'Dumpster fire' or work in progress? SC juvenile justice director says scathing audit lacked context

Director Freddie Pough says he's committed to changing the agency's culture and reforming the juvenile justice system


By Zak Koeske
The State (Columbia, S.C.)
        
COLUMBIA — A recent audit of the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice offered an incomplete and often inaccurate picture of its operations, according to the agency's chief, who despite the report's grim portrait of DJJ believes the agency is headed in the right direction.

Director Freddie Pough, who took over the agency that houses and rehabilitates juvenile offenders in 2017 after his predecessor resigned following a similarly scathing audit, said the past four years on the job have been an uphill battle full of challenges and frustration, but that he remains committed to changing the agency's culture and reforming the state's juvenile justice system.

In an hourlong interview with The State Thursday, Pough addressed the Legislative Audit Council report's assertions that DJJ's secure facilities are critically understaffed, its correctional officers fear for their own safety and the youth in their care aren't adequately supervised or afforded timely medical treatment.

South Carolina DJJ has been plagued by poor audits in recent years, citing critical understaffing and unsafe working conditions.
South Carolina DJJ has been plagued by poor audits in recent years, citing critical understaffing and unsafe working conditions. (SCDJJ)

The director reiterated that while the agency agreed with some of the auditors' conclusions and recommendations and was already in the process of making changes, he did not believe they had adequately incorporated information DJJ provided to rebut some of their most damning claims.

"There is a lack of context given in the report," Pough said. "When you don't include that contextual background, it unfairly paints a negative picture of the agency."

Regardless of its methodology, the report made waves at the State House this week, where the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee convened a special panel to review its findings.

After the group's first meeting Wednesday, the full six-member Senate committee asked S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson to review the audit and probe whether any of its findings warrant further criminal investigation.

"We were shocked to hear many of the disturbing findings, ranging from potentially covering up instances of sexual assault and abuse to falsifying records and misuse of funds," committee members wrote to Wilson Thursday.

Pough, a former juvenile correctional officer and lieutenant with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, declined comment on the senators' calls for an investigation, but has denied wrongdoing.

He said DJJ provided auditors over 700 pages of written responses and supporting documentation to counter many of their claims and conclusions that they failed to consider.

The agency's alleged misuse of grant funds, for example, was a simple accounting error, Pough said. He said he explained this to the auditors, but his response was not cited in their report.

"It was explained that was a keying error by someone in fiscal who miskeyed that information in," Pough said. "But to the reader, DJJ misused funds."

Short-staffed workers more fearful

The director didn't, however, dispute the auditors' finding that fewer employees feel safe at work — a survey of more than 730 DJJ employees found 70% feel safe at work compared to 75% four years ago — but said it was important to acknowledge the considerable drop in staffing over that time.

"There's strength in numbers, he said. "(Employees) are concerned about staff shortages and having additional support for when there's a need for additional support. So obviously that would make them feel less safe."

Between October 2016 and September 2020, DJJ lost about 10% of its total workforce, or 138 employees, according to the audit. Among correctional officers and law enforcement officers, however, the losses were more extreme.

The agency lost 159 officers between 2016 and 2020, dropping from 492 to only 333, a 32% reduction, the report found.

Auditors found the hours worked by employees at all five of DJJ's secure facilities decreased between 2017 and 2019, in some cases by as much as 30%, even as the number of juveniles housed at some of those facilities grew.

While the current combined average daily juvenile population is only 286, according to DJJ data, at the time of the audit in 2019, it was 613, according to the report.

DJJ's decision to eliminate paid overtime, which was intended to tamp down on perceived overtime abuse, caused some workers to leave the agency and others to take days off with the comp time they accrued in lieu of overtime pay, the report found.

Staff shortages are nothing new at DJJ, Pough said, who recalled similar issues when he was starting out as a juvenile correctional officer 20 years ago, but said nowadays they're even more acute.

Whether it's the pay — salaries for juvenile correctional officers start at roughly $30,000 — the challenging nature of the job or society's shifting perception of law enforcement, finding applicants has been a struggle.

