Mental Health Patients Drown in Sheriff’s Van During Florence Evacuation

When Nicolette Green and Windy Newton needed to be transferred from mental health care facilities near the coast in South Carolina, the trip should have been routine. Instead, the women wound up in the back of a sheriff’s van for a trip that proved fatal when the van was swept up in floodwaters, drowning them before they could be rescued.

Now, the Care2 community is demanding to know what happened. What series of events led to this tragic incident? Will those responsible be held accountable? And what are they going to do to prevent a repeat in the future?

We’re still learning about the details of the case, but here’s what we do know: Green was 43, and Newton was 45. Both women were receiving inpatient care for undisclosed mental health conditions, and when the storm conditions made it clear that the facilities they were in could be endangered, officials decided to evacuate them under a court order.

Two sheriff’s deputies and an agency van were used to move the two women. Some reports say they were restrained, while others contradict this. If they were, they weren’t prisoners, and the use of restraints in mental health settings is being phased out as a cruel and outdated practice. Meanwhile, the deputies sat in the front.

When the van encountered a partially flooded road (that some reports say was actually closed), the deputies decided to drive ahead. Anyone who’s lived in a flood-prone region has probably heard the axiom “turn around, don’t drown.” Even a few inches of water on the roadway can be enough for drivers to lose control and die.

After the van was overtaken by water, the deputies were able to get loose, thanks to the fact that they were unrestrained. The women weren’t so fortunate, and thanks to the high waters, officials couldn’t even get in to retrieve their bodies right away.

The deputies are currently on paid leave.

The families are furious, and the community has a lot of questions:

Why weren’t officials better prepared to evacuate mental health facilities? Poor disaster planning for people in institutional settings is a recurring theme of major natural disasters, including a nursing home in Florida where people died in 2017, a nursing home in Texas where residents were stranded during Harvey in 2017, and an elder home in California that’s being sued for failing to protect residents during the 2017 fires.

Why did the deputies disobey common sense and the advice of emergency agencies, choosing instead to continue onto a road that was flooded?

Why where Green and Newton evacuated in a sheriff’s van instead of a more appropriate vehicle, and were they restrained? Authorities say that both women had been subject to involuntary commitment, which explains why a court order was necessary to evacuate them, and why sheriff’s personnel were involved — involuntary commitment requires a belief that patients are a danger to themselves and others. A family statement says they were voluntary patients, however. In either case, restraints should not have been used.

Why did news reports initially misidentify the women as inmates, adding confusion to the situation? (Incidentally, 64 percent of jail inmates in the United States have mental health conditions, and the jail and prison systems are the country’s largest mental health providers.)

What decisionmaking process led to the court order requiring them to be relocated?

The Highway Patrol and State Law Enforcement Division are both investigating, according to local media. Sheriff Phillip Thompson is also looking into the situation. Meanwhile, lawmaker Justin Bamberg, an attorney who has been involved in other investigations into wrongful deaths at the hands of law enforcement, is also expressing an interest in the case.

We hope authorities take the need to investigate this case seriously, and that jurisdictions across the United States take it as a warning. Extreme weather, including floods, hurricanes, fires, tornadoes, and earthquakes, is a fact of life. We need clear protocols in place for evacuating our most vulnerable in advance of danger.

Take Action

Join the Care2 activists calling for answers in the deaths of Nicolette Green and Windy Newton.

Photo credit: SC National Guard

56 comments

Colin Clauscen
Colin C20 days ago

There are a lot of questions to ask about this sad case

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Chad A
Chad Anderson20 days ago

Thank you.

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Janis K
Janis K21 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Leo C
Leo C21 days ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Camilla Vaga
Camilla Vaga21 days ago

horrible

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Kathy G
Kathy G21 days ago

Thank you

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Kathy G
Kathy G21 days ago

Thank you

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Hannah K
Hannah K24 days ago

Signed.

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Elizabeth M
Past Member 25 days ago

already signed

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Naomi D
Naomi D25 days ago

Petition signed 2 days ago. What a terrible tragic happening.

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