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Rettews raised children outside the system


NO CHECKS OR BALANCES: State, U.S. agencies failed to intervene


Middle Tyger Bureau Editor

GREER — For years, people who heard their Christian testimony wondered how Bill and Debbie Rettew could care for so many children with so many different needs.

Now that question is central to the ongoing legal dispute between the Rettews and child-welfare officials.

In a report filed with Greenviile County Family Court in November. a panel of three counselors concluded that it is impossible for two adults to provide an appropriate standard of care for this blend of children, no matter how good their intentions.

After a guardian ad-litem and the panel's report suggested the children had been subjected to educational and medical neglect. Family Court Judge Amy Sutherland authorized the state Department of Social Services to take 15 minors living in the Rettew home into protective custody on Nov. 8.

In their report, the panel wrote: "A fundamental question to this assessment is -— Can 17 children with the wide variety, severity and special needs problems that these children present be adequately patented in a home with two parents with basically no outside support?

"The panel concludes that this is not possible."

The panel also pointed out that a number of people referred to the Rettew home as a pseudo group home, though it has not been evaluated for compliance with state regulations for group homes.

"The panel is aware that due to the nature of the medical and emotional problems that the children have in the Rettew home - it would be classified as a high-level management therapeutic group home," the report states.

“The requirements may not even allow this number of children with the variety and severity of problems in the same home." the report says. "These guidelines help insure the safety of all the children in the home."

Private placement common

The legal climate that led to the accumulation of so many children in the care of someone other than their parents is not unique, say national child-welfare experts.

But the Rettew family is unusual in that the children's need for medical care or schooling did not bring the family into contact with state or federal agencies that would have supervised their care, they say.

"informal kinship care is very common." said Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association's Center on Children and the Law.

Single parents who develop health or substance abuse problems often informally place their children with relatives, Davidson said.

Those situations usually come to the attention of the courts or social service agencies when the caregiver needs legal documentation to obtain medical attention for the child or to enroll him in school. Davidson said.

Private placement. he added, has its place. "lt's not necessarily a bad thing. but when children‘s medical or educational needs are not being taken care of, that's an appropriate thing for the state to get involved in," Davidson said. adding he has no knowledge of the circumstances in the Rettew case.

Agencies that often advise and train parents on medical and educational needs of children. particularly the disabled, did not have a role in the Rettew home because of the parents’ desire to be independent and to home school the children, court documents indicate.

As a consequence, the evaluation panel determined that the children's educational and medical needs, particularly in the area of mental health, were not being met.

The panel has recommended that the Rettews be trained by an in-home family therapy team and submit the children to educational. medical and mental health assessments.

The Rettews believe the state is infringing on their rights and dictating how many children they may have and how they should be reared and educated.

Who chooses caregivers?

Representatives of South Carolina DSS have declined to comment on the Renew case. DSS General Counsel Virginia Williamson, however. was willing to discuss the law as it relates to the private placement of children.

If a parent is unable to take care oi’ her child. she has the right to place that child with another responsible adult of her choosing. Williamson said.

"If it's not an adoptive placement. there's nothing in the law that says that when parents make that kind of arrangement that there has to be some kind of a home study because there's no court oversight. there's nobody to submit the home study to,“ Williamson said.

"You would have to be satisfied that the placement was acceptable to you" as the child's parent. Williamson said.

In many cases. that would apply to disabled children as well as to able-bodied children. "Unless a court has intervened and taken away some of your rights to make those decisions for your own child, those are your decisions," Williamson said.

Licensing officials would become involved if a family was collecting payments from parents for foster care and someone reported that they were operating a de-facto group home, Williamson said.

Then DSS could investigate to determine whether the family was operating an unlicensed group home in violation of state law.

Ministry of care

The children who were living with the Rettews had been placed there by their parents, and there is no evidence that the couple was receiving compensation for that care.

According to statements filed with the Family Court. the couple had adopted four of the children who were removed from the home in November. The couple had legal custody of eight others, the records state.

The Renews‘ financial declaration shows no income from Social Security or other government agencies.

Judge Sutherland has ordered all parties in the case to refrain from public comment about the children, and the Rettews have declined interviews.

Their adult son. Will Beddingfield of Clemmons. N.C.. Said his parents have seldom taken any kind of government benefits for the children in their care.

When they began taking in children in the late 1970s. they may have received compensation for two or three children who were in state custody, Beddingfield said.

"They receive a minuscule amount of money from any state or federal sources," Beddingfield said. He added his parents did not apply for subsidies because they did not feel that they needed them.

The Rettews look on their work as a religious calling. and they believe God will bring them resources in their time of need. Beddingfield said.

"It's not a financially driven situation whatsoever," he said.

No apparent government aid

In the financial disclosure, Bill Rettew listed $4,000 per month in income from his engineering consulting business and $1.000 in monthly rental income.

Though not listed as income on the December disclosure form, the family customarily received monetary donations from churches where they performed as a family singing group and gifts of food. clothing and household items from individuals and businesses.

The panel report supports the assertion that the Renews are not receiving government aid for the care of the children. It states: "The panel has no knowledge of official papers in the Rettew home." including birth certificates and other documents that would be required for educational evaluations, Medicaid benefits or school registration.

The panel recommends that the couple obtain the appropriate documents so the children can receive services and that the in-home therapy team determine whether the Rettews need additional staff to meet the children's needs.

The panel further recommends “that there be a hold on any future adoptions or guardianships until the home environment is more stable."

The Rettews have a hearing before Judge Sutherland the week of Feb. 11 to make their case for return of the children.

2002 Jan 27