It's not surprising the majority of DJJ workers surveyed said they'd leave the agency if offered another job with equal pay and benefits, said Pough, who added that the same is true in education and local law enforcement.

"We have a lot of manufacturers that have moved to this state and it's hard to get people to work with this population for a salary less than they can make at some of these plants or even in food service," he said.

While most people get into juvenile corrections work because they see intrinsic value in helping young people, he added, that sense of idealism can wane over time as workers marry, start families and bills begin to pile up.

Pough has requested from the state between roughly $4 million and $5 million each of the past three years to give new employees and existing frontline correctional and probation officers double digit raises, but thus far has received only about $1 million total.

He said he's not sure whether increasing starting salaries by $4,000 to $6,000, as the agency's request stipulates, will be enough to attract more workers, but it's a start.

"There's a lot of good paying jobs in this state that don't require 12-hour shifts or dealing with the public or troubled youth," Pough said. "But we have to start somewhere, and typically the incentive to get folks to come is higher salaries."

In the meantime, the agency is appealing to potential applicants by holding job fairs and running promotional videos that highlight the value of working with juvenile offenders.

Auditors, however, criticized the agency's failure to reel in a significant number of new employees through job fairs and questioned the time, travel and personnel costs associated with them.

They also said the agency missed an opportunity to increase the salaries of its lowest-paid frontline workers when it used nearly $500,000 to offer raises to a small number of management positions.

"There was money available and they were not using it for the critical needs positions," lead auditor Marcia Lindsay told the Senate panel Wednesday.

Director denies boosting pay for managers unfairly

Pough said the audit's framing of the pay raises he gave higher-wage workers is faulty and disputed Lindsay's assertion that the agency could have instituted a 14% pay hike for all 113 entry-level correctional officers with the money it paid out to higher wage workers.

Had the agency given a 14% increase to all entry-level juvenile correctional officers (JCO I), those individuals would be paid more than a more senior rung of juvenile correctional officers (JCO II), he said.

"It's not fair to say I should give an increase to 100-some odd JCOs when there's like 500 to 600 of them," Pough said. "So I only give a 14% raise to JCO Is? Every juvenile correctional officer is a frontline staff.

"If I were to say that internally, my staff would be in an uproar," he continued. "I've alienated the other 1,000 frontline workers."

Pough also said it wasn't accurate to describe the pay increases some managers received as raises because those people had actually been promoted.

"Those people didn't just get raises, they actually moved into more senior positions with higher salaries," he said. "No one under my administration has received more money for doing the same job."

Pough said he couldn't directly respond to comments Lindsay made Wednesday about a local solicitor accusing DJJ of failing to notify him of multiple major incidents at one of the agency's secure facilities because he said he didn't know enough about the alleged issue in question.

He also said he'd have to look into her claims that auditors found numerous instances of DJJ employees miscategorizing serious, violent incidents, including fights and potential gang activity, and failing to assign them for further investigation or forward them to management.

The director did, however, say he felt the auditors' discussion of the agency's reporting system lacked nuance and said he'd worked hard to improve that process since taking over the agency.

"They presented it as if there was some random person reviewing reports and making a decision arbitrarily," Pough said. "These are highly trained professionals and these cases are assigned to investigators and they prioritize where it goes out."

He said he'd worked to revamp the agency's incident reporting process after the LAC's 2017 audit found it was antiquated and in need of an update. The new system is designed to ease the reporting process and ensure incidents aren't mischaracterized or overlooked, Pough said, but he couldn't say whether errors may have occurred in the specific case Lindsay referenced because he wasn't familiar with it.

DJJ says it encouraged workers to participate in audit

The director also rebuffed auditors' assertion that he took unprecedented action to try and impede their work.

Lindsay testified Wednesday that when Pough became aware of their audit, he emailed all senior employees and instructed them to notify a specific staff person within an hour if they were contacted by auditors. She said he also told employees to inform this staffer of all auditor visits and to provide them a written summary of any visits and interviews the auditors conducted within 24 hours.

The director's message spooked employees, Lindsay said, and may have kept some from speaking up about problems for fear of retaliation.

"I've been doing this 31 years," she said. "This is the first time I've ever seen anything like this."

