A nonverbal woman with autism and disabilities that requires her needing assistance with daily tasks was left on board a Burton Center bus all day, two consecutive days, according to a lawsuit filed against the Burton Center, its leadership and others involved in disability services.
The lawsuit, originally filed in Greenwood County in February 2020, has become a federal case brought against former Burton Center Executive Director Jimmy Burton, current Executive Director Laurie Cordell, former center employees Elaine Robinson and Mary Johnson and current employee Shakina Aiken. The lawsuit also names Joshua Baker, former state Department of Health and Human Services director, and Mary Poole, who was fired in February as director of the state Department of Disabilities and Special Needs.
An amended complaint filed in federal court Feb. 6 details how a Burton Center client was left aboard a bus two days in a row. Renee Campbell “is a qualified disabled person who has severe autism and intellectual disabilities, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and thyroid disease,” the complaint said.
“Renee is nonverbal and requires assistance and supervision at all times with every activity of daily living, including, but not limited to dressing, toileting, bathing, eating and taking medication,” the complaint said.
As a client of the Burton Center, Campbell is among the many clients who are transported to worksites to participate in work programs. On July 2, 2018, Burton Center employee Elaine Robinson picked Campbell up at home, where her parents walked her onto the bus and buckled her in.
The bus took Campbell and others to the worksite, but when the other clients got off the bus, Campbell was still in her seat. The lawsuit said Robinson did not notice Campbell still aboard the bus, and parked it and locked the doors with Campbell still inside.
“Burton Center had placed alarms at the back of the other Burton Center buses, due to clients previously being left on the busses,” the complaint said. “Those alarms required the driver to walk to the back of the bus before locking the bus in the parking lot, but the bus that transported Renee was not so equipped.”
In a response to the legal complaint filed Feb. 19, James Logan Jr. — the attorney representing the Burton Center and its past and current employees named in the lawsuit — said the defendants admit Campbell was unintentionally left unattended in the bus for several hours that day, and the next day. They denied that anyone had previously been left on the bus, but admitted they were working to install alarms at the back of buses, and these alarms would have made it less likely Campbell would have been left on board.
The Burton Center required staff to turn in a transportation log and reconcile those against attendance records to ensure clients were safely brought to the workshop. The complaint said the transportation log wasn’t turned in, nor compared against the attendance those days.
Aiken found Campbell the first day she was left aboard the bus, and the complaint said no one provided first aid, called 911 or informed Campbell’s parents what had happened.
The Index-Journal reported on this event about a week after it happened. The temperature was in the 90s when Campbell was left on the bus. At the time, Burton told the Index-Journal there was “a breakdown in the system,” and that policies and procedures should have prevented this from happening.
“We didn’t realize it until she got on the bus to take everybody home, and we immediately called 911,” Burton told the Index-Journal. “Our nurse took a look at her and cooled down her body, which had reached 100 degrees.”
Burton said the State Law Enforcement Division and DSS were called, and that this was the first time anything like this had occurred in the center’s history. Burton was referencing when Campbell was left aboard the bus on July 3, which was the second consecutive day she had been left aboard a bus.
Campbell was taken home after she was checked on by Burton Center staff on July 2.
“Renee was soaking in sweat when Robinson delivered her home that afternoon, but because she is nonverbal, Renee was unable to report to her parents that she had not attended the workshop but had been locked in the bus all day,” the complaint said. “The next day, on July 3, 2018, Robinson left Renee on the bus for a second consecutive day.”
Again, Campbell was picked up at home and driven to the site, and again she was left aboard the locked bus while outside temperatures reached the 90s, the complaint said. When Robinson returned to the bus at 2:25 p.m., seven hours after she picked Campbell up, she didn’t immediately notice Campbell slumped over in her seat.
Johnson, discovered Campbell the second day and saw her leaning against the window, drooling and covered with sweat, the complaint said. Staff took Campbell to a nurse’s station before calling an ambulance and Campbell’s parents.
Campbell was taken to the emergency room, where she was treated for heat exhaustion and dehydration. SLED and DSS were informed on July 5, 2018, as were Campbell’s parents — three days after the initial event.
“It’s a total miracle she’s alive,” said Patricia Logan Harrison, who alongside Robert Childs III is representing Campbell’s parents in this lawsuit. “If you left a dog in a car for six, seven hours, would that be criminal?”
Harrison said SLED looked into the case but vetted it to DSS. DSS didn’t complete a report, and Harrison was told the case was “unfounded,” meaning they said there was insufficient evidence to consider it abuse or neglect.
Robinson was fired following these events, but the complaint argues there was a greater responsibility to the Burton Center and its staff to ensure the safety of its clients. The complaint says the Burton Center was neglectful and negligent, and it alleges violations of Campbell’s rights along with violations of Medicaid law by the Burton Center and the state agencies overseeing these services.
In the defendants’ response, some of the details are admitted, although many of the allegations are denied outright. The defendants cite several defenses, including immunity because they were acting in the scope of their employment and in good faith, as well as other defenses.
The defendants’ attorney could not be reached Thursday for comment. The most recent document filed in this case is a Feb. 23 motion to amend the scheduling order. If the case isn’t mediated by Aug. 29, the case is subject to be called for jury selection or trial after Oct. 15.
When Burton spoke to the Index-Journal in 2018, he said the ordeal was preventable and that Robinson had falsified records indicating everyone had been dropped off safely on July 3.
“It was just a very unfortunate situation,” Burton said then. “You’ve got people taking care of people, and mistakes happen.”