UPDATE | DSS interviews 11-year-old in Murphy Village

Published: Sep. 27, 2016 at 5:25 PM EDT
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Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) -- An Irish Traveler tells News 12 NBC 26 a DSS agent interviewed his 11-year-old daughter with their family attorney present for the interview.

We're told everything thing went well and the agent was very professional. A normal investigation would last 45 days but the family hopes this one will be closed in a matter of days.

Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016 11pm

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT)-- Side by side, mother, sisters, neighbors and friends prayed during a candlelight vigil at Saint. Edward in Murphy Village. Normally, the Irish Travelers are quiet to the outside world but now they're asking the world to pray with them. "We are tired. We are wore out. We are sick of it. Our children are scared," Mary O'Hara said. "We beg over and over for everybody to please pray for our kids," she said.

A month ago, DSS took six of their girls. One girl has gone home. The parents say it's because the State suspects sexual abuse. For weeks, they've been in court fighting to get their girls back. According to the families in court, DSS hasn't shown proof of abuse. "They're not listening to our story whenever they go into the courtrooms it seems like its already decided," O'Hara said. The Travelers believe the allegations stem from their practice of arranged marriages.

Frustration and anger boiled over Thursday when a DSS worker showed up wanting to question an 11-year old girl with a severe medical condition. The girl's mother says DSS told her they would not leave until they questioned the girl alone. "Because they had someone called them with an anonymous tip saying my daughter is engaged because there is a picture of my daughter on Facebook," Stephanie Moholland said. She says the picture shows the girl wearing glitzy clothes with male cousins in the background. In the Traveler's culture their parents dress the girls glamorous for special events, like confirmations. Moholland says her daughter is not engaged and the idea itself is outrageous because of her daughter's condition, requiring a feeding tube and a catheter for most of the day.

DSS left without questioning the girl after the mother asked to see any paperwork allowing the worker to legally question her daughter alone. DSS told On Your Side the law allows them to do it in cases of abuse and neglect.

"Listen to our story! Listen to our explanation of what's going on," O'Hara begged. The Travelers made signs condemning DSS. They plan to post the signs outside of Murphy Village along Highway 25 on Friday.

The five girls will be in court next week.

On Your Side's Liz Owens asked a DSS spokesperson whether an allegation of an engagement is consider abuse. She also asked what kind of paperwork they would need to question a child without their parent. Liz is waiting on a reply.

Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016

AIKEN COUNTY, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) -- The South Carolina Department of Social Services arrived at the home of an 11-year-old girl in Murphy Village.

DSS allegedly got a tip that the girl was engaged and wanted to question her alone, according to the child's mother.

Her parents said their daughter has medical problems and needs a feeding tube so they did not want DSS taking her away. When the parents gave DSS a letter to sign saying they wouldn't take their daughter away, DSS left. DSS also couldn't answer whether they had a court order.

Parents were concerned because the other six children DSS took for questioning were removed from the home. Some of the parents of the children DSS took already were also outside the home of the 11-year-old girl when DSS arrived.

The mother of the girl DSS was allegedly trying to question called her attorney to go over her rights.

DSS released the following statement in regards to the incident:

“South Carolina Code of Laws Section 63-7-920 (C) provides that the department or law enforcement, or both, may interview the child alleged to have been abused or neglected and any other child in the household during an investigation. This interview may take place at a school, child care facility, the child’s home or at another suitable location. In the discretion of the department or law enforcement, or both, the interview may be conducted outside of the presence of the parents.”

Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016

AIKEN COUNTY, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT)-- The Irish travelers were in court again on Tuesday to try to get their children out of state custody. The families say a judge refused to move four kids from DSS's custody to temporary custody of a family friend.

The prayers whispered inside St. Edward becomes more desperate as each day passes without the parish's tiniest members. "The fear complex is all around this parish now . I don't find that same joy, happiness and peace that I experienced before," Rev. Cherian Thalakulam said. Father Cherian has ministered to the Irish Travelers for nearly fifteen years. In all of those years, he's never seen his flock so distraught. "They fear their children will be taken away at any moment because there is no reason why they took the children from the home," he said.

A month ago, DSS removed six girls from Murphy Village. The parents say DSS claims the girls were sexually abused. The families believe those allegations stem from their practice of arraigning marriages. However, the parents say the State has yet to show evidence in court proving abuse. The claim itself is something their priest just can't believe. "I know almost all of the parents here and they treat the children like princes and princesses." Father Cherian said.

The parents are desperately trying to get their daughters back. DSS released one of the six last week. Tuesday, the parents tried a second time to at least get their daughters out of foster care and put in the custody of a friend, a non-traveler.

The judge said no.

DSS says it can't talk about the case.

There are about two thousand people who live in Murphy Village. Travelers say it's now a ghost town. Fearful mothers have fled with their children. One traveler says the village is almost always at least 70%t full. Right now, he says, it's closer to 30%.

The families of the girls made sure anyone parked nearby knew their thoughts and feelings towards DSS, although they spoke no words as they walked out the courtroom. The families put homemade fliers on nearby cars which read "'Department of Social Services Lexington, South Carolina, "legally kidnapped" our children and will not release them even though doctors' records show no abuse."

Monday, Travelers say DSS was back in Murphy Village looking for more children.

"Now they fear something is going to happen everyday," their priest said. Father Cherian prays for the truth and for peace, but most of all for the five girls in his parish to come home.

The Irish Travelers are working with a civil rights lawyer to get themselves listed as an ethnic group in the United States. If they are recognized by the government as an ethnic group it gives them protection for some of their traditions like arranged marriages.

Families say there will be another hearing next week. The girls could go home then if DSS has still not shown proof of abuse or the judge could give the agency another fifteen days to investigate.

The judge did allow two of the girls, sisters, to be put in the same foster home.