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Lawsuits claim South Carolina kids underwent unnecessary genital exams during abuse investigations

Lauren Sausser, KFF Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

Warning: Some readers may find graphic details in this article to be offensive or disturbing.

CAMDEN, S.C. — Three ongoing federal lawsuits filed in South Carolina accuse the state of forcing boys and girls to undergo traumatic genital exams during child abuse investigations, even when no allegations of sexual abuse have been raised.

One 14-year-old plaintiff — who goes by “Jane Doe” to protect her privacy — was placed into foster care in 2021 after she disclosed to a social services caseworker that her mother had spanked her with a belt and a tree branch.

“I never, ever mentioned sexual abuse,” said Jane, who was 12 when the South Carolina Department of Social Services launched its investigation and scheduled her to undergo a forensic medical exam at a hospital in Columbia. “I felt like I was kind of getting legally abused by someone that had the permission to do it,” she told KFF Health News during an interview at her attorney’s office.

During the exam, Jane was instructed to undress and open her legs in front of medical providers she’d never met before who took photos of her genital area, touched her breasts, and placed “fingers and/or instruments” in her vagina, according to her lawsuit.

“I felt like I had no right to say no,” she told KFF Health News. “Something inside me told me that wasn’t what they were supposed to do.”

 

Connelly-Anne Ragley, a spokesperson for the department, would not discuss the ongoing lawsuits. Court filings show the agency denies the allegations and argues that its employees are protected by “qualified immunity,” a type of court-created rule that often shields law enforcement officers and government officials from being sued. The department also asserts that forensic exams are “standard procedure” during abuse and neglect cases.

Investigating child abuse is notoriously complex. The investigations usually involve forensic interviews, which are typically recorded and involve a professional asking questions of a child to elicit information. And they sometimes include forensic full-body medical examinations that include a visual check of the child’s private parts and are designed to be noninvasive, meaning medical tools that can break the skin or enter the body are not used.

Together, the interview and the exam are considered effective tools for gathering information and evidence from underage victims, who may be reluctant to describe or disclose how they’ve been hurt. Often, these interviews and exams are conducted at children’s advocacy centers by social workers, doctors, and nurses who are specially trained to treat young patients with sensitivity and care — and learn to read between the lines.

Federal guidelines advise that the mere suspicion of child sexual abuse should be sufficient to trigger a forensic medical exam. Even so, there’s a growing consensus in medicine that genital and pelvic exams can be embarrassing, uncomfortable, and even traumatic.

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©2024 KFF Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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