A nursing supervisor from a South Carolina assisted living and memory care community has been cleared of any wrongdoing amid accusations that she sent racist messages to another woman, according to internal and external investigations undertaken by her employer.

April Pruitt Byrd and her employer, however, have paid a hefty price for the claim — monetarily and otherwise — with members of the public jumping to conclusions, threatening Byrd’s personal safety and professional license, and attacking the reputation and security of the senior living community where she worked, Carolina Gardens at West Columbia, West Columbia, SC.

Parent company Priority Life Care launched an investigation after “vulgar and offensive” messages linked to Byrd, including several racist messages that were alleged to have been sent in a text message conversation, were widely shared on social media.

CEO Sevy Petras said the company received screenshots of the alleged conversation via direct messenger on its Facebook account. When company representatives contacted the account owner who shared the screenshots, however, the person did not respond. And soon that user’s profile disappeared.

“All of a sudden, the profile was gone; the person was gone,” Petras told McKnight’s Senior Living, adding that the individual’s profile was never confirmed, and Facebook removed it. “That was fishy,” she said.

Priority Life Care worked with Perry Myers, president of MSI Detective Services in Chicago, who specializes in forensic digital intelligence, Petras said. Byrd cooperated with the investigations, giving Myers access to all of her social media accounts and electronic devices. Priority Life Care combed through Byrd’s emails and spoke with residents, families and co-workers.

Myers, who was recommended by the operator’s insurance company, “conclusively eliminated Byrd as the author of the statements” attributed to her on social media. The investigation was “extensive and costly,” according to a release from the company. The instigator has not been identified.

The South Carolina Board of Nursing and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, which oversees licensing and certification of healthcare facilities, also conducted investigations and cleared Byrd of any wrongdoing.

Not a good way to spend a vacation

Byrd, who had been enjoying a vacation away from working amid the pandemic when the posts went viral, was notified about them by family and friends. She immediately filed a police report with the Town of Lexington (SC) Police Department and notified her supervisors and the nursing board about the posts. Priority Life Care said Byrd is now “receiving death threats, calls for acts of violence against her on social media platforms, and vulgar packages in the mail.”

In a video posted on Priority Life Care’s Facebook page detailing the investigation, Byrd denied making the posts and said she has been a nurse serving older adults almost her entire life.

“This was a personal attack on me, my character and my profession,” she said. “To say that this has been devastating and scary would be an understatement …I will continue to collaborate with investigating agencies to find out who is behind these racial posts, and I will participate in any and all charges being filed.”

Priority Life Care asked Facebook to remove the fraudulent posts, which it called “unlawful and inciting acts of violence and death,” but Facebook reportedly has refused.

Byrd was “100% cleared” and remains employed with the company but has not returned to work as she continues to deal with threats and harassment, Petras said.

Company institutes social media training

As a result of this incident, Petras said the company instituted training for everyone, from the community level to corporate level, on how to protect themselves on social media. 

“As much as some may not like it, it’s [social media] a part of doing business. It’s part of connecting, particularly during this time of COVID-19, when we all can’t be together. It’s one of the best ways to reach out and stay connected without physically staying in the same place,” Petras said.

Although many companies that are the victims of harassment let it go because it’s not worth the fight or the money, Petras said putting the time and money into an external investigation was the right decision.

“To me, as the leader of our team, we’re people who take care of people. Our nurses, our frontline essential workers, our CNAs, dietary, housekeepers, business office managers — they put their lives on the line everyday for our residents,” Petras said. “There’s no way I’m backing down on somebody who says they didn’t do something.”

The community continues to employ extra security, although threats against it have calmed in recent days, Petras said. She urged any other providers who face similar situations in the future to do their homework and get a third party involved, and don’t give in to threats and harassment from people “who don’t even know what our teams are going through on a daily basis.”

“Everybody that works in seniors housing, whether in assisted living or long-term care or a nursing home, we know how hard our staff are working to keep our residents and each other safe and protected. I think everybody deserves what America believes to be due process,” Petras said. “We’re not experts in technology. We are experts in caregiving.”

Senior housing is in the media spotlight and is an easy target, she said, adding that her company has been the target of numerous phishing attacks for more than a year.

“You need to be aware. You need to have a good third party protecting your information and available to help you do the research,” Petras said.