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Former foster mom concerned SC child back with parents facing misconduct charges

A child who suffered 16 broken bones as a baby spent the last 48 hours back with his parents.

Despite winning custody, the battle over 22-month-old Foxx is not over yet and there’s still concerns over his safety and wellbeing.

The child’s parents are still facing criminal charges in the case. Ashley Joyner and Josh Coker were arrested in June 2017 on child abuse allegations.

Foxx was in protective custody until this week, when a judge ordered the Department of Social Services give the child back to his parents immediately. The judge ruled DSS witness testimony was not credible and closed the case.

One of Foxx’s former foster parents, who wishes to remain anonymous, said she was disheartened by the outcome in family court. The woman said she fostered Foxx for 11 months.

“I really truly feel on this case they (DSS) dropped the ball and it’s their job to prove that this child was harmed through abuse and they didn’t do it,” she said. “If he had rickets, broken bones fine but how do you explain the fact that he still had brain bleed in his head and evidence of shaken baby syndrome?”

On Thursday, the family’s defense attorneys, Ryan Schwartz and Bill Nixon, celebrated the reunion between Foxx and his parents. They maintain their client’s innocence and through their investigation, they believe Foxx’s injuries were the result of a medical condition, metabolic bone disease, and not abuse. They both had harsh words about how DSS handled the case.

“For almost two years DSS refused to provide any sort of plan or any sort of method for them to be able to work to get Foxx back, they just completely ignored them, completely assumed that this was child abuse from day one,” Nixon said. “The expert that they had, who is not an expert in bone disease, who is not an expert in orthopedics, did not bring in any of the x-ray evidence to look at to try and figure out what exactly happened in this case.”

Schwartz said he feels the trigger was pulled way too early in this case and little effort was put into a resolution.

“It’s a broken system, they are broken and it comes from the top,” said Schwartz. “You have people at DSS who don’t know the case, who have never reviewed a medical record, who have never spoken to any of the witnesses, who have never spoken to an expert witness, who read a case maybe a four or five-page report from somebody who is on the ground and they say, ‘Well you’ve got to try this case’.”

While the former foster mother said she can’t explain what happened, she said this case exposes some real flaws in the social system. She points to Coker’s criminal past as a red flag.

“It’s very disheartening, the whole situation is sad,” she said. “I feel sad for his parents, you know, I wish them the best but you know he has a criminal history. I mean, he’s got a violent past did anybody take that into effect?”

Coker pleaded guilty to criminal sexual misconduct with a minor back in 2010 and was arrested on assault and battery charges in 2012 and 2013.

Schwartz said his criminal record was not admissible in the custody case, he cited the pending criminal charges as the reason why.

The solicitor’s office will ultimately make the decision to continue with the criminal case against the couple, but no court date has been scheduled at this time.

DSS officials have not yet released a statement on the matter or what steps may be taken as a result.

Child ordered returned to parents after abuse investigation

The Dept. of Social Services has been ordered a 22-month-old child returned to his parents’ custody, after the boy was taken from the Johns Island couple in 2017.

The boy was placed in protective custody amid law enforcement suspicions of child abuse over the discovery of 16 bone fractures during a May 2017 emergency room visit.

Ryan Schwartz, an attorney for parents Ashley Joyner and Joshua Coker, says he was able to prove in court Wednesday, Jan. 30, the child’s injuries were the result of a “medical conditions.”

The child, two months old at the time, was rushed to a hospital in May 2017 when his parents discovered unusual swelling in one of the boy’s legs.

An MUSC doctor at the time said the child’s injuries were likely caused by twisting and pulling, as opposed to accidental falls or a metabolic bone disease.

Accordingly, Charleston County Sheriff’s Office charged Joyner and Coker with unlawful conduct toward a child.

Schwartz said there was “never any bruises or ANY evidence of child abuse,” in a written message posted on his Facebook page.

DSS sought to permanently remove the parents’ custody rights. Instead, a judge ordered the agency to return the child to the parents’ custody immediately, and pay for a year of counseling for the family, Schwartz says.

