings to remain in the family home despite knowing that the baby was not safe there. Tragically, the baby was attacked in March 2015 and remained in the hospital until he passed away on April 5, 2015. Doctors noted the baby’s cause of death as shaken baby syndrome. The wrongful death suit filed claims that the SCDSS breached its duty to protect the baby and that by failing to act the department was reckless and grossly negligent.
What Is Shaken Baby Syndrome?
According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, shaken baby syndrome is a serious brain injury that can result from aggressively shaking a baby or toddler. A child suffering from shaken baby syndrome does not get enough oxygen to their brain cells and can suffer permanent brain damage or even death. The baby that died from shaken baby syndrome in Pickens County slipped into a coma for several weeks before he died from his injuries. Shaking a baby is a form of child abuse and if the child dies from their injuries the abuser can face homicide charges.
South Carolina’s Wrongful Death Law
Under South Carolina’s wrongful death statute (South Carolina code of laws section 15-51-10) there can be a legal cause of action whenever the death of a person was caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default of another. In other words, if someone’s negligent or reckless actions causes another party’s death, the deceased party’s estate administrator can file a wrongful death suit against the liable party on behalf of the deceased’s eligible beneficiaries. The beneficiaries who are eligible to recover damages in a wrongful death suit in South Carolina include the deceased’s spouse, children, and parents, or any heirs if the other parties do not exist. In a wrongful death case the plaintiff can seek both economic as well as noneconomic damages, just as they would allowed in a personal injury case.
The Department of Social Services’ Legal Responsibility
The wrongful death lawsuit that has been filed against the South Carolina Department of Social Services differs from the typical wrongful death suit because SCDSS is not being accused of acting recklessly or negligently. Rather, the lawsuit claims that SCDSS should be held liable because of their inaction, or failure to act. The court will determine whether or not the department breached a legal duty to protect the baby and, if so, whether the department’s failure to act rises to the level or being reckless and grossly negligent.
While social service departments across the country undoubtedly protect many children each year, this case is just one in a long line of wrongful death cases that have been filed against social service departments over the years. An article from the Welfare Reform Academy notes that there is a well-established body of case law holding child protection agencies, and their employees, liable for failing to adequately protect children. The article notes that child protection agencies can be held liable under the following circumstances:
- Failing to Accept a Report for Investigation: Child protective agencies must accept and investigate reports of suspected child abuse or mistreatment. Therefore, an agency can be held legally liable for failing to accept a child abuse report. For example, if a noncustodial father tells a child welfare agency that he noticed bruises on his children and the agency doesn’t accept the report because they took his statement to be part of custody dispute rather than a serious danger, the agency can face liability if the child is actually being abused and the agency failed to accept a report of the abuse.
- Inadequately Investigating: While it is unusual for an agency to fail to investigate all together, they are often held liable for failing to investigate sufficiently. For example, in 1991 a school principal filed a report with a social services department because he suspected that a student of his was being abused. Unfortunately, an agency representative closed the case after seven weeks because they were unable to contact the child’s mother. Soon after, a child living in the same household as the student was beaten to death and the agency was found liable for failing to adequately investigate.
- Failing to Place a Child in Protective Custody: If an agency determines that a child is in immediate danger the agency has a responsibility to place the child under protective custody. While this can be a tough decision, failing to place a child who is in danger under protective custody can result in legal liability. While there are many factors that go into these types of decisions, examples of when protective custody is called for includes situations where the child has been assaulted, inhumanely punished, sexually exploited, starved, or abandoned.
Speak to a Legal Expert
The statute of limitations in South Carolina for wrongful death cases is three years. This means that wrongful death lawsuits can not be filed more than three years after the moment of death. Therefore, if you have lost a loved one due to someone else’s negligence and would like to take legal action do not delay in filing your wrongful death suit. Contact the dedicated personal injury lawyers in Rock Hill, SC at the Elrod Pope Law Firm to discuss your legal options. We would be happy to meet with you during a free consultation at our office in either Rock Hill or Lake Wylie.
Thomas E. Pope is a Personal Injury, Wrongful Death, and Medical Malpractice Attorney who practices in Rock Hill, Lake Wylie, and Lancaster, SC. He graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law, and has been practicing law for 31 years now. Thomas E. Pope believes in protecting the injured. Learn more about his experience here.