Brenda Bryant says she doesn’t love her 40-year-old daughter any less because her child is intellectually disabled. It’s how countless other parents of disabled children feel toward their offspring, she will tell you.
But there is one title Bryant wishes she could get rid of.
For the past 2 ½ years, the 60-year-old Bryant, a longtime Lexington County resident and married mother of two grown daughters, has been living in undisclosed, out-of-state locations because she says she doesn’t want to be arrested – again – on an outstanding bench warrant issued in April 2012 by Greenville County Circuit Judge Edward Miller.
Bryant, who for years was her disabled daughter’s legal guardian and conservator before S.C. judges twice stripped of that status, isn’t wanted for any offense under the state criminal code. Her “crime” is that she refuses to pay a $9,639 legal bill to the attorney for a former court-appointed guardian for her daughter, who Bryant contends didn’t do enough protect her daughter from being sexually and physically abused during her stay in a Greenville County group home.
“I’ve lived this way for 2 ½ years; this is survival for me,” Bryant, who has been jailed twice over the past three years after being found in contempt of court, told The Nerve in one of a series of recent telephone interviews from an unknown location. “There were a few times when I slept in my car.”
“I had to make a choice,” Bryant continued. “Do I come back (to South Carolina) and go to jail, or do I fight for the guardianship (from out of state)?”
About a week ago, Bryant said her daughter, who, according to court records, has the emotional and intellectual ability of a 7- to 10-year-old, called her husband and told him that the court-appointed guardian for her hasn’t visited her in a long time at a group home in Florence County where she is now living.
“I have nobody now,” Brenda recalled her daughter tearfully telling her husband, Rickey Bryant. “I want my mother to be my mother, not my guardian.”
The outstanding bench warrant for Brenda Bryant’s arrest is part of a years’-long series of legal actions taken against her by the S.C. Department of Disabilities and Special Needs (DDSN) and others in connection with her legal fight, according to court and other records reviewed by The Nerve.
Besides Miller, other judges who have ruled against Bryant over the years include Richland County Circuit Judge Casey Manning, who made headlines statewide earlier this year by ordering the halt of a state grand jury investigation of now-indicted and suspended S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell; James Barber, another Richland County circuit judge; and Greenville County Associate Probate Judge Edward Sauvain, records show.
Most of the legal actions against Bryant, who is not an attorney but who often has represented herself in court, occurred after she won a major legal victory in November 2006 in the S.C. Supreme Court. The state’s top court ruled that DDSN and the Babcock Center, a private nonprofit service provider in Richland County under contract with DDSN, owed a duty of care to her disabled daughter (Bryant’s daughter was identified in the ruling with the fictitious name of “Madison” to protect her identity, whichThe Nerve used throughout this story for consistency), who Brenda alleged was raped by several men and contracted a sexually transmitted disease while in the care of Babcock during the 1990s.
The justices unanimously overruled a lower court ruling by Manning throwing out a 1997 lawsuit filed by Bryant on behalf of Madison, and sent the case back to the lower court.
The Babcock Center in 2007 settled with Bryant for $250,000 – nearly half of which was for attorney fees and $120,278 designated for Madison’s care, according to court records. DDSN refused to settle initially with Bryant; after she fled the state, Sauvain last year appointed Columbia attorney Jay Elliott as a temporary guardian and conservator for her daughter, and the DDSN portion of the suit was settled for $50,000, records show.
Bryant said officials at DDSN and the Greenville County Disabilities and Special Needs Board, which contracted with DDSN to provide services to her daughter and other disabled individuals, became more interested in taking legal action against her after her Supreme Court victory and the settlement with the Babcock Center.
“Do you think they would have gone against someone who had no money?” Bryant questioned.
In an interview Tuesday with The Nerve, Elliott said Bryant has brought most of her legal problems on herself by ignoring valid court orders.
“She is playing a victim,” Elliott said. “But it is simply not the truth that because she got a very favorable decision from the state Supreme Court that the legal system is out to get her.”
“I don’t think I’m a victim,” Bryant countered. “But I haven’t been able to see my daughter in 2 1/2 years.”
