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The embattled director of South Carolina’s juvenile justice agency has resigned, months after dozens of correctional officers and teachers walked off the job in protest over working conditions at a Columbia detention facility for juvenile offenders.
Freddie Pough, a former South Carolina Law Enforcement Division lieutenant who had led the Department of Juvenile Justice since 2017, informed the governor of his intention to resign Monday night.
Gov. Henry McMaster named Eden Hendrick to serve as SCDJJ acting director.
A formal nomination for Pough’s replacement still needs to take place. The appointment needs Senate approval.
McMaster had stood by the director in the face of intense pressure from lawmakers who called for his resignation following the April release of an audit that identified widespread staffing, training and security problems at the agency and which one lawmaker called a “damning indictment” of South Carolina’s juvenile justice system.
“I’m grateful for Mr. Pough’s five years of leadership at the Department of Juvenile Justice and his passion for the work of rehabilitating the young people who come under the supervision of the agency,” McMaster said. “We will immediately begin working to find the best possible person to lead the agency into the future.”
Pough defended his tenure at the Juvenile Justice Department and said the report cast an incomplete and often inaccurate picture of the agency, but has struggled to contain the damage wrought by the audit amid a series of headline-grabbing scandals.
After the audit’s release, Senate lawmakers formed a special subcommittee to examine it and subsequently penned a letter to S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson imploring him to scour the report for evidence of criminal conduct.
The state Department of Administration and SLED also opened reviews of Juvenile Justice’s policies and procedures, at the request of the governor, and the state Department of Corrections has been working with Pough to revamp employee scheduling.
Lawmakers took Pough to task at the audit subcommittee hearings, during which he acknowledged he’d failed to report incidents of child abuse and neglect at the agency’s facilities to SLED or the Department of Social Services.
“Do you understand what you’re doing is a crime? Do you understand that?” Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, hectored the director after he admitted not reporting a 16-year-old detainee’s recent suicide attempt.
Pough told Harpootlian, a former prosecutor, he had not known he was required to do so. Nearly two weeks after the hearing, Pough issued a statement asserting the agency had complied with the law and was not required to report such incidents to SLED or DSS because it investigates them internally.
Employee discontent over working conditions at the agency’s Broad River Road Complex boiled over in early June when workers walked off the job to protest what they said was inhumane treatment.
Juvenile correctional officers were routinely being forced to work 24-hour shifts, or longer, without breaks because the department was so short-staffed, workers alleged.
The lack of staffing not only depleted correctional officers and slowed their response times, but also left them vulnerable to assaults by juveniles, they said.
Officers said numerous employees had taken leave due to injuries suffered on the job and some had quit after reaching a breaking point.
Jeremy Lee, a welding instructor at DJJ’s Birchwhood High School, called on SLED or the federal government to take over the facility because he said employees could no longer do their jobs.
Pough, who also has been criticized for his alleged failure to take as active a role at the detention complex as his predecessors, spoke with employees after the walkout and acknowledged that significant improvements were needed at the agency.
During a Senate hearing the following week, disgruntled current and former DJJ employees aired a deluge of complaints about Pough’s leadership and the state of the agency.
The director testified that he’d made significant progress since taking over the department and said he’d been working tirelessly to address employee’s staffing concerns. In the wake of the walkout, the agency secured temporary staffing assistance from the Department of Corrections and was working with a private staffing company to bring on 10 more officers, Pough said.
“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,” he told lawmakers. “I believe that we’ve partnered with the right people to bring about the desired results for this committee and for the state.”
His resignation marks the second time in four years the state’s Juvenile Justice chief has been brought down by a legislative audit that exposed problems at the agency.
In 2017, then-Director Sylvia Murray resigned just one day after the release of a critical Legislative Audit Council report.
Pough, who at the time was serving as the agency’s inspector general, was appointed interim director and later confirmed as director the following year.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.