SC Juvenile Justice and Wilderness Camps

Children charged with crimes in South Carolina have their cases heard in the family court instead of the criminal courts.

The reasoning is that we want to help children and support them – in the family court the goal should be whatever is in the best interest of the child instead of punishment or retribution.

It’s a noble and lofty goal, but is it working? Do we really care about children as a society or are we turning our backs on them? Are they punished more severely than adults for the same crimes? What happens to our children once they enter South Carolina’s juvenile justice system? In many cases, we don’t know because of poor oversight, documentation, and what appears to be cover-ups at the Department of Juvenile Justice and the programs that they run…

South Carolina’s Wilderness Camps

In the 1980s, following a lawsuit filed against DJJ for overcrowding, physical abuse, and lack of medical care for the children housed in DJJ facilities, our state started using wilderness camps as an alternative to traditional jails with concrete walls and razor wire for children convicted of non-violent offenses.

What can a trip to a wilderness camp look like? For sixteen year old Del’Quan Seagers, it meant a death sentence for a shoplifting charge.

Del’Quan was charged with stealing candy from a store and placed on probation in the juvenile court (family court). When the court later held that he had violated the terms of his probation, he was sent to AMIkids wilderness camp in Georgetown, SC. He completed three months there and returned home, still on probation. The Court again revoked his probation, this time for skipping school and not following his curfew. The Court sent him back to AMIkids, where he died almost two months later.

Despite another resident saying that Del’Quan was beaten in the chest by gang members, it does not appear that an investigation was done before the coroner ruled that asthma was the cause of death. Del’Quan’s family and the media have hit one wall after another as they tried to discover what exactly happened to Del’Quan and how he died.

Del’Quan shoplifted candy. As a child, he was placed on probation and kept under the court’s supervision, served three months in a wilderness camp, continued on probation, and then served another two months at a wilderness camp before his death.

An adult charged with the same shoplifting charge would not have been eligible for probation and most likely would have paid a fine. The maximum amount of jail time that an adult could be given for the same offense is 30 days, compared to the five months Del’Quan served before his death.

Violence and Secrecy in SC’s Wilderness Camps

Due to shoddy record keeping and a lack of transparency at the institutions, it is difficult to find out the extent of abuse or neglect that is happening at DJJ and the wilderness camps. According to the Post and Courier article, DJJ and the camps are not reporting assaults on the children or escapes to local law enforcement. In Del’Quan’s case, DJJ fought the media and Del’Quan’s family over information:

  • It took the newspaper seven months just to find out Del’Quan’s name and contact his mother.
  • DJJ did not report his death to the public “until it surfaced in the auditors’ report, which did not name him, state his hometown or say how he died.”
  • SLED refused to release information about whether there was an investigation into Del’Quan’s death.
  • DJJ told the paper in April that it would look for any reports on Del’Quan’s death, but never provided the reports.
  • The sheriff’s office took two months to release an incident report which contained minimal information and no investigation results.
  • Although another resident called Del’Quan’s mother as Del’Quan was dying, and later told her that he was beaten in the chest by gang members, there is no indication that it was ever investigated as anything other than an asthma attack.
  • It appears that DJJ accepted the autopsy results of death by asthma, although it is not clear that the coroner was even told about the alleged assault, and that DJJ did not investigate further.

No Oversight of Wilderness Camps

It appears that many lawmakers did not even know that the wilderness camps exist:

State lawmakers reacted with alarm at the Legislative Audit Council’s findings. Many knew little to nothing about the camps, which cost about $1.5 million each to run every year.

“We saw an entire corner of state government with simply no or little oversight,” said Rep. Micah Caskey, a West Columbia Republican who attended a House review of the findings. “We don’t really even know what incidents are going on there.”

The Legislative Audit Council issued a 116 page report earlier this year, finding that:

  • DJJ’s inspector general failed to investigate claims that foul play was involved in Del’Quan’s death or report that information to the State Law Enforcement Division. The State Child Fatality Advisory Committee also did not review his death.
  • DJJ struggled with “inaccurate and incomplete data.” The agency couldn’t readily produce statistics on sexual assaults, escapes and deaths at its camps. It also couldn’t locate investigative files on Del’Quan’s death.
  • Camp staff had failed to quickly notify law enforcement and DJJ when teens escaped.
  • DJJ had no mechanism in its contracts for assessing how well the camps were doing their jobs or levying penalties for poor performance.

Juvenile facilities and wilderness camps nationwide have proven over and again that they will not responsibly care for our children without intensive oversight and regulation. Why is this still happening?

Juvenile Criminal Defense in Myrtle Beach and Columbia SC

Defending children in the SC’s juvenile courts is different than defending adults in General Sessions. It is frustrating and can be heartbreaking, but there are few places where effective advocates are needed more than in our juvenile courts.

If your family member has been charged with a crime in the juvenile courts in the Myrtle Beach, Columbia, or Lexington areas, call me at 843-444-6122 or fill out our form on the website to set up a free consultation.

 

 

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