Is Ervin inappropriately politicizing the horrific deaths of those five children?

That’s a question that occurred to me when I saw the Tom Ervin campaign’s release below two days ago, and I was reminded of it when I saw the campaign mention it in another release this morning:


The news that five children from Lexington County have been massacred and left on the side of the road is a horrific tragedy. As a parent, I ask all South Carolinians to pray for the victims and their family. I want to thank law enforcement for their quick response to this tragedy.


In cases like these, we may never have all the answers to the questions that come to mind.

However, our state Department of Social Services has an ongoing responsibility to prevent these tragedies from happening over and over again. The children under DSS scrutiny are the most vulnerable population in our state and these children can’t protect themselves.

Unfortunately, we have seen these tragedies repeat themselves over and over again. From 2011 through 2013, 251 children have died under Governor Haley’s watch. This figure does not include the children that have died in 2014.

That is simply unacceptable.

Today’s news reports are that the Department of Social Services interviewed the man accused of killing his five children and concluded he was a, “highly intelligent, responsible father capable of caring for his children.”

On August 7th, DSS was at his home to investigate allegations of child abuse.

Less than a month later, these children are found dead.

Enough is enough.

I’m here today to call on the General Assembly to return in special session with the purpose of removing control of the Department of Social Services from Gov. Haley and placing it under the authority of an independent administrator or receiver.

Governor Haley’s record of failed leadership over DSS necessitates an immediate transfer of authority and control before another child is put in harm’s way.

I’m also calling on the legislative audit council to expedite the release of their independent findings concerning DSS, so we can implement new procedures and practices immediately.

I will continue to make this my focus until we can fix DSS. This is not politics, this is about protecting our most vulnerable children.

Yeah, I know. The failures of DSS to prevent child deaths is easily the most lurid policy failure that can be laid at the feet of the incumbent. There is a policy element to this horror. But to hold press conferences about it so soon…

Maybe it’s just me. I can’t even bring myself to read past the headlines of these stories. It’s just too painful to contemplate. Maybe he’s not being tone deaf. Thoughts?

30 thoughts on “Is Ervin inappropriately politicizing the horrific deaths of those five children?

  1. Doug Ross

    I look forward to an Ervin or Sheheen administration where no children will ever be harmed.
    I would expect they would each resign immediately if such a tragedy occurred.

  2. Mark Stewart

    I can’t even look at The State’s webpage anymore. Horrific doesn’t begin to define this nightmare.

    Not that I would have voted for the guy anyway; but executive, accountable leadership is exactly what DSS most needs. Not legislative control or some independent administrator.

    I don’t think DSS dropped the ball on this one. The state cannot be the ward of all. The man snapped.

    1. Kathryn Braun Fenner

      Yeah, the more I read,the more I think he married young, after a rocky young adulthood, and had way more kids than he could handle, and snapped. The DSS involvement seems like what you want: you don’t remove kids because the trailer is messy. The case workers interviewed the kids, found out they were fed and that while dad was a bit rough with spanking, and got treatment for that, seemed fine.

  3. Nia Holder

    When is it correct to begin this discussion? How many more children will die before this woman is removed from the role of Governor? I’d like everyone to pray for these babies, families and the others in such danger. But that doesn’t mean we should be stupid. Yes remove her from oversight of this deptartment immediately. What agency or emergency aid office could provide oversight? That would have to be one not connected to her or her cronies.

    1. Kathryn Braun Fenner

      DSS seems to have done a good job, based on what was reported in the paper. There were no warning signs that he’d do this. If we removed every kid who got excessive corporal punishment, we’d have to build huge orphanages! Foster care is hardly a panacea!

    2. Bart

      Please inform us who are clueless why the governor is responsible for a man snapping, killing his children and taking their bodies to another state and dumping them? Did Nikki Haley give him an order to commit this horrendous act? Maybe you should read Kathryn’s comments before touching your keyboard again. At least she has experience with situations like the one this family had and the rules were in place long before Nikki Haley was elected. Were the same people in charge now working at DSS before she was elected?

    1. Kathryn Braun Fenner

      Having children is, regrettably, a fundamental right. Mom kept a sloppy house. Not enough cause to even remove the first three.
      Surely we’ve all been in homes where chaos rules, but none of us has dropped a dime to DSS.

  4. Bart

    Brad posed the question if this guy is taking advantage of a genuine tragedy. Short and long answer – yes he is. If he were the only person on the ballot, I wouldn’t vote for him or anyone who tries to cash in on a senseless tragedy. He stated that 251 children died under Haley’s watch from 2011 – 2013. Just what the hell would he have been able to do if he was in charge? Appear on another reality show on tv?

    DSS can do just so much and cannot be everywhere, all the time. Again, ask Kathryn or my sister-in-law who was a guardian ad litem.

  5. Bob Amundson

    The failure of DSS is not offering services to the family to help mitigate obvious risk factors. Child protection has many other options rather than removing the children. A big push in DSS has been to use these types of voluntary services rather than removing the children. I see no signs that this father was offered help. If he was, and refused, I would not be so critical of the DSS actions.