“People told me this was not a winnable case,” Schwartz said. “They were wrong and we proved them wrong. It was clear from day one this child had medical conditions that caused the breaks and we proved that in court.”

SC parents work to reconnect with toddler son after child abuse probe pulled them apart

Watching young Foxx Coker pad around his Johns Island home, clutching his favorite toy dog and dancing to the theme of SpongeBob SquarePants, his parents can’t help but think of all the little moments like this they have missed over the past two years.

His first steps. His first words. His first taste of solid food. Moments forever lost amid a swirl of accusations and heartache.

Foxx was just 2 months old when the state Department of Social Services whisked him away in May 2017 after a variety of broken bones in his body led to suspicions of child abuse. Then, a judge unexpectedly returned him to his parents Wednesday after a medical expert testified that the boy’s injuries resulted from a bone-weakening case of nutritional rickets, not physical abuse.

Now the blond-haired toddler is home, scattering his toys about the house, high-fiving people with his tiny hands and scurrying along after his parents on walks to a pond on the rural, 12-acre property where they live.

He’s already spent more time with them than he has since he was placed in protective custody and shuttled through a series of foster homes. During that time, his parents were allowed to see Foxx for two hours each month in a DSS facility while case workers watched from behind two-way mirrors.

“He knew who we were,” said his father Joshua Coker. “But there is no way you can truly bond with someone in two hours a month.”

That’s just 24 hours in a year, he said. The equivalent of a single day.

They would watch as the foster parents’ car pulled away with Foxx inside after each visit. It was like the moment he’d been stripped from them was being played on an endless loop, his mother, Ashley Joyner, said.

“It’s been awful,” she said, shaking her head. “An absolute nightmare.”

Coker and Joyner say they are thrilled to have Foxx home again, savoring every moment and trying to concentrate on a brighter future that suddenly lies ahead of them. As they fought efforts to terminate their parental rights in Charleston County Family Court, they weren’t expecting to walk out the door with Foxx the same week. They figured they would be ordered into a treatment plan replete with parenting classes, drug testing and other hurdles to prove their competence.

shley Joyner plays with her son Foxx Coker

Instead, Judge Michele Forsythe blasted DSS for failing to back up allegations of abuse with solid evidence, the family’s attorneys said. She ordered DSS to return Foxx to his parents immediately and provide the family with a year’s counseling to help with their reunification.

“We’re parents again,” Joyner said. “And we’re going to raise the best little boy we can.”

Not everyone shares the family’s joy. Critics of the judge’s decision and skeptics of the rickets diagnosis have expressed outrage over the ruling and the speed with which Foxx was returned to his parents. Rumors have swirled over what’s in the child’s medical records as others point to two misdemeanor assault convictions in the father’s past, the most recent of which was in 2013.

State Rep. Nancy Mace, a Daniel Island Republican, said the system failed in one way or another. Either the boy was improperly taken from his family at a tender age or the judge erred in sending him back into what could be a precarious situation. Either way, someone should be held accountable, she said.

“This is a miscarriage of justice on one side or the other,” she said.

Concerning injuries
The family’s long journey started, Joyner said, when she discovered her infant’s son left leg was swollen one day, though without signs of obvious bruising. They ended up at Medical University Hospital, where doctors informed them that Foxx had a leg fracture. The medical staff didn’t mention at the time that X-rays had pinpointed several other fractures as well. But soon, DSS investigators arrived on the scene and began questioning Joyner and Coker about the injuries, the couple said.

They were caught off guard by the sudden scrutiny but were confident, they said, that authorities would realize their suspicions were misplaced. That didn’t happen. Foxx was soon placed in protective custody.

A few weeks later, Charleston County sheriff’s deputies moved in to arrest the couple on suspicion of child abuse after testing failed to pinpoint a medical condition that could have caused the injuries and doctors pointed to signs of possible trauma, according to arrest affidavits.

