SC family says Dept. of Social Services forced their child into ‘the hands of a monster’

Warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual abuse.

South Carolina officials responsible for the welfare of vulnerable children misled a family when they placed a teenage girl in the home of a Midlands photographer who later plied her with drugs, recorded her on hidden cameras and encouraged her to perform sex acts, according to two lawsuits and statements made in court.

During the five weeks in February and March 2022 that the girl was in photographer Greg Martin’s home, Department of Social Services caseworkers failed to check on the 16-year-old victim and disregarded her parents’ fears that something was wrong. This comes according to a pair lawsuits filed in state and federal court in March against DSS and four caseworkers by attorneys Robert and Deborah Butcher on behalf of the victim and her parents.

“South Carolina DSS removed the child from her home and then turned their back on her, leaving her in the hands of a monster. The child was told not to trust her parents by DSS and then she was abandoned and left to fend for herself,” attorney Deborah Butcher wrote in a statement to The State Media Co.

Martin, 56, of Blythewood, faces multiple charges of sex crimes involving the girl and four other victims in South Carolina and Georgia. The charges include neglect of a child by a custodian, engaging a child for sexual performance, criminal sexual conduct, exploitation of minors, kidnapping and promoting prostitution. In April, his bond on the South Carolina charges was revoked after Georgia authorities accused him of sending obscene images to a 13-year-old girl and attempting to solicit her.

For the family named in the lawsuit, the nightmare began on Feb. 7, 2022, when DSS was alerted that the girl accused her father of abuse, according to court documents. That same day, the teen was removed from the home and sent to live with the Martins.

But this move was not initiated by law enforcement taking the child into emergency custody or by court order after a judge reviewed the facts of the case. Instead, the teen’s family alleges DSS caseworkers strong-armed them into signing a little-known instrument called a safety plan, which placed their daughter with the Martins.

The name of the teen and her family are not being published by The State Media Co. because she is an alleged victim of sexual assault.

While safety plans are meant to be voluntary agreements between DSS and parents, the family named in the lawsuit said that caseworkers told them their daughter could end up in foster care if they did not agree.

The family “did not believe they had a choice or the ability to say no,” according to court documents. The standard form the parents signed, available on DSS’s website, warns that if parents do not agree to the safety plan their child could be “placed in foster care for the child’s protection.”

When contacted by The State Media Co. with a detailed list of questions, DSS said it does not comment on pending litigation.

Experts told The State that safety plans can be an important tool to protect children during an investigation into allegations of abuse or neglect. Unlike when a child is removed from a home by law enforcement or a judge’s order, safety plans offer flexibility, keeping children out of foster care and families out of court.

But lawyers and advocates also cautioned that it was all too common for parents to sign safety plans after feeling pressured by the threat of their child’s removal. And once a plan is in place, their cases do not necessarily receive the same oversight as children in the foster care system or those removed by court order, as they are not assigned court guardians, parents do not receive lawyers, and the case is never reviewed by a judge.

“When you don’t give parents lawyers and you don’t give parents due process protections, you should expect parents to get railroaded by DSS,” said Josh Gupta-Kagan, a professor at New York’s Columbia Law School, formerly a professor at the University of South Carolina and author of “America’s Hidden Foster Care System,” a Stanford Law Review article. “You shouldn’t expect DSS to get it right every time.”

Cameras, pills and pornography

“When this all started, I was 16 years old,” the teen placed in Martin’s home by DSS told a Richland County court in April. “He (Martin) was the father of my very best friend in the whole wide world. And when things got hard, I decided to stay with him and his family.”

The teen came to know Martin through his daughter, whom she befriended when schools shifted to online education during the COVID pandemic. Over two years, the teen grew closer to the Martins as she spent time with their family.

In February, a fight between the teen and her father over cleaning the house escalated into a struggle and led to him restraining her, holding her down and leaving marks on her arms and legs. At school, the teen then made a complaint to DSS about her father and told caseworkers that she wanted to stay with the Martins.

Her mother testified in court that she believed this decision was the product of a campaign of “grooming” by Martin — a common tactic in sex abuse cases where abusers establish a pattern of trust as they slowly desensitize the victim to sexual contact.

Once the teen was inside the Martins’ home, the grooming escalated and the abuse began, according to court records and statements from prosecutors. Inside the handsome, two-story brick house at the end of a leafy cul-de-sac in Blythewood, Martin had sexually explicit conversations with the teen and plied her with gummies and pills containing THC, the main psychoactive component of marijuana. He also encouraged her to watch porn, gave her lingerie and sex toys and encouraged her to perform sex acts, according to the lawsuit.

