New S.C. Juvenile Justice chief lays out major changes for troubled department

One of the most significant early changes involves moving administrative staff back "behind the fence"


By Zak Koeske
The State 
        
COLUMBIA, S.C. — She's only been on the job a month, but Eden Hendrick is already putting her stamp on the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice.

The former prosecutor has been busy in the 28 days since Gov. Henry McMaster appointed her to helm the troubled agency following the resignation of its embattled director.

Hendrick, who most recently worked as assistant general counsel at the Department of Administration, updated lawmakers on her flurry of first moves as acting director and the recent turnover of high-level Juvenile Justice staff during an 80-minute Senate panel Tuesday.

In this June 4, 2021, file photo, employees of the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice gather to protest poor working conditions. The acting head of the department Eden Hendrick told legislators on Tuesday, Oct. 20, that she has more vacancies than working correction officers.
In this June 4, 2021, file photo, employees of the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice gather to protest poor working conditions. The acting head of the department Eden Hendrick told legislators on Tuesday, Oct. 20, that she has more vacancies than working correction officers. (AP Photo/Michelle Liu)

Perhaps the most significant early changes involve moving administrative staff back "behind the fence" at the agency's Broad River Road Complex and suspending the agency's regionalization initiative.

The prior administration's relocation of executive staff to an offsite building and its push to house juveniles in smaller regional facilities rather than at the central detention complex in Columbia had drawn criticism from lawmakers and employees.

The reversal of those plans, along with a series of proposed personnel, policy and training changes, seemed to encourage the panel of senators who took testimony from Hendrick Tuesday.

"I think you've done more in 28 days than I've heard in testimony for the previous three or four years," state Sen. Michael Johnson, R-York, said. "It's impressive."

Hendrick acknowledged the compliment, but cautioned him that change at the agency would take time.

"The problems at DJJ are not going to be fixed overnight. There's no way, no how that's gonna happen," she said. "It didn't become like this in the past four years. It got a little worse in the last four years, but DJJ needs to completely reform almost every aspect of what it's doing."

DJJ has been beset with problems for years

The severely understaffed agency has experienced a sharp increase in violent incidents at its secure facilities in recent years, according to a legislative audit released in April. The department has tried to hire more security staff to relieve overworked officers, but the combination of low pay and challenging work conditions has made attracting quality candidates increasingly difficult.

Hendrick said Tuesday that about half the juvenile correctional officer positions across the agency are currently vacant.

"The applicant pool is the main problem," she told lawmakers. "There's just no one that is applying right now."

Employee frustration with working conditions boiled over in June, when dozens of correctional officers and teachers left their shifts at the Broad River Road Complex to protest long hours, substandard wages and lack of safety protections.

Shortly after the walkout, which came on the heels of the audit and a series of legislative hearings about its findings, the full Senate issued a vote of no confidence in former Director Freddie Pough.

Pough, a former South Carolina Law Enforcement Division lieutenant who had led the juvenile justice agency since 2017, held onto his job for another three months before ultimately resigning in late September.

Hendrick, 41, was named acting director shortly after Pough's resignation and will serve in the role until a permanent replacement is nominated by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.

She's worked extensively with juveniles over the last decade.

Her work has stretched from serving as staff attorney for the foster care review board in the governor's office of executive policy and programs to representing the Department of Social Services in juvenile abuse and neglect cases to supervising a team of attorneys, legal staff and victim advocates at the Richland County Family Court Division in the Fifth Circuit Solicitor's Office.

New acting director lays out priorities

Hendrick said that upon being named acting director last month she immediately convened a meeting of agency directors and staff leaders to introduce herself and lay out her ambitious plans for the department.

She made clear they would no longer work from a building in the Synergy Business Park, about 10 minutes from the Broad River Road facility, but instead return to their old offices on the detention center's secure campus.

Juvenile correctional officers have said the administration's relocation to the office park in 2018 disconnected leadership from the day-to-day operations behind the fence and left them blind to the severe problems plaguing the facility. The past director's lack of visibility on campus also contributed to the feeling among some employees and juveniles that they were an afterthought for the agency's top brass, workers said.

Hendrick told lawmakers she would lead by example and become the first administrator to move back to the secure campus, as soon as this week. Other members of the executive management team will follow in the weeks and months ahead, she said.

"I plan to spend time there behind the fence beginning (Wednesday) or Thursday, and then slowly transition everyone back there," Hendrick said. "We're going to start with those people who provide direct care to the juveniles, meaning the rehabilitative services, the school people, those who interact and should be on campus every day."

Regionalization, the former director's plan to fundamentally shift the way the agency served youth by opening smaller secure facilities in communities across the state, is on indefinite pause, the acting director told lawmakers.

Hendrick said the agency would finish work on buildings in the Upstate and Lowcountry that already are underway, but that continuing to regionalize would not be in the best interest of the agency or the state.

"It would cost millions and millions and millions more dollars and require the staff to probably triple, which is just not possible," she said. "I think focusing so much on regionalization has caused us to really lose sight of the kids that are actually in front of us and the kids that we're actually taking care of."

Personnel, policy changes at DJJ

The myriad personnel and policy changes needed to carry out the new acting director's bold agenda are already underway.

Hendrick said she was in the process of reorganizing the agency, which had become "too siloed and broken up" following a 2017 restructuring.

She expects to finalize her plans in the coming weeks, but in the meantime has started making moves to support her vision for the department.

Hendrick began by demoting the facility administrator at Broad River Road and installing an acting administrator with extensive experience at the complex.

The deputy director in charge of all secure facilities is also out, as is the head of human resources, the associate deputy in charge of fiscal affairs and about half the human resources department, she said.

Two administrators on loan from the Department of Corrections are helping out three days a week to oversee secure facilities and a rotating cast of human resources directors from other state agencies are temporarily handling personnel issues until new staff can be hired.

Hendrick wants to completely revamp the human resources department and plans to hire an outside company to work up a comprehensive recruitment package to attract more applicants to the agency. For now, she's hired a part-time "recruitment expert" who previously worked at the Department of Corrections in a similar role.

"We have revamped almost the entire way we are doing the hiring process, the posting process, the orientation process, " she said. "Orientation and HR used to be a very long, cumbersome process with new employees having to go several different places to get several different tests. We're streamlining that so it's all one place, one-stop shop. You go to one appointment and you're onboarded."

Hendrick said she's also conducting a compensation study looking at ways to raise salaries for employees who provide direct care to juveniles, performing a privacy and security study to assess how the agency's employees handle confidential information and taking a deep dive into the agency's budget to try and improve its spending and money management.

On the policy and training side, the agency has replaced its behavior management system, known as Handle With Care, with a new system Hendrick said emphasized verbal deescalation techniques.

The department has started offering training on a rolling basis, so new employees can begin the process immediately, rather than having to wait for the one day each month that training previously had been offered, she said.

And she also plans to carry through with plans set in motion by the prior administration to reduce the use of isolation as punishment and to phase out use of one of the lockup buildings on campus she described as "despicable."

(c)2021 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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