Frequent Court Target
Here’s a look at what happened to Bryant in South Carolina’s court system after winning her Supreme Court case, according to court and other records reviewed by The Nerve:
April 2008 – Less than eight months after Bryant settled with the Babcock Center and 17 months after her Supreme Court victory, Sauvain, the Greenville County associate probate judge, appointed Greenville attorney Theresa Horton as the guardian ad litem for Bryant’s daughter, even though Bryant was still her legal guardian and conservator at the time while she was living in the Greenville County group home.
September 2008 – Sauvain relieved Bryant as Madison’s legal guardian, a position she had held since 1997, and appointed Tracy Parsons, a licensed professional counselor, in her place. He later replaced Bryant as Madison’s conservator with another person not related to her daughter.
Bryant alleged that Madison was fondled and physically abused during the time that Parsons and Horton were appointed to represent her daughter. In a June 2009 letter to one of Bryant’s attorneys, Parsons acknowledged two incidents of “altercations” involving Bryant’s daughter, though she noted that Madison was slapped in one incident as a result of not following “instructions from the staff or prescribed safety guidelines.”
July 2009 – Then-Greenville County Circuit Judge John Few – now chief judge of the S.C. Court of Appeals, the state’s second-highest court – ordered a new hearing for Bryant in Sauvain’s court, noting in his written order that he was “sensitive to the relationship of the mother to her mentally challenged daughter and the potential impact of removal of the Guardian to the relationship.”
Few also wrote he was “troubled” by a report from an ombudsman investigator in the Lieutenant Governor’s Office that there was “psychological abuse” of Madison while at the Greenville County group home, which “may have affected her testimony” at an earlier probate court hearing.
September 2009 – Sauvain reappointed Bryant as Madison’s guardian and conservator, approving an agreement among the parties. Horton waived all of her professional fees, though Parsons did not; Sauvain designated Bryant as the “successor special needs trustee” to handle any requests for payment of professional fees. Shortly after regaining guardianship, Bryant moved Madison to a Florence County facility under contract with DDSN.
January 2010 – Sauvain ordered Bryant to pay Parsons $9,338 for her fees while she was Madison’s guardian, noting that Parsons’ hourly rate of $80 was “reasonable.” Bryant requested that Parsons receive nothing.
February 2010 – Barber, the Richland County circuit judge, approved a motion by DDSN to remove Bryant as the guardian ad litem in the Richland County court case, contending, among other things, that more than $32,000 had been “depleted” without court approval from settlement proceeds designated for the care of Madison.
August 2010 – Sauvain ordered Bryant to pay Parsons $9,338 in guardian fees within 10 days of his order.
September 2010 – Bryant sued DDSN, the Greenville County Disabilities and Special Needs Board, Parsons, Horton and others in Greenville County Circuit Court.
September 2011 – Bryant was jailed in the Greenville County jail after Sauvain found her in contempt of court for failing to pay Parsons’ guardian fees. Bryant told The Nerve that Sauvain ordered her to be jailed indefinitely but that she spent 30 days behind bars and was released after paying the bill with her daughter’s settlement funds, though she added she paid it under protest.
April 2, 2012 – Miller issued a bench warrant for Bryant’s “immediate arrest” after finding her in contempt of court for ignoring previous court orders to pay Parsons’ Greenville attorney, Rodney Pillsbury, for legal fees in connection with the 2010 Greenville County lawsuit filed by Bryant against Parsons and others, which he described as a “patently frivolous lawsuit in this matter – to the extent that it included Defendant Tracy Parsons.” Miller ruled that Bryant owed a total of $9,639 to Pillsbury. Miller also found Bryant’s then-attorney, Alice Perkins, in “willful contempt of court” for failing to appear at “numerous court hearings,” though no sanctions are listed in the order against her.
Bryant told The Nerve she didn’t believe the suit was frivolous, contending that Madison was assaulted several times when Parsons was the appointed guardian, though to her knowledge, Parsons never reported any of the incidents to law enforcement authorities. Bryant said she made a report to the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), though nothing came of it.
April 21, 2012 – Bryant was arrested in Asheville, N.C., on a fugitive warrant and booked at the Buncombe County, N.C., jail; Bryant said she spent six days in jail before being released. A magistrate’s order noted that Bryant “feloniously” fled S.C., and that her offense was punishable by “death/1 yr in prison.” A law enforcement computer message from South Carolina to Buncombe County noted that Bryant has “violent tendencies,” though she has no convictions in South Carolina for any violent offenses, SLED records show.
