Couple fighting neglect charges denied access to investigative files
SOUTH CAROLINA–A couple who claimed an old grudge resulted in false accusations of child abuse by the acting director of Aiken County Department of Social Services (DSS) have lost their suit for access to the DSS case files.
The Supreme Court of South Carolina in late October rejected the claims of Frank and Raejean Beattie that they were entitled to review the files of both the DSS complaint and an agency investigation concerning the actions of DSS director Cassie Wilson.
In October 1993 the Beatties were notified that they were under investigation following a complaint against them for abuse and neglect of their two young daughters. The couple believed the complaint had been fabricated by Wilson in retaliation for their disclosure of improper acts on the part of Wilson in what the Court called an “unrelated matter.”
The couple wrote to the state’s Attorney General concerning these suspicions, and an investigation into their complaint was launched by DSS’s Division of Investigations. In the meantime, the original DSS investigation into the Beatties concluded that the complaint against the couple was unfounded.
The Beatties sought access to the DSS case file, including the name of the person who reported the complaint, as well as the SCDSS investigative report on Cassie Wilson. They were informed that, since the complaint against them was unfounded, they were not entitled to review the case file. The were also denied the investigatory file on Wilson on the ground that it was privileged.
The couple sued for disclosure in Aiken County Circuit Court. Their suit asserted that the statutory provision exempting the DSS file on them from disclosure was inapplicable in this case since the complaint originated with the DSS director himself and was therefore not a “report” exempted by law. Judge Rodney A. Peeples held in light of state law exempting the materials from disclosure the couple was entitled to neither set of files.
On appeal, the Supreme Court of South Carolina affirmed. The Court rejected the Beattie’s arguments that the statutory exemptions did not cover a complaint made by the DSS director himself.
As to the investigatory file on Wilson, the Court observed that any part of that file including information of a personal nature and work product of legal counsel was excepted from the open records law.
The Court noted that the Beatties were not precluded from reappearing before the trial court at a later time and requesting an in camera review of the file in order to separate exempt from nonexempt material. (Beattie v. Aiken Cty. Dept. of Soc. Servs.)