Summerville youth treatment facility facing new accusations, lawsuit

A psychiatric residential treatment facility for children and teens is facing new accusations, and documents show the facility has a history of issues.
Published: Jan. 10, 2023 at 2:54 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 12, 2023 at 9:42 PM EST
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SUMMERVILLE, S.C. (WCSC) - A psychiatric residential treatment facility for children and teens is facing new accusations, and documents show the Summerville facility has a years-long history of escapes, assaults and other issues.

Now, parents who have had their children treated at the facility, Palmetto Summerville Behavioral Health, say their sons and daughters left worse than when they arrived, and they’re pushing for change and accountability.

The facility sits behind a set of gates on Midland Parkway in Summerville, and it’s designed to be a residential treatment facility for children and teens with mental health and behavioral issues.

It was at Palmetto Summerville in the summer of 2018 that Tasha Dovalina dropped off her 14-year-old adoptive daughter, hoping the facility and its staff could help after her behavior and mental health challenges became too difficult to handle.

“It was pretty, you know, intense and scary for the other kids in the house,” Dovalina says. “I was hoping that she would be able to get the comprehensive care that she would need.”

But Dovalina says her daughter’s ten months at the facility turned out to be far more harmful than she ever imagined.

“Boy was I wrong,” she says. “I was completely wrong. You assume that they go in for their intense treatment, but she came out worse.”

Dovalina paints a troubled picture of her daughter’s stay at Palmetto Summerville—patients fighting physically and verbally, some hopping the fence to escape. She tells us the facility was understaffed with extremely high turnover and the staff were inconsistent with how to manage patients.

“It just it really hurts, you know, as an adoptive mom, it really hurts, or an adoptive dad too, it hurts, because you are spending all day trying to figure out, ‘How can we better these kids?’” Dovalina says.

Her concerns align with documents from Summerville Police about when and why they’ve been called to Palmetto Summerville. According to the list of calls for service obtained from a public records request, in the past 3.5 years or so, Summerville Police have been called about the facility around 250 times.

Documents show since July 2019, there have been more than three dozen assault calls, at least eight calls about suicide attempts or threats, 50 runaway calls and eight calls about sexual assaults.

A recently filed lawsuit details one of those alleged sexual assaults.

Court documents state a 10-year-old boy was admitted to Palmetto Summerville in July of 2022. It also alleges a patient punched him and ripped his clothes, and then his roommate, who the suit says has a history of non-consensual sex acts, took off the child’s pants and touched his genitals, later forcing himself on the 10-year-old and raping him.

The lawsuit states the child told another patient who told staff, but the boy was still required to sleep in the same room as his abuser.

“The Health Facility had promised to protect the child, knew he had been exposed to harm from another patient, and then willfully forced him back into the room of a rapist,” the suit states.

Palmetto Summerville downplayed the incident because the staff knew they’d made mistakes, they whitewashed the rapist’s actions and were more concerned with protecting themselves than the child, the lawsuit alleges.

“Plaintiffs bring this action for Defendants’ failure to adequately supervise [the victim], failure to maintain a safe environment for children, failure to keep [the victim] safe from a known rapist and many other things,” the lawsuit reads. “Health Facility had a duty to protect [the victim] and other residents from [the abuser’s] conduct and behavior because Health Facility knew or should have known this patient posed a serious and substantial risk of acting out violently and sexually against others, including [the victim].”

Katherine Noto is the founder and president of Attach Families, Inc., a nonprofit that supports families raising children with complex trauma and attachment disorders. She says the issues at Palmetto Summerville—fights, assaults, runaways, even sexual assaults—are commonplace at youth treatment facilities.

“If you did the numbers on every other facility in South Carolina and then went across the nation, you would see the same amount of numbers of calls to the police,” she says. “And then we’d have to think about how many calls weren’t made.”

This points to a larger issue with these types of facilities, Noto says.

“I don’t feel that there’s enough oversight of these facilities, " she says. “None of them are actually equipped for complex trauma and attachment disorders and the severe behaviors that come with that. So they’re putting them in with these kids that are there for depression or suicidal ideation. And these kids are violent. I can imagine it’s scary. We’re mixing kids in a place that they shouldn’t be mixed. We need trauma treatment centers, long-term care, complex trauma and attachment disorder treatment centers.”

Until facilities like Summerville Palmetto fix their problems and properly treat and care for their patients, Noto says, fights, rapes and escapes will continue happening, police will continue being called and families will continue suffering.

“We’re trying to make our children not societal issue,” Noto says. “We want them to heal desperately, but none of these places are working to make that happen.”

In a statement, Palmetto Summerville Interim CEO Anna Simmermon says:

Palmetto Summerville Behavioral Health is a residential treatment facility for girls and boys ages 7 to 18, who are in need of a highly structured, therapeutic environment. We are committed to our mission of serving at-risk, neglected or delinquent individuals by supporting their life-long positive development into healthy, empowered and responsible citizens.

We are disappointed with the anecdotal characterizations noted below in reference to the facility, staff and care provided. Patient and family satisfaction are important to us and our staff work hard to serve the patients in our care. For more information, including our satisfaction scores, anonymous testimonials and a photo gallery, please visit www.palmettosummerville.com.

Due to HIPAA patient privacy laws, we cannot provide information on specific individuals. Further, due to pending litigation, we cannot comment relative to the allegations raised in the lawsuit you reference.