GREENVILLE. S.C. (WSPA)- 7News has uncovered more reports of misconduct by employees at the Whitten Center, which is a state-run facility for adults with disabilities in Laurens County.
In May, two former employees were charged with neglect of a vulnerable adult.
After those employees were arrested, 7News requested investigative reports and inspections of the Whitten Center and other facilities like it in South Carolina from the previous six months.
Reports from the South Carolina Department of Environmental Control show other Whitten Center employees were fired or disciplined for alleged misconduct during that time period.
People with intellectual disabilities live and receive care at the Whitten Center. It’s run by the South Carolina Department of Disabilities and Special Needs.
Documents from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control show six employees at the Whitten Center were found to have broken policy from last August to early May of this year. Four were fired. The reasons include inappropriate interaction with residents, failure to report incidents, and lying.
“It’s disappointing that there’s more than one incident,” said Anna Maria Conner, who is a protection and independence team leader and attorney at Disability Rights South Carolina.
Disability Rights South Carolina is a watchdog that works to protect people with disabilities from abuse, neglect, and exploitation.
“It’s bad enough when one thing happens, but then when you have more than one incident coming from a facility in a certain period of time, it’s more concerning,” Conner said.
In May, two former Whitten Center employees were charged, accused of leaving a woman strapped to a toilet, where according to warrants, she remained overnight for nearly eight hours. 7News has learned that a third employee was also fired because they failed to report it, according to documents from DHEC.
Other records from DHEC show another employee was fired in January after an internal investigation found they injured a resident when they “bear hugged” them.
In two other incidents, two employees were suspended for five days without pay. One was caught on camera “popping” a resident on the buttocks twice and another found to have inappropriately interacted with a resident. Both received additional training, according to DDSN.
Conner said she would be concerned if she had a loved one at the Whitten Center.
But for Jamie Howell, whose son Jonathan has lived at the Whitten Center for six years, those reports don’t reflect the care he says his son has received.
“We have been thoroughly pleased with the way they take care of our son, the way they love him…the interactions with other residents there other families,” Howell said.
Jonathan has lived there for six years. He’s non-verbal and he depends on a wheelchair, a feeding tube, and constant care.
“His cognitive ability is comparable to that of a one year old,” Howell said.
For the Howell family, the Whitten Center was a lifesaver when they could no longer care for Jonathan due to health and work reasons.
“We were heartbroken…a lot of tears, feeling guilty…like we should be able to do this, but we knew we couldn’t,” he said.
But the Whitten Center exceeded their expectations.
“Just to know these people care about him like we care about him means the world,” Howell said.
He said these reports grieve him, but he feels like the Whitten Center holds people accountable and is transparent about any issues.
“I’m not shocked that somebody dosen’t do what they’re supposed to do in isolated situations, but I don’t see any kind of a pattern that would cause us concern,” Howell said.
A DDSN said all of those cases of misconduct were self-reported by the facility.
A DDSN spokesperson also provided a statement, saying:
The DDSN Regional Centers offer a level of care for a vulnerable population that is not available anywhere else in the South Carolina healthcare system. We take the safety of the individuals that we serve very seriously. While Whitten Center, and our other Regional Centers are experiencing serious staffing challenges related to the pandemic; DDSN has and continues to implement aggressive strategies to address these challenges by soliciting feedback and executing ideas from our workforce, recruiting licensed and or certified personnel to provide frontline care, employing recruitment and retention bonuses, increasing after hours supervision to increase oversight and accountability, and enhancing training to facilitate optimal outcomes for those in our care. There is ZERO tolerance for any form of abuse or mistreatment of those in our care.DDSN
South Carolina has four other facilities that provide the same level of care as the Whitten Center. 7News asked for the same records for those facilities over the same six month period. None of them showed employees had been terminated or disciplined for misconduct.
A spokesperson with DDSN said while all of the facilities similar to the Whitten Center have experieced staffing shortages during the pandemic, the Whitten Center experiences more hurdles to hiring because it is relatively far from populous areas.