Columbia, SC (WLTX) - The agency charged with protecting vulnerable children in South Carolina says they dropped the ball.
Despite multiple reports to the South Carolina Department of Social Services, steps were never taken to remove Robert Guinyard Jr. from his home before he died.
"They were notified on multiple occasions of abuse with this child," said Richland County Coroner Gary Watts.
Along with the Richland County Sheriff's Department, Watt's office responded to Guinyard's home on July 1, 2013, the night he died. Incident reports say deputies found Robert face down unresponsive. Watt's office would later perform the autopsy on the four year old boy.
"Through full body x-rays basically, we were able to determine not only an immediate traumatic injury to the child, but also a history of abuse," Watts said. "There was certainly an extensive history of this."
Family members say they witnessed incidents of abuse and reported them to DSS.
"She grabbed him, like grabbed him by the back of the shirt and threw him from one side of the living room to the other side of the living room. When he wouldn't stop crying, she took him upstairs and continued to beat him," said Robert's aunt Natalie Thompson. "The only thing we could hear was him calling Auntie. I left because I couldn't deal with it and called the Department of Social Services."
Thompson says she noticed the abuse about 6 months before Robert died and after that first call, she says she called DSS 5 more times and visited the agency in person twice.
"DSS was telling me you keep calling but you don't have any proof. So I took pictures," Thompson said.
Thompson says the pictures show scars left after Robert was hit and whipped with extension cords and belts.
Watts says his autopsy and a subpena of Guinyard's DSS file support her story.
"There is information we received that supports our physical findings that shows there had been previous reports made on this child," Watts said. "More than one, let's just say that for now."
Some of those reports go back to the beginning of Robert's life. Before his second birthday, DSS placed him in foster care for some time before returning him to his parents.
"You asked for my opinion. I think that's where the system really failed Robert" said Jessica Hanak-Coulter, Deputy State Director of Human Services for DSS.
"We received multiple calls and looking at history when we got those calls was not done in some cases," Hanak-Coulter said.
Hanak-Coulter says in response to Robert's death, the number of reports to DSS are weighed more now. In addition, eight employees were fired after Robert died and Richland County now has a new DSS call intake department.
DSS works with law enforcement on protecting children and says they've started new training initiatives to increase communication and understanding of risk factors.
This week, they also implemented a Signs of Safety program used by child welfare professionals around the globe.
"I think ultimately it was a communication issue and on our practice side, it was a failure to weigh the history," Hanak-Coulter said.
"Something's gotta give," said Paige Greene of the Richland County Court Appointed Special Advocates.
Greene has testified before a senate subcommittee with DSS oversight about problems at the agency.
"In my tenure of 31 years, I have never been more frightened for our children, and certainly this case is not unique," Greene said.