After news of the arrests broke, the couple received death threats over social media, Coker said. Joyner said anger, depression and stress set in, and she grew uncomfortable even venturing out to the grocery store. Foxx had been their “miracle baby,” as Joyner, 27, had a medical condition that doctors said would prevent her from having a child. How could people think they would harm him, they wondered.

Still, they remained convinced that authorities would realize at some point they had made a mistake, they said.


“Obviously, it was going to be tough no matter what, but we just had to get the truth out there,” Coker said. “And I was confident that one way or another, no matter how long it took, he would be coming home.”

Their attorneys said they cooperated with authorities in every way they could. They took and passed polygraph tests, and they asked to testify in court even though it meant waving their 5th Amendment protections with criminal charges still looming, said John Duffy, an attorney for Joyner.

Coker, a 29-year-old cook, said he didn’t mind the scrutiny or questions about his past criminal record, which he chalked up to bad decisions as a young man. “I’m not the same person I was back then,” he said.

Another explanation
Their luck changed after their attorneys found a California orthopedic surgeon who agreed to review Foxx’s X-rays. The doctor, an expert in bone disorders, concluded with certainty that Foxx’s 16 fractures were caused by rickets brought on by a vitamin D deficiency, Abigail Duffy, an attorney for Joyner, said.

Nutritional rickets, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has been considered rare in the U.S. since the introduction of vitamin D-fortified milk and infant formula. But the disease has seen a rise in occurrences in the past several decades, according to recent research by the Mayo Clinic. If a mother breastfeeds her child and does not give formula or supplement the milk with vitamin D, rickets can develop in the first month or two of life, experts said.

Joyner said she breastfed Foxx but used a soy supplement with little vitamin D because her son had trouble digesting standard formula.

The couple’s attorneys contend that MUSC waited too long to test Foxx for vitamin D deficiency, which led to a misdiagnosis of his injuries, and DSS was unwilling to entertain explanations other than abuse.

“The villains in this case are Charleston County DSS and MUSC,” William H. Nixon Jr., an attorney for Joyner, said in an email to lawmakers and The Post and Courier. “They utterly and completely failed to handle this case properly.”

DSS and MUSC have declined to discuss specifics of the case, citing privacy laws.

Ryan Schwartz, an attorney for Coker, said he hopes this case leads to reforms in how DSS handles cases, and makes pediatricians think carefully before concluding that something is child abuse.

“Just because it looks like something doesn’t mean it is,” Coker said. “All avenues need to be examined before you come to a conclusion.”

“Also, people make mistakes,” Joyner said.

Coker nodded. “Even doctors.”

For now, Joyner and Cox are concentrating on the future, not what’s been lost. They plan to throw a big party for Foxx on his birthday in early March. And holidays this year will be extra special events.

“You are going to be very spoiled this year,” Coker told his son with a laugh.

Gregory Yee contributed to this article.

No Fault Divorce In South Carolina

I frequently get asked "what are the grounds for divorce in South Carolina" and "do I really have to wait a year to get divorced?"  The answer, as always, is it depends.  In South Carolina there are two types of divorces- fault and no fault.  No fault divorces can be granted upon the separation of one year and I'll discuss that process in this post.  At fault divorces do not have a year long separation requirement and I will discuss the at fault grounds in another post.     

The only way one can obtain a no fault divorce in South Carolina is by "living separate and apart without cohabitation for a period of one year."  A divorce on this ground can be granted immediately once responsive pleadings are filed, or thirty days after the defendant is served if the defendant does not respond.  For a divorce under separation of one year both parties must be aware of the fact that they are separated before a divorce can be granted.  This is important for our military personnel because separations caused by military service cannot be used as a basis for divorce unless the parties separated before the forced separation for reasons other than military service.  

The term "separate and apart" for the purpose of a no fault divorce means that the spouses are not living together under one roof.  The South Carolina Supreme Court has found that even when the husband and wife testified that they lived in separate rooms and did not have sex for the year long period, that the spouses did not live separate and apart in the eyes of the law and therefore did not meet the requirement to obtain a divorce.  This means that the husband and the wife must live in separate houses, apartments, etc. during the year long separation.  

