Authorities took custody of 10 residents of Winner's Circle Group Home on Wednesday, shutting down the facility for troubled youths after allegations surfaced of sex between boys and a male counselor.
Bucking efforts by the South Carolina Department of Social Services to work with home administrators on fixing recent problems, the Aiken County Sheriff's Office used its legal authority to remove the juvenile residents "from a situation that could be potentially harmful to them," sheriff's spokesman Lt. Michael Frank said.
Winner's Circle officials were not given notice of the decision. At 4 p.m., a caravan of cars converged on the residence in a rural area near New Ellenton. It was then that officials with the sheriff's office and several state agencies notified counselors of the closing.
The action sparked an emotional outcry from the boys, who had to quickly pack their things and say goodbye to one another and to staff members. And 20 staff members are suddenly out of a job.
The residents were split up and taken to various agencies, including foster care, mental health facilities and the Department of Juvenile Justice, Lt. Frank said. At least one was returned to his family.
The boys came to the home by various means. Some committed crimes and were referred by Juvenile Justice. Others came from state mental health facilities or from social services.
There has been a rash of problems since the home opened last year. A review of criminal incident reports shows that sheriff's deputies have been called there more than two dozen times since it opened in 1999. The incidents mostly involved fights or runaways.
But more recently, sheriff's officials have arrested two female counselors - one in the statutory rape of a 15-year-old and the other in the beating of a resident and ordering of other residents to attack him. On Labor Day, one of the residents was charged with sexually assaulting another boy by forcing him to perform oral and anal sex on him.
Now, a male counselor is being investigated, accused of having sex with at least one boy. But no arrest has been made.
"All of those reports have had a cumulative effect that has led us to this point, and so we are investigating the operating practices of the home to make sure the home runs safely and operates in the best interest of the children who live there," Lt. Frank said.
"Law enforcement (has the authority) to go in and remove children from a situation that could be potentially harmful to them. We certainly don't want it to get to that point."
Winner's Circle officials were meeting Wednesday at an Aiken office to discuss the recent problems when they got the call from counselors that police were there to take the boys.
Having no warning was clearly upsetting to Dr. Susan Corriher, chief operating officer of Ramsay Youth Services of South Carolina, which operates the home. She has been in Aiken the past two weeks to address the problems.
"I am mostly concerned about what they did to the kids," she said outside the home, her eyes wet from crying. "If I had known this was happening, we could have prepared the kids. I would have preferred it be done in a way that was therapeutic, not counter-therapeutic."
Dr. Corriher had been told by state DSS officials that her license to run the home was not in jeopardy. She had meetings scheduled next week with state agencies, including one with DSS officials to discuss the most recent allegations. She said the male counselor who was accused of having sex with a resident was immediately removed from the home pending the investigation.
"He left before (investigators) left because we do care about a safe environment," Dr. Corriher said.
She says the complaints against the employees and recent arrests are simply "allegations."
"Those investigations are not over. I don't know if they are true," she said.
Officials with the state Department of Social Services said this month that they approve of the company's efforts to turn things around, but they were concerned after the arrest of two employees.
The sheriff's office arrested 29-year-old Tarika E. Mozell in August on charges of statutory rape involving mutual sex with a 15-year-old resident inside the group home. Sheriff's officials say she also provided the teen with Playboy magazines.
In May, Jackie Sapp was arrested on charges of lynching a resident. A sheriff's report states that Ms. Sapp allegedly ordered other residents to attack the 14-year-old boy because he broke her candy bar. Ms. Sapp participated in the attack by "jacking the victim up against the wall" and "punching him hard in the back," according to the report.
Both employees are out of jail on bond as they await trial.
DSS did not suggest Wednesday's action nor recommend it, Dr. Corriher said.
DSS spokesman Jerry Adams confirmed that his agency was not involved in the decision and was only assisting the sheriff's office after the law enforcement agency made the decision to remove the boys.
The spokesman said Winner's Circle was cooperating on addressing the problems.
"As far as I know, they were working with us on specific incidents, to clear up problems that were going on," Mr. Adams said. "Now, whether things deteriorated to the point where law enforcement determined that those boys should not longer be there - apparently, that's what happened. And we support that."
There is no indication the home's license to operate has been revoked.
Winner's Circle is a privately licensed home that is part of Ramsay Youth Services, a Florida-based company that offers rehabilitation programs for young people with behavioral or psychiatric disorders, substance-abuse problems or developmental difficulties.
After Ramsay was awarded the contract in Aiken, the state licensed the company to open a home to care for up to 15 boys. The facility opened as Winners Circle Group Home in February 1999 after the company bought a large, two-story brick home on Bell Clapper Court.
The future of the home is unclear.
"I have been told they are being removed while the investigation is ongoing," Dr. Corriher said.
On Wednesday evening, Dr. Corriher waved goodbye to the boys as they were driven down a dirt road.
One boy rolled down a car window, smiled and said, "Goodbye, Dr. Corriher."
"Make us proud," she said.
Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 279-6895.