Losing a child is the greatest fear of most parents. Parents are not supposed to outlive their children. Unfortunately, these types of tragedies are often a part of life. We read about accidents that break our hearts and cause us to feel great sympathy for parents in these terrible situations. The scariest part is that many of them are unforeseeable situations that could not have been prevented. What about the ones we do see coming? A father, foster parents, a guardian ad-litem, and neighbors saw a tragedy coming and yet it happened anyway.
Rylan Ott, a 23-month old boy, was recently found unresponsive in a pond. That pond was roughly a half-mile from the trailer where he lived with his mother, Samantha Bryant. At approximately 4:00 p.m. Ms. Bryant realized she did not know where her son was and she called the police. A couple of hours later Rylan was found in the pond and searchers immediately began resuscitation efforts, but it was too late. Rylan was pronounced dead at the hospital. At first glance this story seems like another one of the stories of tragedy that we see all the time in the news. Rylan’s story is different though, and one must look back to October of 2015, where the story starts, to see why.
Rylan Ott’s half-sister Brittany called 911 on October 15, 2015 because their mother and her boyfriend were drinking, abusing the sedative Klonopin, and firing a rifle. Deputies arrived and Samantha Bryant was taken into custody and charged with multiple counts of misdemeanor child abuse, among other things. The next day, paperwork was filed in Moore County Court to place the children in temporary foster care. Ms. Bryant spent several days in a mental facility, and family members reached out to a couple that knew the family, Shane and Amanda Mills, to establish a more comfortable foster placement. The Mills were happy to oblige and took in both the children.
After realizing the children would not be fully released to her, Ms. Bryant sent a text message suggesting she would commit suicide. After binging on drugs and alcohol, friends found her passed out on her boyfriend’s lawn.
Upon her release from the psychiatric facility, Ms. Bryant began visitations with the children several times a week at the Mills’ home. Amanda and Shane eventually requested that the visitations be stopped because of the mental abuse that was occurring during the sessions. The visitations were moved to a social services facility and continued. At a court appearance on November 19, 2015, Samantha Bryant thought she would be getting her children back. After realizing the children would not be fully released to her, Ms. Bryant sent a text message suggesting she would commit suicide. After binging on drugs and alcohol, friends found her passed out on her boyfriend’s lawn.
One month later, on December 17, 2015, Samantha Bryant found herself in court again. This time her appearance occurred in front of District Court Judge Scott C. Etheridge. Despite the pleas of Rylan’s father, Corey Ott; the Mills; and Rylan’s guardian ad-litem, Pamela Reed, Judge Etheridge ordered that Rylan and Brittany be returned to Ms. Bryant’s custody. Judge Etheridge even rejected Cory Ott’s plea for custody stating that Mr. Ott had not spent enough time with his son to be a good father. Just four months later Rylan Ott was gone.
[I]f DSS had seen the way Ms. Bryant behaved, it would not have gone along with a reunification plan.
The complaints of those involved centered around the lack of observation that occurred while DSS was investigating the situation. Pamela Reed believes that if DSS had seen the way Ms. Bryant behaved, it would not have gone along with a reunification plan. Neighbors would later report that Rylan was often walking around outside by himself and would sometimes wander to neighbors’ homes. One such neighbor would describe Ms. Bryant as the most irresponsible person she had ever known.
Rylan Ott’s untimely demise was not the end of this story. Pamela Reed, Corey Ott, the Mills family, and many other concerned citizens pursued the issue with the hope that something positive could come of the tragedy. The protests and silent vigils that followed led to multiple investigations into the DSS system and how the system failed to prevent this tragedy. A three-member panel investigated the Rylan Ott situation, and at the investigation’s conclusion, the DSS Director, John Benton, resigned from the position. The investigation report that was released was heavily redacted, but the overall conclusion was that most policies and procedures had been followed, despite significant failures.
At the same time, the prosecution of Samantha Nacole Bryant was under way. On April 20, 2016, Ms. Bryant was charged with involuntary manslaughter for her son’s death. The investigation progressed until Ms. Bryant pled guilty on June 6, 2017, and received a minimum sentence of nineteen months from Superior Court Judge Mary Ann Tally. She will receive credit for at least fourteen months of time served. Her court appointed attorney, Arthur Donadio, indicated that she would also receive counseling during her prison sentence.
The law would require that social workers personally observe the interaction between a parent and child before reunification could be recommended.
While Ms. Bryant’s prosecution continued, a legislative process was underway as well. Rylan’s Law was proposed as a part of North Carolina House Bill 630. The law would require that social workers personally observe the interaction between a parent and child before reunification could be recommended. Reunification is currently the primary objective of the Department of Social Services in situations where a child is removed from the parent’s home.
On June 8, 2017 Rylan’s law was unanimously passed by the Senate Rules Committee. The current version of the bill would require two separate visitations by a social worker in which his or her observations would support a recommendation of reunification. Those visitations would also have to be seven or more days apart. The objective is to give social workers a greater opportunity to observe the type of behavior that the friends and family of Rylan Ott say they could have seen if they had taken the time to observe. The Mills family described Ms. Bryant screaming at Rylan Ott’s half-sister, Brittany, telling her that she only wanted the boy.
House Bill 630 also includes numerous measures to evaluate and reorganize the state’s social services system. The text of the bill is somewhat complicated, but provides for creating working groups to evaluate performance. The bill also creates a September deadline for hiring a third party to evaluate and create recommendations for reforming the state’s social services programs. The plan created by the third-party organization will also need to include specific plans for child welfare reform within the state system.
Despite the positive legislative outcome, it is undisputed that everyone involved would rather have 23-month old Rylan Ott back. They would prefer to see whether he grew up to be a doctor, lawyer, carpenter, soldier, or a myriad of other possibilities. No one will ever know what might have been. The hope is that Rylan’s Law will create the inverse situation, in which no one will ever know how many lives have been saved by the additional required observations. The full North Carolina Senate is scheduled to vote on the final version of the bill on Monday, June 12, 2017. Based on the votes and bipartisan support that has occurred so far, the bill will likely pass. As this article is published, Pamela Reed, Corey Ott, Shane and Amanda Mills, and many others will be waiting for this situation’s silver lining to appear. Only time will tell if that silver lining will truly have an impact on a system that has such a noble and difficult task before it.