    However, this situation is a train wreck, an airplane crash. Many, many “things” failed, not just DSS. I do feel DSS has problems, with both the Governor and the Legislature responsible. The Governor appointed a buraucrat who could not do the job, perhaps due to health issues. The Legislature cut funding to the agency for several years, leading to overworked, burned out caseworkers.

    South Carolina is one of the most dangerous places in the United States to be a woman, a child. But it is part of the USA, and there are many places much worse. What is happening to children, women and families (and hostages) in Syria, just to name one place, concern me more than problems in South Carolina.

    1. Kathryn Braun Fenner

      Bob, there’s no evidence that the dad did more than “excessive corporal punishment” for which he received classes, the standard DSS response. There is nothing I have read that distinguished him from a majority of parents in this state, or at least a sizable minority, before he snapped.

      1. Bob Amundson

        So many risk factors, domestic violence being the most obvious. When I was a child protective services investigator, if the children were being physically abused, so was the wife (and vice versa).

        Amber Jones, the mother of five slain Lexington County children, was referred to Sistercare three times by the Department of Social Services.

        “They refer to our shelter if there’s some imminent danger level to the mother or kids,” Nancy Barton of Sistercare said.

        More than 7,000 abused women receive help from Sistercare every year.

        Sistercare could not confirm if Amber Jones did not receive help from the program due to privacy concerns. According to records, Jones filed a domestic report against her husband, Timothy Jones, Jr., in May 2012.

        Before Jones disappeared to Mississippi without telling his wife or DSS, domestic violence experts say Jones’ behavior appeared to follow a pattern.

        “The punitive attitudes and threats,” “‘I’m going to take you to court. I’m going to get custody of the kids. You’re never going to see them again. I’m going to take them from you and run and flee.’ So, all of that certainly is effective as a tactic to keep the woman in the relationship.”

        Timothy Jones soon became custodial parent for his children despite the allegations of domestic abuse. Court documents show Amber Jones didn’t have an attorney in court.

        “If you enter family court with an uneven playing field like having an attorney,” , “that is something we see and I don’t think it would be aberrant in this case for the father to be advantaged.”

        1. Doug Ross

          “According to records, Jones filed a domestic report against her husband, Timothy Jones, Jr., in May 2012.”

          So based on the age of the youngest victim, this child was conceived and born AFTER the domestic abuse report was made. How do you help people who won’t help themselves and actually make the situation worse?

          1. Bob Amundson

            Parens Patriae grants the inherent power and authority of the state to protect persons who are legally unable to act on their own behalf. Why does it matter the youngest had not yet been born? I agree there was probably not enough information to remove the children, but there are other options. This family needed help, and if they refused, the State can petition Family Court for supervision withotut removing the children.

            This ability leverages the caseworker’s ability to have the family comply voluntarily. I don’t have data on how often court ordered supervision is used in this State, but my guess is not much. DSS attorneys (who would initiate the action) are just as stressed out and overworked as are the caseworkers.

            I don’t blame the caseworkers, as I generally believe the system fails, not people (Dempsey’s “Process, Not People” for any Six Sigma affectioandos). No one will convince me the system did not fail, at some level, in this horrific situation.

  6. Barry

    Ervin’s solution is offered only to grab headlines. It’s inappropriate.

    He knows the GA isn’t going to take Haley’s authority away over DSS.

  7. Bryan Caskey

    There’s a whole lot of Monday Morning Quarterbacking here that just isn’t appropriate.

    Sometimes bad things happen, and it’s not the fault of the system or anyone other than the perpetrator of the bad act.

    1. Bob Amundson

      Federal and State Law both require arm chair quarterbacking when chidren die. See SC Article 26 Department of Child Fatalities, State Child Fatality Advisory Committee, Section 20-7-5900. I apologize if the annotation is not correct.

  8. Brad Warthen Post author

    Over the weekend, I got this email from Christian Hertenstein, press secretary for the Ervin campaign:

    Hi Brad:

    I read your post on Tom’s press conference and I can appreciate your sentiments. For some the statement could be considered to be politicizing the issue, but that’s not the case for Tom.

    Tom’s desire to run for governor is predicated on the leadership failure at DSS. Here he is quoted in the Greenville News in April, “If we can’t protect our children as a core function of government it’s time for a new day, new leadership. And that’s why I’m running.”

    The agency is in crisis and unable to fulfill its duties. Since 2011, more than 250 children have perished; the problems are not new. Gov. Haley has had numerous opportunities to resolve these issues, however it’s not until the Lexington tragedy that we have seen some kind of response from her administration.

    Showing a continued lack of urgency, funding for her proposed staff additions will not even be considered until next legislative session. If the governor truly understood the peril that many of the children monitored by DSS face she would call the legislature into special session to provide the funding DSS needs.

    There is a leadership void. Tom is ready to fill it.