The Courts, however, have been unclear whether spouses who have sexual relations during the one year separation or attempt to reconcile should be forced to restart the one year clock after the event before they are divorced.  No South Carolina courts have directly addressed this concern, however, family court judges will examine the intentions of the husband and wife and the facts surrounding the sexual intercourse.  As a practical matter I would advise all my clients that some family court judges will rule that an isolated act of sexual relations requires the one year period of separation to restart and I advise my clients against this.    

To obtain a no fault divorce in South Carolina, one does not have to file anything with the courts to start the one year clock.  One can file as soon as the year is over and the court may schedule the hearing on the no-fault immediately upon filing as long as the other spouse is served with the action and has either answered or allowed the thirty day time frame for an answer to elapse.  

If you or a loved one has any questions regarding your rights during a divorce please do not hesitate to contact Thrower & Schwartz.  



Grounds For An At Fault Divorce in South Carolina

As I discussed in an earlier blog post, the no fault ground for divorce in South Carolina is a one year separation.  In this post I’ll go over the four at fault grounds which will allow you to get divorced without the one year of separation.

The four at fault grounds for divorce in South Carolina are adultery, physical cruelty, habitual intoxication or narcotics use and desertion. 

Adultery- In order to obtain a divorce based on adultery, one doesn’t need to prove the spouse actually cheated.  The legal standard for adultery is that the spouse had the inclination and opportunity.  This means that there doesn’t need to be actual proof of sexual intercourse.  This means that if a spouse spends the night in a hotel with a paramour, they have the opportunity and inclination to cheat.  There doesn’t need to be actual video or picture evidence of the act.  The courts have also found that adultery doesn’t always mean sexual intercourse, it could be found with proof of mere “sexual intimacy.”  Often hiring a private investigator is useful in proving adultery. 

Physical cruelty- If there is actual physical injury it must be more than an isolated instance of abuse.  However, if there is no actual physical injury, a divorce based on physical cruelty can be granted if one spouse’s conduct created a substantial risk of death or serious bodily harm.  For example, firing a gun at a spouse but missing would be enough to rise to the level of physical cruelty needed for this at fault divorce. 

Habitual intoxication- To obtain a divorce on this ground one spouse needs to prove more than occasional drinking or drug use.  Rather, one must prove that this drinking or drug use has caused a breakdown in the marriage.  Proof can be medical records for rehab, criminal records with convictions related to alcohol or drug use, financial records proving frequent alcohol purchase or work and employment records that show problems with the spouse’s employer due to drugs or alcohol.

Desertion- Although this is formally a ground for separation, because the time frame for a divorce based on desertion is one year, the same time as a no fault divorce, the use as a ground for divorce in South Carolina is rarely if never used anymore. 

Although these four at fault grounds can be used to obtain a divorce, there is a common defense to all four- condonation.  Condonation is the conditional forgiveness of the behavior which would lay the ground work for an at fault divorce.  This means the innocent spouse is aware of the behavior but still decides to remain in the marriage with the at fault spouse.  If the adultery happened years prior and the innocent spouse didn’t know about it then it could still be grounds for an at fault divorce years later.  On the other hand, if the spouse knows of the adultery and remains with the cheating spouse and forgives him or her, then the fault ground for adultery no longer remains a ground for a divorce. 

A spouse can file for divorce on any of the at fault grounds without being separated from the other spouse.  However, at a temporary hearing the burden of proof will be on the innocent spouse to prove with solid evidence that fault ground in order to give the Judge the power to remove the spouse from the marital home.  In any at fault divorce action, the court cannot have the hearing on the divorce until 60 days after the filing for divorce and cannot grant a divorce until 90 days after the divorce action was filed. 

If one of the spouses needs help determining any issues stemming from a separation such as child custody, child support, alimony, division of assets or property, visitation but do not have a ground for a divorce, that spouse may file an action for “separate support and maintenance.”

If you, a friend or a loved one is seeking a divorce or defending a divorce and would like legal advice, contact Thrower & Schwartz.  Ryan and Bill will be glad to meet and discuss the situation.