Motorists who have driven past the Johnston County Department of Social Services Building on North Brightleaf Boulevard (US 301) near Johnston Medical Center may have noticed bright blue pinwheels lining all four corners of the property.
Volunteers spent several hours on April 1st putting out the 750 pinwheels to promote April as Child Abuse Awareness Month. Several small 18×24 inch yard signs also indicated it was Child Abuse Awareness Month.
The pinwheels had attracted the attention of hundreds of motorists who had stopped to ask about the purpose of the pinwheels and to learn more about child abuse awareness. However, unfortunately, the worthwhile campaign came to an abrupt end on Wednesday.
Violation Of Planning Department Ordinance?
Smithfield Planning Director Paul Embler instructed his newly hired Code Enforcement Officer to go to the Johnston County Social Service Building and inform the assistant director that the colorful pinwheels were in violation of Town of Smithfield code and had to be removed immediately. Employees and volunteers spent several hours Wednesday afternoon removing all the pinwheels, a full 18 days before Child Abuse Awareness Month ended.
Hours later, the Town of Smithfield said it was a mistake on their part to demand the signs and pinwheels be removed but by that time they had all been taken down and put away in boxes.
“Earlier today, the Town’s Code Enforcement staff incorrectly directed the Department of Social Services to remove decorative pinwheels and signage from their lawn. According to Article 19-3, Section C (4) of the Town’s Unified Development Ordinance, such a display is exempt from regulation,” according to Tim Kerigan, Public Information Officer for the Town of Smithfield.
“The ordinance clearly allows temporary decorations or displays when they are “customarily and commonly associated with any national, local or religious holiday/celebration,” Kerigan told WTSB.
Local Campaign Had Special Meaning For DSS Staff
County social workers were trying to raise public awareness about the estimated 702,000 children in the United States who were reportedly abused in 2016. Many more cases likely go unreported.
Still fresh on the minds of many employees at the Smithfield DSS office is the July 2010 death of Teghan Skiba. The 4 year-old girl was strangled with a power cord, brutally beaten and sexually abused for 10 days by her mother’s boyfriend while the woman was out of town.
Teghan had 66 bite marks covering her body and too many bruises, whip marks and lesions for doctors to count, a chief medical examiner said. She was also sexually assaulted in a barn behind a Smithfield home. Her mother’s boyfriend was convicted in 2014 and sentenced to death for the girl’s torturous death
Since then, efforts to promote the signs of child abuse had been at the forefront of the yearly campaign.
Apology, But No Public Comment
Town Manager Michael Scott issued an apology to county officials and DSS staff “for this inconvenience and misunderstanding”, Kerigan said.
County Manager Rick Hester said he has already expressed his concerns to Scott. Hester said he appreciated the towns apology.
Smithfield Mayor Andy Moore did not respond to our request for a comment before our publication deadline. Mayor Pro Tem Emery Ashley declined to comment.
However, Town Councilman Perry Harris did address the incident saying, “There is a lot more pressing things we can be doing than dealing with something like that. I thought it was attractive and a positive thing, very appropriate.”
After receiving the apology and being told the pinwheels were not illegal, volunteers spent Wednesday evening and Thursday morning replacing most of the pinwheels outside the DSS building. But the damage to the worthwhile cause had already been done.
Town Manager Scott sent an email to all town council members late-Wednesday alerting them to the planning department’s mistake. WTSB obtained a copy of the email:
Mayor and Council,
Today the Code Enforcement Officer, following direction from his supervisor, approached the Department of Social Services Building in Smithfield and asked the assistant director to move the pinwheels that were placed along the highway, to a singular location such as was displayed in 2016. Employees from DSS removed the pin wheels leaving only a small number near the entrance door. I have received multiple calls on this issue, and perhaps some of you have as well.
Upon review of the UDO, my interpretation is that these pinwheels are exempt from enforcement under Article 19, Section C-4. I have since made personal contact with DSS and apologized for the way this matter was handled and informed them the pinwheels could be placed back at their previous location, should DSS choose to do so.
The media is asking questions regarding this issue. We will respond with similar information as explained in this email.
I am following the appropriate policies in dealing administratively with staff.
Let me know if you have any questions.
Michael L. Scott
Child Abuse Awareness In Johnston County
Child abuse is a much larger problem in Johnston County than many realize. According to the Department of Social Services, 6,949 reports of alleged abuse or neglect were received in 2016 in Johnston County. Of those calls, 1,522 were assigned to investigators. They involved over 3,900 children.
18 percent of the cases, involving 713 children, confirmed abuse or neglect.
At any given time, DSS has an average of 118 children in foster care in Johnston County.
In February 2017 alone, 511 new cases of alleged child abuse were received. 144 were assigned to investigators, 134 children were in DSS custody and 55 children had been removed from homes and were placed with relatives.
Last Friday, social workers gathered next to the pinwheels to blow bubbles in the air to symbolize the victims of child abuse and give a visual reminder of just how many children have been victimized locally.