A lawsuit filed this month by a Georgetown County couple claims that caseworkers at the South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS) negligently placed a female teen in the custody of a middle-aged male neighbor — who proceeded to repeatedly rape her over several months.
The suit filed by Myrtle Beach attorney Bill Luse claims case workers placed the 13-year-old (the complaint refers to her as “Jane Doe”) in the care of 42-year-old neighbor Rhett Tison in June 2011. Tison was arrested 15 month later on several charges, including criminal sexual conduct with a minor and committing a lewd act on a minor. While the warrants don’t identify the victim, Luse said it was “Jane Doe.”
The lawsuit’s filing was first reported by the Associated Press on Saturday.
Luse said DSS caseworkers did not follow agency’s own procedures after an abuse allegation was initially filed against the teen’s parents. The details of that original allegation are not mentioned in the lawsuit. The attorney did not wish to comment on it.
DSS policies normally require that relatives be given priority in custody cases and the girl’s mother wanted her to stay with an uncle in Michigan, according to the complaint.
Tison also was not certified as a foster parent in South Carolina, the attorney said. He did not have any previous criminal history when DSS placed the teen at his home, but Luse called the agency’s decision inappropriate nevertheless.
“You have a single male getting custody of a teenaged girl,” Luse told South Carolina Radio Network. “When you do that, you’re just setting yourself up for all kinds of problems and potentially serious issues like we have in this case.”
The lawsuit seeks both actual and punitive damages, which would be determined by a jury if that jury agreed DSS was negligent in the case.
“You have lives that are ruined,” Luse said. “When you ask, what are you asking a jury to compensate? I’d like to go back in time before it even happened. But I can’t. So a jury has to put a dollar on those amounts. And, hopefully, we can change policy, as well.”
DSS said in a statement that it had only recently received the complaint and does not comment on pending litigation.
The agency has come under increasingly heavy scrutiny after a state Senate General Committee investigation found many DSS caseworkers were struggling to stay on top of enormous workloads and had financial incentives to close out abuse allegations quickly.