Pough said Thursday he had no idea why auditors interpreted his note to staff as anything other than a sincere attempt to encourage their participation in the audit and volunteered a copy of the Sept. 6, 2019, email to The State for its review.

The message notes that, by statute, the agency is required to participate in the audit and identifies a staff member who would serve as a liaison between the agency and the Legislative Audit Council.

It instructs employees to notify her within an hour if contacted by the LAC; to contact her prior to releasing any information to the LAC; to forward her copies of any documents requested by or provided to the LAC within 24 hours; to notify her of any site visits or interviews; and to provide her a written summary of all visits and interviews within 24 hours.

"I wanted to send a message to staff to let them know we were going to fully cooperate," Pough said Thursday. "I got advice from my general counsel to ask staff to let us know, so that anything the LAC asked for there would be a person held accountable to make sure they got (it)."

Auditors were so concerned by the email, Lindsay testified, that they asked Pough to retract the reporting requirements and send employees another message assuring them they could speak freely and confidentially with LAC staff.

"We asked him to put our phone number on the email so they could call us directly and we also asked that they be notified that we would send out this survey soon to get their input," she said. "He did send out another email and he said to speak truthfully and openly with the LAC auditors, but none of the reporting requirements were removed at all.

"He didn't put our phone number on there, he didn't tell them about the survey. And several employees did tell us, they reiterated that they were scared to talk to us because of possible retaliation."

Pough's second email, sent more than a month after the first, alerted employees that an LAC audit was underway and advised them to cooperate with auditors.

"I want to establish my clear expectation that we extend hospitality and respect to our LAC visitors," the director wrote, according to a copy of the letter provided to The State. "As an agency, we are open to this process, and understand it's an opportunity to introspectively assess our processes and procedures and also highlight the wonderful improvements we've made. So, all staff contacted should speak truthfully and openly with the LAC auditors."

Audit obscures progress at agency, director says

Pough said he penned a detailed 10-page rebuttal to the LAC audit that attempts to address its concerns and explain why many of its conclusions are flawed because he fears lawmakers and the general public may the draw the conclusion that the agency is in massive trouble or, as one senator put it, a "dumpster fire."

While he admits it's been difficult to change DJJ's culture and institute a more restorative and rehabilitative approach at the agency, he sees bright spots like a $750,000 federal grant it was awarded to help reduce the use of isolation and teach juvenile officers de-escalation techniques.

Or its partnership with the Center for Children's Law and Policy to provide assistance with analyzing data on youth offenders, revising punitive policies and increasing programming for juveniles in its custody.

"We're working on a lot of good things," Pough said. "And that's another thing that's disheartening about the (LAC audit). It doesn't share with the reader any of the good things we're doing."
Governor stands by DJJ director

Despite the beating Pough and the agency have taken from some lawmakers in recent days, Gov. Henry McMaster has continued to support the embattled director.

The governor said last week, shortly after the audit's release, that he remained confident in Pough's leadership.

"It's a tough situation. He inherited a tough situation," McMaster said. "We have taken steps over the last few years to make things better. We got a ways to go, but yes, I do have confidence in Freddie Pough."

The pair appeared together at a press conference Wednesday where McMaster announced he was allocating more than $12 million in discretionary federal COVID-19 relief funds to expand the agency's juvenile delinquency prevention programs.

But Sen. Dick Harpootlian, the most outspoken member of the Senate panel reviewing the LAC audit, isn't sold on the agency's progress.

"I've read their response," the Richland Democrat said of Pough's rebuttal to the auditors. "I have grave concerns."

Harpootlian said he questioned Pough's leadership and criticized McMaster for paying the DJJ director a compliment at the grant announcement this week.

"The governor going out there yesterday and commending him on the job he's done is an absolute insult and slap in the face to every child in need out there," he said on the Senate floor Thursday.

Sen. Darrell Jackson, another Richland County Democrat, rose to defend Pough, with whom he said he speaks often.

"I hope that throughout this process that we don't make a sacrificial lamb out of someone who is really, really trying to get that together," Jackson said. "It is a tough, tough job."

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