Originally created 09/22/00

Counselor faces assault charge

An employee of Winner's Circle Group Home for troubled boys was charged Thursday with repeatedly sexually assaulting a 14-year-old resident, authorities said.

The arrest of the male counselor comes one day after the Aiken County Sheriff's Office without notice took emergency protective custody of 10 juvenile residents, effectively shutting down the home and putting 20 employees out of a job.

Meetings are scheduled for next week to determine whether the home will keep its operating license or be allowed to reopen with less-violent residents.

Shawn Phillip A. Simmons, 23, of the 100 block of Sunshine Road, Blackville, was arrested Thursday and charged with three counts of criminal sexual conduct with a minor. He is accused of sexually assaulting the victim three times in the past five months, including once just a week ago.

"(Mr.) Simmons surrendered to Barnwell County authorities and later was returned to Aiken County," sheriff's Lt. Michael Frank said.

Mr. Simmons is the third Winner's Circle employee to face felony charges based on alleged abuse and neglect of the home's residents, a major factor in the agency's decision to remove the boys Wednesday.

Two female counselors also face charges - one for allegedly having sex with a resident and another for allegedly beating a resident over a broken candy bar.

Still, the home's license has not been revoked. The South Carolina Department of Social Services is considering placing other children in the home, a decision that will depend largely on meetings next week, DSS spokesman Jerry Adams said.

"There are no kids there now," Mr. Adams said. "We have told other agencies not to place any there for the time being. (But) there is a real need in South Carolina for that sort of residential care facility."

If the home reopened, it would not care for the same boys, Mr. Adams said. Instead, it likely would be a smaller number of boys who have fewer behavioral and emotional problems.

"It would be a different level of kids. And it's not going to happen overnight. We're not going to start putting the same kids back in there. We would talk about the kinds of placements that were there, and we would have different controls over them."

The sheriff's office will make its case for keeping the home closed in a Monday meeting with DSS officials, Lt. Frank said.

The office used its legal authority to remove the boys Wednesday because they were living in a potentially harmful environment, Lt. Frank said. Most of the boys were moved to other state facilities.

Dr. Susan Corriher, chief operating officer of Ramsay Youth Services, which owns the privately run facility, said Wednesday that she has reacted consistently to allegations against employees by immediately removing them from the home.

When the allegations surfaced against Mr. Simmons last week, she quickly suspended him, and he left the home.

But she said the charges are "allegations" that have not been proven.

Dr. Corriher, who is in charge of three youth homes in South Carolina, has been in Aiken County for two weeks trying to turn things around at Winner's Circle, which has been plagued with problems , including fights, runaways and sexual allegations, since it opened in February 1999.

But Dr. Corriher said she wants the home to reopen.

"I hope so. There are some very dedicated staff," she said. "I believe in what we do, and I know we have helped kids.

"I don't know the truth of the allegations. My role is not to be the investigator. My role is when I know of any potential situation of any threat to our residents, I take action."

Winner's Circle 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 and developmental difficulties.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 279-6895.


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