SC Senate panel expresses 'no confidence' in juvenile justice director
The vote comes less than a week after juvenile correctional officers walked off the job in protest
By Zak Koeske
COLUMBIA, S.C. — A Senate panel whose members previously asked the attorney general to probe for criminal conduct at the state agency that houses and educates South Carolina's juvenile offenders has issued a vote of no confidence in that agency's embattled director.
All five members of a Senate Corrections and Penology subcommittee that has spent the past two months holding hearings on an audit that identified issues with the staffing, training and finances at the Department of Juvenile Justice voiced their displeasure with Director Freddie Pough's leadership Wednesday after a four-hour hearing where current and former employees testified about their experiences working at the agency.
"The proof's in the pudding," said Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, who has repeatedly asked Pough to resign and last month accused him of breaking the law by failing to properly report incidents of child abuse at Juvenile Justice facilities. "There's no evidence here that you've accomplished anything."
The vote of no confidence comes less than a week after juvenile correctional officers in Columbia walked off the job in protest over many of the deficiencies identified in the recent report, which Harpootlian has called a "damning indictment" of South Carolina's juvenile justice system.
State lawmakers convened the subcommittee to review the audit shortly after its release in April and have met four times to take testimony from auditors and question Pough about problems outlined in their report.
Pough was scheduled to testify again Wednesday, but had his testimony preempted by a succession of current and former employees who were given the opportunity to air their grievances with the agency and his leadership.
Several of the officers and teachers who spoke before the panel Wednesday, including Lt. Ricky Dyckes Jr., also attended a protest outside the Broad River Road detention complex last week.
"This is the worst that I have ever heard of any correctional facility operating. Period," said Dyckes Jr., a 10-year Juvenile Justice veteran and former S.C. Department of Corrections employee who testified that officers fear for their safety and are routinely forced to work 24-hour shifts without breaks due to severe manpower shortages.
Tuesday night, a staff member was brutally assaulted after transporting juveniles from one facility to another and had to be hospitalized, he said.
"He was thumped in his head and he was robbed by the juveniles. They went in his pocket and took his money," Dyckes Jr. said. "This is the kind of environment that is taking place at DJJ on the regular."
Pough, who took questions from the Senate panel after his workers spoke, acknowledged the recent assault but said it didn't result from a lack of staffing.
"It was eight young people, one staff," the director said, referring to the minimum juvenile-to-security staff ratio required by federal statute. "We met the ratio, but the young people decided to act out."
Pough, who has refused calls to resign amid a deluge of worker complaints and recent incidents at juvenile justice facilities, forcefully defended his leadership of the agency and said he was working hard to better the department and address employees' concerns.
Staffing problems at the department run deep, he acknowledged, but questioned why so much attention was being paid to issues that predate his four-year tenure.
"There's a lot of talk about how bad things are now, but there's very little talk about how bad things were then. There's very little talk about how we've built on years and years of badness," Pough said. "Nobody wants to go back to talk about when the roof started to leak, and it was ignored, and the hole got bigger, and it was ignored, and now the roof's caved in, and it's under my watch."
He said the department needed significant help and acknowledged it could be years before staff fully buy into his restorative justice approach, but added that smaller changes had occurred and progress was being made.
"I'm committed to this because I believe we're doing great work. I believe that we're on the cusp of making this change," Pough said. "I believe that we've partnered with the right people to bring about the desired results for this committee and for the state."
Aftermath of employee walkout
Pough said he'd met with some of the staff members who left their posts Friday and that many have since returned to work.
He said he'd attempted to address employees' concerns about working conditions, compensation and bonuses for new hires, and promised that current employees would receive the same bonuses offered to new workers as long as money from unfilled positions remained available.
Because roughly 40% of juvenile correctional officer positions are currently vacant, the agency has been able to use the money allocated for those positions to offer workers sign-on and referral bonuses.
In the aftermath of Friday's walkout, Pough said the agency had moved some juveniles between dorms or facilities in an effort to consolidate existing manpower and was receiving staffing assistance from the Department of Corrections.
Juvenile Justice officials also are in discussions with a private staffing contractor about hiring 10 additional officers per shift to work the gates, staff control rooms and help with transportation at the Broad River Road complex so that trained employees can work directly with juveniles, he said.
The agency, which already has the S.C. Department of Administration and State Law Enforcement Division reviewing its policies and procedures, also has begun working with Corrections officials to review scheduling procedures and ensure employees are being deployed as efficiently as possible, Pough said.
The director, who has been criticized by lawmakers and staff for not taking as active a role at the detention complex as his predecessors, denied he was rarely, if ever, seen at the facility. He said he meets with staff regularly, corresponds with employees via a weekly newsletter and jumps into action when needed.
"A picture can be painted about me saying I don't care, but you know, if you poll the audience it's not accurate. It's not accurate," Pough said, running off a list of major disturbances he said he'd responded to at the Broad River Road Complex in recent years.
"I'm not out of touch," he said. "I am boots-on-the ground very much."
Lawmakers question Pough's leadership
Despite Pough's assurances that he was making improvements at the juvenile justice agency, senators took the director to task Wednesday and harshly criticized his stewardship of the department.
"What you've described is, yeah, you know, DJJ has always had its issues and its challenges and we're no different. But we really are," Sen. Mia McLeod, D-Richland, said. "Because I am familiar, too, with DJJ under other leaders, Black and white, Republicans and Democrats, and this is the worst that I've seen it."
She told Pough she wasn't clear whether he was asking for more time to turn around the beleaguered agency or trying to explain that he'd failed to reform the department in four years because the Legislature had not adequately funded the agency. Either way, she said it was "obvious" that he'd failed to show leadership in his role.
"This isn't rocket science," McLeod said. "For you to stand here and blame the media and blame the Legislature for not providing you with the resources that you need to do the job is ridiculous."
Pough said he was simply seeking acknowledgment that, despite myriad challenges, good work was being done at the agency and real change was possible with a little patience and some support.
"I think that is leadership, acknowledging that there's a need for human capital and trying to put things in place to acquire that human capital," he said. "I think that is leadership."
Sen. Brian Adams, R-Berkeley, a retired police lieutenant, commended Pough for trying to reform the department, but said he'd already had four years in the post and it didn't sound like enough progress had been made.
"What really struck me is you had command staff come up and speak in front of you and that takes guts," Adams said. "That's telling me there's some issues within the department, because I don't think I could ever see myself standing up in front of my chief and telling other people what they're doing wrong."
Harpootlian told Pough it was past time for him to step down and questioned why Gov. Henry McMaster, who has stood by the director throughout the recent turmoil, has not come to the same conclusion.
"Your staff has lost faith in you, the people that have testified here today have lost faith in you, I've lost faith in you," he said. "I don't know why the governor hasn't lost faith in you."
A spokesman for McMaster did not respond to a request for comment on Pough's testimony or the Senate panel's vote of no confidence in his leadership.
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