A recent federal lawsuit filed on behalf of three South Carolina children alleges they were unnecessarily forced to undergo the violating process of a sexual abuse exam by the South Carolina Department of Social Services (SCDSS), and several other participants.
The children’s guardian filed the lawsuit against SCDSS, SCDSS director Michael Leach, SCDSS caseworker Karen Burgess, SCDSS supervisor Dianne Jeter, Sumter County School District, Sumter County School District superintendent Penelope E. Martin-Knox, Wilder Elementary School assistant principal Maria Dantzler and Bates Middle School career specialist Richard Parks.
The lawsuit alleges that 13-year-old Jane Doe was subjected to a full vaginal exam where she was touched and photographed naked under the instruction of SCDSS caseworker Karen Burgess. Her 12-year-old brothers John Doe and Richard Roe were strip-searched and photographed naked as a part of Burgess’ investigation. Burgess was investigating physical abuse in the children’s home — not sexual abuse — which is why the lawsuit calls the searches unconstitutional.
The lawsuit was moved to federal court earlier this year.
Burgess began investigating the families of the three minors in September 2019. SCDSS had received a complaint that the children’s father was physically abusive and “hits the children anywhere he can.”
The police were called to the home for domestic violence incidents between the parents, according to the lawsuit.
“SCDSS had received approximately seven other reports of abuse and neglect over the years and these allegations were all determined by the agency to be unfounded,” according to the lawsuit.
The parents denied the allegations and said the father’s biological mother was making false reports to the school district, the suit said.
Burgess searched the home, spoke with each child individually, and then eventually told the mother that the allegations were “unfounded” but the investigation had to stay open for 45 days,” the lawsuit said.
‘Horrific and Shocking’ conditions
In October, Burgess came back to the children’s home and told the mother she wanted to take Jane Doe to a forensic psychologist because she saw marks on her arms.
Jane’s mother said the marks might have been caused by bullying, and she signed approval documents for Jane to be taken to the specialist, the lawsuit said.
“Burgess stated that she would talk to the school about the bullying and at all times represented to (the) mother that she was providing assessment and services for the benefit of the family,” the lawsuit said. “At no time during the investigation did Karen Burgess state that there were any allegations of sexual abuse towards the children.”
Burgess, as a SCDSS caseworker, then took Jane Doe to have a full vaginal examination and subjected her to “horrific and shocking conditions” by doing so, according to the lawsuit.
She was not asked questions about bullying as anticipated. Instead, they asked her if she was molested, according to the suit.
The doctor told the 13-year-old to get naked, then touched her breasts, placed fingers in her vagina, used fingers to open her vagina and take photos of her private parts, the lawsuit said.
Jane Doe was then “given a teddy bear,” the lawsuit said.
She had never had a vaginal exam before this, according to the lawsuit.
“There were no emergency circumstances or exigent circumstances that would allow, require, or justify this type of search and violation of Jane Doe’s body,” the lawsuit said. “There are no laws, regulations, or SCDSS policies or procedures that would require or justify this type of search and violation of Jane Doe’s body.”
A few days after Jane Doe’s unexpected vaginal exam, Burgess showed up at Richard Roe’s school and asked to take him aside, the suit said.
In a room with assistant principal Maria Dantzler, Burgess “instructed Richard Roe to take his pants down,” the lawsuit said.
“Richard Roe knew this was wrong, resisted, told them ‘no’ numerous times, and was informed he had to comply,” according to the lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, Burgess “made a movement towards the child that he interpreted as an attempt to physically force him to comply.” He then complied with Dantzler and Burgess’ orders and stripped naked.
Then, “Burgess took pictures, to include pictures of his ‘winkie’, which is the term he uses for his penis,” the suit said.
That same day, Burgess visited Bates Middle School and “interrogated, conducted a strip search, and photographed John Doe,” the lawsuit said. Bates Middle School career specialist Parks was there to observed this.
Later that day, the children’s mother learned that the boys were “strip-searched and photographed naked at school” by Burgess and their school officials.
The next day, the mother spoke with Jane Doe about what happened to their brothers at school.
“Jane Doe informed her mother that she was sexually violated by Karen Burgess as she was forced to undergo a full gynecological exam and that SCDSS took pictures or caused pictures to be taken of her genitalia,” the lawsuit said.
Burgess was “instructed” by her supervisor Dianne Jeter to conduct the search and seizure that the children found violating, according to the lawsuit.
When the mother went to the SCDSS office in Sumter, she confronted Jeter about what happened to her kids, according to the lawsuit. She first asked if there were any allegations of sexual abuse in the investigation and was told there were none.
“As the conversation continued and mother reported the sexual violations of her children, Dianne Jeter began yelling at mother and informed her that SCDSS could do whatever they wanted to do in an investigation, that SCDSS did not need permission, and this was normal procedure,” the lawsuit said.
What they’re suing for
The lawsuit alleges the actions of the SCDSS employees and Sumter County School District workers, the three children suffered “assault, violation
of his body, degradation, physical harm, emotional harm, loss of safety, and violation of Constitutional Rights.”
The lawsuit claims that Sumter County School District “has no policies or
procedures limiting the seizure, interrogation, and search of its students or requiring SCDSS to establish or even communicate some probable cause, emergency circumstance, or exigent circumstance.”
“These policies are harmful and traumatic to the children of Sumter School District, and as described in this complaint, these policies have harmed the (children),” the lawsuit said.
The plaintiff’s attorneys are requesting that such policies to be revised to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.
The plaintiffs are claiming SCDSS and the Sumter County School District were negligent in failing to protect the children from such violations.
Jane Doe, John Doe, and Richard Roe’s 14th amendment rights were violated when they were subjected to search, seizure and interrogation without probable cause or court order, the lawsuit said.
While SCDSS vowed to renovate itself in 2019 with new leadership, the “scandal-ravaged” agency is still facing several legal issues. In March, the agency was sued after an 11-year-old boy was allegedly sexually abused at a Christian shelter.
Camden attorneys Robert and Deborah Butcher are representing the minor children in the lawsuit.
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