(Columbia, SC) Mitchell Smith, charged with posing as a social worker while running two Columbia group homes for the disabled, trolled Veterans Administration facilities to find tenants, a Columbia police investigator told a judge Tuesday.
Investigator Steve Narewski testified during a court hearing that Veterans Administration officials told him Smith “would go through the nursing home area and the care areas and try to enlist clients to go to (his) facilities over the course of some time.”
The hearing before Family Court Judge Gwen Smalls was to determine whether the seven “vulnerable adults” removed Sunday from the houses should remain in protective custody.
Narewski described conditions at Smith’s Woodrow Street home as “horrendous” and said one of the adults taken into protective custody Sunday might have had to have his leg amputated if he hadn’t gotten medical care when he did. Smith’s homes were at 2727 Gervais St., and in both units in a duplex at 1131 and 1133 Woodrow St., between Gervais and Millwood Avenue, in Melrose Heights.
“His bandage was oozing some green stuff which would mean inadequate medical care being provided to him,” Narewski testified. “I had seen him earlier in the week, and it was not oozing then.”
Another man, who has schizophrenia, was not getting prescriptions, Narewski testified.
At the hearing’s end, the judge ruled there was probable cause for the S.C. Department of Social Services to keep the seven tenants in emergency protective custody. Smalls also ruled police and DSS had cause to take the seven into protective custody.
The judge also ruled that the government checks Smith had been getting on behalf of his residents be “redirected” to them.
All Smith’s residents were receiving either Veterans Administration benefits or Social Security benefits and giving their checks to Smith each month, according to a Columbia police report. Officials did not disclose the exact amount.
Currently, two of the seven “vulnerable adults” taken by DSS are at Columbia’s Veterans Hospital. The other five are at Palmetto Health Richland hospital. All have received medical attention, officials said.
Smalls allowed Smith, 45, who had no attorney present, to question Narewski before she ruled.
“Did you know I had a licensed group home at one time?” Smith asked the investigator.
“I know your wife had a licensed group home at one time,” replied Narewski. “Sir, you may have assisted in the operation of that facility, but when I went to Woodrow Street and Gervais Street, I did not see a licensed group home. I had also contacted LLR prior to your arrest … and confirmed that you are not a licensed social worker – which is what you are charged with.”
Smith, who was shackled hand and foot, appeared in court in dark blue jail garb. He is currently in the Richland County jail, charged with posing as a social worker. The misdemeanor charge carries a fine of $1,000 and a year in jail. On Monday, after hearing what Narewski said about conditions in the homes, a city judge set bond of $100,000 for Smith. He has remained in jail.
Smith also questioned Narewski on his statement about the man with the bad leg. “Did you know his leg has been like that for about seven years?”
Narewski replied he acted in an emergency situation based on complaints from neighbors and is waiting for detailed medical records. “My concern long-term is that I will get medical records, and they will allow me to charge you with additional charges.”
Smith also asked: “Did you know these guys before I got them were all homeless?”
Narewski replied: “My concern is not that they were homeless prior to your taking them. My concern is that they receive adequate care for whatever useful life they have left.”
Smith: “They had food, they had shelter, they had water, and a bed. What are you saying is adequate care?”
Narewski: “My concern was for safety for the residents at Woodrow, and medical and perhaps psychiatric care for residents at both houses.”
Regardless of the conditions inside the houses, Smalls said, with Smith, the main caregiver for the adults in jail, he obviously could not care for them.
Narewski also testified that Smith has not yet said “how he gains financially” from keeping the disabled. “I still have to do some research on that.”
Other details emerged Tuesday:
The Woodrow Street house had “six inches” of standing water in it when city inspectors checked it two weeks ago. The water touched the home furnace and the base of the electric water heater. The fire department came to the house and disconnected the electricity and turned off the water for safety reasons.
Those in protective custody are two women and five men. They range in age from their early 40s to their early 60s.
One has a serious leg infection, three have serious mental conditions and two are in wheelchairs. One of the wheelchair-bound tenants is a double amputee with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Information about Smith is still sketchy. However, he said in court Tuesday that his last job was with the U.S. Navy, and that he left the service in 1992 with a disability. He told the judge he has a 2007 master’s degree in social work from USC; the university confirms the degree.
None of the vulnerable adults were present in the courtroom.
Under the state’s vulnerable adults law, a hearing will be held Nov. 17 on the merits of charges that Smith was exploiting vulnerable adults. As a result of that hearing, Smith could face further criminal charges that he exploited vulnerable adults in his care.