SC law­mak­ers want an­swers after men­tal health pa­tients drowned

The Herald (Rock Hill) - - Local & State - BY MAAYAN SCHECHTER mschechter@thes­tate.com Maayan Schechter: 803-771- 8657, @MaayanSchechter

Two S.C. deputies who drove a van car­ry­ing two men­tal health pa­tients into flood­wa­ters in Septem­ber did not have a key to the van’s rear door to al­low them to res­cue the trapped women, S.C. law­mak­ers were told Thurs­day.

In­stead, Nicolette “Nikki” Green, 43, and Wendy New­ton, 45, died a slow death, their fam­i­lies said.

“My aunt Nini was treated like a crim­i­nal,” said Green’s 14-year-old nephew, Con­nor GreenJohn­son. “Her rights were vi­o­lated through the ac­tions of two neg­li­gent deputies and an old, out­dated men­tal health care sys­tem.”

Se­na­tors called Thurs­day’s hear­ing after the women — Green, of Myr­tle Beach and New­ton, of Shal­lotte, N.C. — drowned Sept. 18 in the back of an Horry County sher­iff’s van that sub­merged in Hur­ri­cane Florence-re­lated flood­ing in Mar­ion County.

The women were picked up by the sher­iff’s van at a men­tal-health treat­ment cen­ter in Loris and the Wac­ca­maw Cen­ter for Men­tal Health for trans­fer to cen­trs in Dar­ling­ton and Lan­caster.

Nei­ther Green nor New­ton — both de­scribed by their fam­i­lies as hav­ing no his­tory of vi­o­lence — was re­strained or shack­led in the van, ac­cord­ing to pre­vi­ous me­dia re­ports.

Green’s sis­ter, Don­nela Green-John­son, told law­mak­ers that the fam­ily was told that deputies were given an ap­proved route to take that would avoid flooded roads.

In­stead, the fam­i­lies said, the deputies drove down a flooded road. Once in the water, the van dropped into a 5- to 7foot-deep hole, lift­ing the van and pin­ning it against a guardrail, New­ton’s fam­ily at­tor­ney, Tommy Brit­tain, told se­na­tors.

That made the van’s side door un­us­able. The deputies couldn’t free the women through the van’s rear door be­cause they didn’t have its key or bolt- cut­ters, Brit­tain said.

Un­able to free the women, the two deputies waited on top of the van un­til res­cue teams from Mar­ion and Horry could ar­rive.

Both women were trapped in the van for more than 24 hours un­til res­cuers could re­move their bod­ies.

“There was no pol­icy here. ... There was no train­ing here, Mr. chair­man,” Brit­tain told state Sen. Mar­lon Kimp­son, D-Charles­ton, who chaired Thurs­day’s hear­ing. “The il­le­gal, con­scious in­dif­fer­ence to the rights of the men­tally ill is a se­ri­ous prob­lem in our state.”

Horry County deputies Stephen Flood and Joshua Bishop have since been fired.

Their ter­mi­na­tion let­ter said the deputies “made a con­scious de­ci­sion” to drive the van around a road bar­ri­cade and into flood­wa­ters.

The S.C. Law En­force­ment Divi­sion in­ves­ti­gated the deaths at the re­quest of the Horry County sher­iff. SLED Chief Mark Keel told se­na­tors Thurs­day that the re­port will be sent to the 12th Cir­cuit So­lic­i­tor’s Of­fice for a de­ci­sion about whether to file charges.

Green’s fam­ily has called for both ex-deputies to face crim­i­nal charges.

‘WE DON’TWANT THIS FOR­GOT­TEN’

In June, Green re­turned home to Myr­tle Beach, mourn­ing the death of her 7-year-old son, her sis­ter Green-John­son said. Green was di­ag­nosed with schizophre­nia and was put on med­i­ca­tion.

“It’s bit­ter­sweet be­cause we had just got­ten my sis­ter back,” GreenJohn­son said

On Sept. 18, GreenJohn­son said Green’s 19-year-old daugh­ter drove her to a sched­uled coun­sel­ing ap­point­ment, where her new coun­selor de­cided that Green should be com­mit­ted.

Green’s daugh­ter “feels like she de­liv­ered her mom to her death,” Green-John­son said, and the fam­ily never was given an op­por­tu­nity to trans­fer Green them­selves.

Law­mak­ers say state law about trans­port­ing men­tal health pa­tients might need to be changed.

JOSH BELL jbell@the­sun­news.com

A memo­rial on the side of U.S. High­way 76 in Mar­ion County hon­ors Nicolette Green and Wendy New­ton, who drowned while Horry County Sher­iff’s deputies were trans­port­ing them from Con­way to med­i­cal cen­ters in Dar­ling­ton and Lan­caster.

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