    — Christian

    1. Bob Amundson

      Politicizing? Certainly, that’s what a campaign is about. Inappropriately? I think not. He is calling out both the Governor and the Legislature to make changes NOW. When children’s lives are at stake, let’s be extraordinary. As I stated earlier, “I do feel DSS has problems, with both the Governor and the Legislature responsible. The Governor appointed a buraucrat who could not do the job, perhaps due to health issues. The Legislature cut funding to the agency for several years, leading to overworked, burned out caseworkers.”

  9. Bryan Caskey

    So Bob: What should DSS do differently going forward?

    What “warning signs” did DSS miss in this case that clearly showed this guy was going to murder his children?

    The domestic abuse? Did law enforcement prosecute? Why or why not? Simply making a police report is pretty thin.

    Was it the “threats” to obtain custody and that the other side would “never see the children again”? First, what is the source that this threat was made? Second, if I had a nickel for every case where someone made that threat…I’d have a lot of nickels. In my experience, it’s mostly mothers who make that threat.

    Finally, not having an attorney in family court is certainly a disadvantage, but the family court looks out for the children in all cases, regardless of whether you’re pro se or not. So for me, “not having an attorney” isn’t really a defense as to why you don’t have custody of your children – it’s an excuse.

    Frankly, I don’t know all the facts of this case, and I don’t guess that anyone here does either. Perhaps before we jump on “the system” and say that it’s someone’s fault (besides the guy who killed his kids) we should wait for some facts to come out.

    As for the State Child Fatality Advisory Committee, I don’t see anywhere for political candidates for office on the committee. It’s also a committee that is created for the purpose of decreasing preventable deaths of children, which brings me back to my main point.

    Perhaps, and very sadly, perhaps this incident was not preventable. I think that appears to be the fundamental disagreement that you and I have on this issue.

    You can’t prevent every bad thing from happening.

    1. Bob Amundson

      Brain, we agree on many things. We don’t know all the facts, perhaps the incident was not preventable, children will die at their parents’ hands. We disagree on whether the system failed. DSS had three opportunities to help this family (help does not necessarily mean removing the children). Even though there were previous reports (whether substantiated or not we don’t know, but SC law does make unsubstantiated, or unfounded, reports a factor in subsequent investigations), the last investigator did not complete a follow-up visit as quickly as I feel was warranted. I used to supervise child protection investigators, and with what I can glean from the available information, I would have instructed the caseworker to make several follow-up visits, most unannounced, and would have asked the police to conduct a forensic interview with each of the older children. The facts are, there was an opportunity for both before the children were murdered. I do believe that more could have been done to prevent this; the system failed these children.

      1. Bryan Caskey

        Maybe the system failed. Maybe it didn’t. I honestly don’t know. I hope it didn’t, as that would make their death even more tragic than it already is. I’m no fan of DSS in general. However, I’m kind of in the “Fair Witness” camp that Brad described in an earlier comment somewhere. I try to be that way on things like this, anyway.

        If there’s wrongdoing on the part of DSS, and that comes out in something conclusive, I’ll be the first to condemn it. However, I’m not ready to fire up the outrage machine just yet.

        1. Bob Amundson

          I’m not outraged either, but I am concerned. The incident highlights the difficulties of child protection, of which I am very aware. We need great leadership, better training, better pay, which should lead to better retention. It will mean more of our taxes devoted to child protection.

          As I stated earlier, this is a train wreck, an airplane crash. We’ve learned to focus on identifying and rectifying problems that lead to these types of tragedies.

          As I type this, WIS-TV reports that Lexington County had a turnover rate of 25% in their County DSS in one month over the summer. My guess is the experienced CPS Investigator assigned the case in question had too many cases to adequately insure the protection of the children murdered.

  10. Bob Amundson

    To answer Pat’s question, yes, I agree those are the three primary issues. To Brad’s general question, reports are that Mr. Sheheen will send a letter to the U.S. Attorney asking for an investigation of DSS and Governor Haley. Governor Haley’s spokesperson responds that Mr. Sheheen is politicizing the tragedy. I agree.

    Mr. Sheheen is opening the door wide open to intense scrutiny from the outside, which will take away valuable resources from the agency. Several states have been sued for their child protection practices, and some entered into court ordered consent decrees. That loss of local, administrative control is expensive and distracting.

    1. Mark Stewart

      When the federal government spanks a state on an issue of administrative control, one can bet the state was acting inappropriately. Don’t want the distraction and expense of federal oversight? Then don’t behave so badly that such action befalls oneself.

      I am not sure whether I am heartened or chagrined that Sheheen would send such a letter to the Feds at this point in his campaign. On the one hand, it shows he is not a political manipulator like Harrell, Leatherman and Haley and is willing to stand up and be accountable. On the other hand, it makes him appear not politically astute enough to get a bag man to do something like that. In either event, federal review won’t be relevant in a campaign that is only weeks away from Election Day. So the appeal appears a stunt.


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