All the while, Martin spied on the teen through cameras he placed in her bedroom and the bathroom, as well as through an iPad that he gave her, the lawsuit alleges.

In the past decade Gregg Martin has shot photos and been photographed with Nikki Haley, Gov. Henry McMaster, George Rogers and other ex-Gamecock athletes. He faces numerous charges related to sexually abusing minors.
In the past decade Gregg Martin has shot photos and been photographed with Nikki Haley, Gov. Henry McMaster, George Rogers and other ex-Gamecock athletes. He faces numerous charges related to sexually abusing minors.

Martin drove the victim to her boyfriend’s house and encouraged her to have sex with him while Martin waited outside in his car, according to Assistant S.C. Attorney General Bethany Miles. When she returned, Martin asked about specific details, Miles said.

As the abuse continued, the victim started skipping school and her grades plummeted, alarming her parents, who alerted caseworkers, according to the lawsuit. But the parents’ fears were never investigated.

In fact, the lawsuit alleges that no caseworkers ever visited the Martin home or interviewed the teen while she stayed there. This is despite DSS’s commitment, stated on kinship caregiver forms, to make monthly visits to the homes of caregivers.

“Over the next five weeks, the child suffered abuse at the hands of Mr. Martin as SCDSS failed to conduct mandatory visits with the child in the Martin home. All the while, the mother was continuously asking for the child to be placed with family or otherwise moved from the Martin home,” attorney Deborah Butcher wrote in her email to The State.

Meanwhile, caseworkers moved forward with the investigation against the teen’s father. Around March 3, 2022, before a forensic interview was conducted, caseworkers “indicated” a case against him, meaning there was a finding of abuse by DSS, according to the lawsuit. A later forensic interview with the teen would find no evidence of abuse by her father, according to the lawsuit.

At the time of publishing, DSS has not dismissed its case against the teen’s father.

But as a result of the March 3 finding, the family’s case was moved to a DSS unit known as “Family Preservation,” and a new caseworker was assigned. When the teen’s mother brought up her concerns to the new caseworker, they agreed to move their daughter out of Martin’s home.

On March 18, after her mother picked up her daughter from the Martins’ home, the teen broke down and told her mother what she had suffered. The next day her mother called sheriff’s department investigators, and an investigation was opened by the Richland County Sheriff’s Department.

“I have lost every single one of my friends who was in my life at the time. I have changed immensely because of what has happened to me,” the victim, now 18, said in court. “He is honestly the worst.”

A shadow system

When DSS became involved on Feb. 7, 2022, the teen’s parents told caseworkers that they did not want their daughter to stay with the Martins.

While their daughters were friends, they didn’t personally know the parents, according to the family’s lawyers. But DSS granted the Martins the status of “kin,” a classification DSS uses for a child’s extended family or close community, according to the family’s attorneys.

The family offered alternatives that would have been possible under a safety plan, according to the lawsuit. They proposed placing their daughter with relatives and family friends, having her stay with her mother somewhere else or even having her father move out of the house while DSS conducted its investigation.

These options were rejected by caseworkers in this case, according to the lawsuit.

“Knowing that the parents did not approve, South Carolina DSS placed the child in the Martin home against the mother’s wishes, who still had full legal rights to her child,” Deborah Butcher told The State Media Co.

What the teen’s parents didn’t understand at the time was that they still had legal rights to their child. In South Carolina, parents only lose their legal rights when law enforcement puts a child in emergency protective custody or DSS obtains a court order from a judge.

Foster care should be a “last resort,” said Michelle Dhunjishah, director of the Children’s Law Center at the University of South Carolina School of Law. But when that happens, the process is highly structured and subject to checks and balances.

If a child is removed by law enforcement or a court order, a hearing must be held in front of a family court judge within 72 hours to show there was probable cause to remove the child.

DSS is then given 45 days to investigate the case. A hearing on the merits of the case is required within 35 days. Children are assigned a court-appointed guardian ad litem, parents can qualify for a court-appointed lawyer, and judges can order regular reviews of the case.

“There’s a lot of oversight, whether it’s by the judicial branch, by the Department of Social Services or by lawyers. It involves a lot of people, and there’s a lot of eyes on the case when it goes through the court process,” said Dhunjishah.

