Never squander an opportunity to get things right.
Freddie Pough’s resignation as head of the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice is one such opportunity for Gov. Henry McMaster.
Calls for Pough’s resignation first came months ago, but Pough, who still had McMaster’s support at the time, resisted despite a report by the Legislative Audit Council that found the department’s facilities were severely understaffed, its employees poorly trained and the juveniles in its care were being left untreated and unsupervised, leading to an increase in violent incidents
In February 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice even issued a letter critical of conditions at the department’s Broad River Road Complex.
“After carefully reviewing the evidence, we conclude that there is reasonable cause to· believe that conditions at BRRC violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution and that these violations are pursuant to a pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. Specifically, we have reasonable cause to believe that South Carolina fails to keep youth reasonably safe from youth-on-youth violence at the BRRC. Additionally, DJJ seriously harms youth by using punitive, prolonged isolation. The violations are exacerbated by the failure to train staff, implement effective behavior management tools, and establish key safety features in the physical plant at BRRC,” the letter read.
The state’s own audit came a little over a year later.
The report found that the lack of staffing meant children in DJJ custody were not receiving adequate medical care and violence had increased among the youth and against staff.
“As we know this is challenging effort, very challenging effort. The ultimate answer to keep the people from getting off the right track,” McMaster said at the time of the work facing Pough and his department.
McMaster was right in that regard. It is sometimes hard to keep our children from going off track, but when they do we have a responsibility to help them find a new direction in a safe environment.
When that became seemingly difficult, if not impossible, for the department to do, the state did not move fast enough to correct the problem.
Earlier this year, a Senate hearing with Pough yielded few solutions to the ongoing problems at department facilities and Pough, who took over the department in 2017, kept his job.
On Tuesday, McMaster named attorney Eden Hendrick, who has experience with the Department of Social Services and working in family court in Richland County, to serve as the department’s acting director and we hope she gets to work quickly.
Whoever McMaster nominates to fill the role permanently, he should recognize this opportunity to select someone who can and will tackle the department’s problems with a real sense of urgency.
This isn’t the sort of government problem that can be studied for months or years by committees.
Each day that the state doesn’t correct these problems, and improve the treatment and services we provide to children already in our care, is another day they grow up and learn that no one is in their corner.