RICHMOND COUNTY, N.C. — This week marks three years since a teenager died after being beaten at his Rockingham home. His mother and her boyfriend were charged.
Now, three years later, 9 Investigates is looking back on the teen’s death and the systems responsible for preventing it.
“Children who are facing abuse, neglect, most things that many of us could not even imagine -- we’re just not making them a priority, “ said Brett Loftis, a child welfare advocate.
Those children include 15-year-old Casey Johnson. He was sophomore at Richmond Senior High School. He was in JROTC and was a big brother.
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In January 2021, Johnson was beaten inside of a Rockingham home and died days later. Investigators charged his mother, Michelle Johnson, and her boyfriend, Joseph Carroll, with murder.
The autopsy says the malnourished teen died from head trauma. It was so severe that it was as if he had been in a car crash.
In court, prosecutors said that Casey’s death was a result of another punishment at the home. They said the boy had only been given crackers and water to eat for days and took a ready-to-eat meal out of the closet. That resulted in severe punishment.
Prosecutors said Michelle Johnson sat on Casey’s back while Joseph Carroll beat him.
The medical examiner discovered Casey had more than 100 injuries in various forms of healing over his entire body. His injuries spanned five pages of the autopsy report.
The report also notes a prior Child Protective Services case. Records show neighbors reported suspected abuse after seeing the Johnson children running up and down a road with weighted vests. It’s not clear how case workers handled those abuse reports.
The Richmond County Department of Social Services repeatedly denied requests from Channel 9′s Genevieve Curtis for that information and for interviews.
We do know from medical records that after at least one case worker visit, Casey’s youngest sister was removed from the home and sent to live with their dad out of state. But Casey was left in the home.
‘We honestly aren’t doing enough’
Why was Casey left in the home? That question has taken Curtis on a three-year investigation.
We’ve now learned that the state found the Richmond County DSS, which was tasked with protecting Casey, consistently falls below expected standards. The county agency has been on a corrective action plan for five years and was already on a corrective action plan when Casey was killed.
In 2019, a year and a half earlier, another child died on Richmond County’s watch. In a letter dated October 10, 2019, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said it found “the case plan did not adequately address the issues that posed a risk to the child” and “services were not provided that address the issues causing removal of the child.”
“Are we truly investing in the best, most highly-trained, highly competent folks to be able to serve our most vulnerable children? The answer is clearly no, we’re not,” Brett Loftis said.
Loftis served two terms on the state’s child fatality advisory board. He reviewed cases like Casey’s.
“We honestly aren’t doing enough to make sure our kids are protected,” Loftis said.
North Carolina is one of only nine states with a county-administered child welfare system rather than a centralized state-run agency. That means each county is responsible for hiring, training and paying social workers who receive and respond to reports of child abuse or neglect, with little state oversight.
Loftis said the model isn’t working.
“It just doesn’t make sense for there to be a lot of individual, small, county-run DSS, because there is no efficiency,” he said.
Our investigation found heartbreaking results across the state. In 2021, 86 children who had contact with Child Protective Services within 12 months died from suspected abuse or neglect. In 2022, 90 children died.
“That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Loftis said. “Those are the number of kids who had an investigation within the year previous to their death. Think about all of the kids we don’t have that information on, or the investigation was multiple years ago.”
Genevieve Curtis asked NCDHHS Deputy Secretary for Opportunity and Wellbeing Susan Osborne to grade the state on how it’s protecting children in the system.
“I would give us a B,” Osborne said.
She doesn’t believe the county-centered model is an issue. Instead, she points to a system long underfunded by the General Assembly with incredibly high stakes.
“If you remove a child, we’re too invasive. And if you don’t, you’re responsible. So it’s a difficult, difficult place,” Osborne said.
North Carolina ranks last among peer states when it comes to funding, which means low pay for social workers.
“One out of every four county DSS is seeing about a 40% turnover rate in child welfare staff, particularly higher in low wealth and rural communities,” Osborne said. “It makes me want to keep fighting.”
Is there a solution?
Economically-distressed Richmond County said staffing issues are contributing to its struggles. But how much can the state intervene?
In rare cases, the state can take over a county office. Osborne said they’re not at that point with Richmond County, despite two deaths.
“What is the threshold then for accountability?” Curtis asked.
“The threshold for that is when we can’t assure that the children in that community are safe,” Osborne said.
The state has eight counties on a corrective action plan and one in takeover status. And yet, Casey died while the state was already monitoring the county.
“It is not a perfect system,” Loftis said. “I don’t know if it would ever be a perfect system, but it could certainly be a lot better than it is currently.”
“We have to do better,” he added.
In 2023, the General Assembly approved funding for new regional director positions to create support between the state and county offices. The state said it’s in the process of filling those positions.
Richmond County DSS declined multiple requests for an interview, but sent Curtis a letter highlighting the challenges of a low-income community. It also outlined steps it has taken to provide better outcomes for families. Those include adding more supervisor positions to oversee the child welfare team and increasing salaries for social work staff to be more competitive with surrounding counties.
A trial date has not been set for Michelle Johnson or Joe Carroll. Carroll faces the death penalty.
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