But none of that occurs when a child is removed from a home through a safety plan.

The goal of safety plans, said Dhunjishah, is to “lessen the trauma to the child and help the family as a whole without having to get the court system involved. But right now the downside is there aren’t the same due process protections for parents.”

On its website, DSS describes South Carolina as a “Kin First State” where the priority is placing children with “kin.” This means family, extended family and even so-called “fictive kin,” who can include family friends, teachers or members of the family’s church.

Since 2019, the percentage of children in the child welfare system placed with kinship caregivers has risen from the single digits to 27.2%, a department spokesperson told TV station WLTX in January.

But as placements with kin through safety plans have grown, some have raised concerns about the lack of oversight in the system.

“We recognize safety plans and kinship care can be misused. When they’re used simply to relieve workloads or keep children out of the visible foster care system, that’s a terrible thing,” said Jed Dews, the executive director of HALOS, a Charleston nonprofit that supports guardians in kinship care.

While DSS tracks and publishes data on the number of children in foster care and the number of investigations, similar data is not published about safety plans or the number of children placed with kinship caregivers.

“SCDSS hides under a statutory veil of confidentiality. There is no way to obtain an agency-wide look at how often children and families are harmed through SCDSS’s abuse of safety plans,” said Deborah Butcher.

‘I hear his voice and feel his hands’

On April 14, 2022, almost a month after the teen’s mom rescued her from the Martins’ home, the sheriff’s department charged Martin with neglect of a child by a custodian and engaging a child for a sexual performance. After the first set of public charges were brought against Martin, the floodgates opened.

By May, the sheriff’s department had filed 12 more charges against Martin that accused him of abusing three other victims. The State Media Co. is not publishing their names because they are alleged victims of sexual abuse and were minors when the abuse happened.

“Figuring out that I’m not the only one has been one of the hardest realizations of my life,” the teen said in court.

During a bond revocation hearing in April, prosecutors described how Martin lured two of the other victims, one who was under the age of 18, to his house under the pretext of performing a neon paint photo shoot. After the shoot was done, Martin encouraged them to get cleaned up using a bathroom where he had hidden a camera that recorded the victims, prosecutors said.

A fourth victim, the daughter of a family friend who had attended cookouts with Martin as a child, was underage when he allegedly sexually assaulted her inside a hotel room, according to prosecutors. After meeting her at the hotel for a photo shoot, Martin allegedly brought out sex toys and began asking questions about her sex life.

Martin said, “you know I can’t let you leave here,” until they engaged in sex acts, according to prosecutors. Martin then allegedly assaulted her.

“I hear his voice and feel his hands,” that victim said in court during Martin’s recent bond hearing. “I have been stopping since I was 17. I stopped feeling, I stopped wanting things for myself. I stopped thinking people were who they said they were. But I started doing other things. I started hiding when cameras came out. I started lying to my mom and just started pretending.”

Following his arrests in 2022, Martin was released on a $250,000 bond. He was arrested again on March 3, 2024, and charged by the Richland County Sheriff’s Department with unlawful carrying of a pistol before being extradited to Gwinnett County, Georgia, where he faces three charges relating to attempting to solicit sex from a 13-year-old girl.

“We still plan on defending his case and preserving his dignity as a human being in the face of these matters,” his attorney, Alex Postic, told The State Media Co.

Since his arrests in 2022, Martin had been unemployed and working for delivery apps, Postic said. Martin’s wife had kicked him out of the house, and he had largely been sleeping in his car, with his wife only allowing him inside the house during the day.

“His wife, I guess understandably, broke apart that connection with him,” Postic said. “I don’t know if he was really enjoying freedom out on bond, but he was out.”

Martin “pretty much lost everything when he got arrested for this,” Postic said during his bond revocation hearing. But he said his client was seeking treatment for his sex addiction through Sex Addicts Anonymous. How the victims described Martin in court “is what he is, and there’s just really no other way to put it,” Postic said. “It’s a sickness like any other addiction.”

Martin remains in Gwinnett County jail. Records do not indicate whether a bond amount has been set. Were he to be released on bond in Georgia, he would be taken into custody in Richland County.

“(Martin) was given the privilege of enjoying two years of undeserved freedom while his victims battle with the aftermath of trauma and face a very uncertain future of recovery,” said the mother of the teen in court. “He has abused the system with the same disregard he has abused his child victims.”