Bryant told The Nerve after the bench warrant was issued, she was contacted by the state Department of Social Services on a report forwarded to the agency by SLED alleging that she had allowed Madison to be bathed in dishwashing detergent. Bryant said the DSS worker quickly closed the file after interviewing her, adding that she previously had never been accused of physically abusing or neglecting her daughter.
November 2013 – Sauvain appointed Elliott as temporary guardian and conservator for Madison, noting Bryant’s continued absence from the state. After Elliott was appointed, the DDSN portion of Bryant’s Richland County suit was settled for $50,000 – an amount that Bryant believes was woefully low.
“How can you put a $50,000 price tag on a person who got gang-raped and wound up with a permanent sexually transmitted disease?” she told The Nerve.
The Nerve last week left written or phone messages with judges Sauvain, Miller, Manning and Barber. Only Sauvain replied, though he declined comment in an email response, referring The Nerve to Florence County court records in Bryant’s case and saying he couldn’t discuss the case “because of the rules that judges operate under.”
The Nerve also sought comment last week from Parsons and Horton. Parsons didn’t respond; contacted by phone Friday, Horton told The Nerve that she was owed $90,000 in legal fees as the guardian ad litem for Bryant’s daughter for a year, but in the end decided to waive all her fees.
“I knew I was never ever going to get paid,” Horton said, noting she was informed there were not enough designated funds to cover her legal bill. “I settled the agreement with the understanding that I would leave her (Bryant) alone if she would leave me alone.”
Horton contended that Bryant is “very, very good at manipulating the media,” though when asked if she were aware of any formal complaints that Bryant abused or neglected her Madison, she replied, “We don’t have any allegations that she beat her daughter senseless – no.”
The Nerve last week left written and phone messages for Columbia attorney William Davidson, who for years has represented DDSN in legal matters involving Bryant, including the Richland County case that went to the Supreme Court, seeking comment on the legal cases. He did not respond.
In court papers, Bryant said Horton testified in the Richland County court case that she was “cooperating” with Davidson to have her removed as her daughter’s guardian.
Elliott, the Columbia attorney who is the current court-appointed temporary guardian and conservator for Madison, told The Nerve on Tuesday there is no money left in a special-needs trust account designated for Madison’s care, noting his review of records found that about $87,000 was withdrawn over an approximately 24-month period, though he added that Bryant, who was Madison’s conservator at the time, has provided no records to the court showing how that money was spent.
“I have no idea where this money is,” he said, though he acknowledged that it could have been spent on Madison’s care.
Prior to that, about $40,000 in payments from the Babcock settlement was authorized by Bryant’s attorneys to Bryant, though there has been no financial accounting to the court from Bryant on that amount, Elliott said. He said it was his understanding those payments came from Madison’s special-needs trust account, contending that is a violation of state law.
In his November 2013 order appointing Elliott as the temporary guardian and conservator, Sauvain said Elliott alleged that Bryant “misappropriated” funds meant for Madison’s care, though no specifics were listed.
As for the $50,000 settlement from the DDSN portion of the Richland County lawsuit, Elliott said DDSN agreed to that amount after initially contending in mediation that it owed nothing to Bryant, and even if it did, the agency shouldn’t have to pay anything given that the Babcock Center had settled its part of the case for $250,000 – the statutory caps at the time under the state tort claims and charitable immunity laws. He also said he offered Bryant to place the $50,000 in a long-term annuity for Madison’s future care, but she declined, telling him at the time, “I want the money in the bank.”
Bryant told The Nerve she has never spent settlement proceeds on anything unrelated to her daughter’s care or legal expenses connected to her daughter’s cases, and denied ever speaking to Elliott about the proposed $50,000 annuity, adding, “I only told him he had no right to settle the case because I was the conservator.”
Bryant said three attorneys who represented her in the Richland County case initially were paid a total of about $90,000 in legal fees from the settlement with the Babcock Center, and that they voluntarily refunded a total of about $40,000 to her as reimbursement for approximately 10 years’ worth of out-of-pocket expenses in pursuing the court case. She said she believed there was nothing wrong with that arrangement because she was the conservator at the time, though Barber in his 2010 order alleged there was “misuse and misappropriation of assets belonging to” her daughter for “personal use without court approval.”
As for the zero balance now in Madison’s account, as claimed by Elliott, Bryant estimated that more than $30,000 was spent on attorney and other professional fees, as well as legal costs, in connection to the Greenville County litigation, while another approximately $20,000 was spent to buy a three-year-old Ford Explorer to visit her daughter in Florence and take her on various trips, adding she and her husband believed it was more economical to purchase a vehicle to travel with her daughter rather than receiving mileage reimbursements for their own vehicles or paying car rental charges out of the settlement funds. Settlement proceeds also were spent on a variety of personal items for her daughter after she was transferred to the Florence County home, she said.
Bryant said she consulted with one of her attorneys on what she, as the then-conservator, could legally spend settlement proceeds on – including the purchase of the Ford Explorer – before drawing from her daughter’s account, noting, “I could have paid myself a salary, but I didn’t.” She also said because the bench warrant for her arrest is still active, she has no access to her daughter’s financial records in Florence County.
“My hands have been tied,” she said. “They knew what they did to me would tie my hands from doing anything else.”
Silence from DDSN
The Nerve began looking into Bryant’s legal case in September after she provided an August 2005 affidavit from John King, then-executive director of the Greenville County Disabilities and Special Needs Board, who said his organization reported Bryant to the state Department of Revenue (DOR) for a $4,598 debt that the organization claimed she owed for her daughter’s care, and that he also requested the federal Social Security Administration to “conduct a full audit on how Ms. Bryant has spent the funds sent to her” on her daughter’s behalf.
Bryant provided The Nerve with a DOR document, which she obtained from the agency last month, showing that DOR was requested to collect a total of $3,920 from Bryant; the balance is now $2,100 after Bryant paid $1,820.
King, who is listed online as a DDSN district director, didn’t respond to a phone message last week fromThe Nerve seeking comment.
Bryant contends that DDSN took the action against her after she complained about her daughter being overcharged for room and board while living in the Greenville County group home. The Nerve in August first reported that Deborah McPherson, a former DDSN commissioner, alleged at a recent commission meeting that three local service providers under contract with DDSN, including the Greenville County Disabilities and Special Needs Board, had overcharged intellectually or physically disabled clients for their room and board. The state Inspector General’s Office launched an investigation several days after the Nerve story was published.
The Nerve last month asked a DOR spokeswoman how many collection cases had been referred by DDSN to DOR. In an email response, DOR spokeswoman Bonnie Swingle replied, “DDSN has reported one delinquent debtor,” though she declined to identify the person, citing privacy laws.
DDSN spokespersons didn’t provide any direct answers when asked by The Nerve whether the agency had singled out Bryant for debt collections or any other legal actions. Instead, the agency emailed two court documents to The Nerve: Barber’s 2010 order removing Bryant as the guardian ad litem in the Richland County case, and Miller’s 2012 order issuing a bench warrant for her arrest.
Bryant told The Nerve she believes a state law is needed to protect parents of disabled children from being stripped of their guardianship by judges unless there is an independent finding that they abused or neglected their children. But any such investigations should not be conducted by DDSN – “the very agency that parents are reporting for abusing or neglecting their children,” she said.
In the meantime, Bryant said she has no intention now of returning to live in South Carolina while there is an outstanding bench warrant for her arrest in the Palmetto State. She said she and her husband of nearly 38 years, Rickey Bryant, who she noted has suffered two heart attacks and has other health problems, have gone through their personal savings to pay for the protracted legal battles.
“From my perspective, the biggest hurt against us has been financial,” Bryant’s husband, who is Madison’s stepfather, told The Nerve, adding, “The emotional damage is beyond comprehension.”
Bryant, who noted he raised Madison with his wife, said after the 2012 bench warrant was issued for his wife’s arrest, he wrote letters to state Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal and S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, plus met in person with Gov. Nikki Haley during one of her open-door sessions at the State House for constituents, seeking help. But nothing changed, he said.
“She (Haley) said she would look into some things – typical political answer,” he recalled.
Brenda Bryant said although she desperately wishes she could see her daughter, she is committed to fight – out of state if necessary – to regain guardianship of her daughter and to change how DDSN and the state court system treat parents who report abuse or neglect of their disabled children while in the state’s care.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” she said. “And justice denied is corrupt.”
Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.