COLUMBIA — Days after losing the support of a state Senate panel that asked him to resign, the troubled leader of South Carolina’s juvenile justice agency did not appear at a routine two-hour policy meeting held by a group appointed by his boss, Gov. Henry McMaster, where the controversy was never addressed.
Members of the Governor's Juvenile Justice Advisory Council instead spent the time on June 11 talking about traveling to Tacoma, Wash., for a conference in November; Medicaid reimbursement opportunities; and development of a three-year strategic plan.
There was no public response to a recent vote of no confidence by a state Senate panel in S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice Director Freddie Pough.
Pough did not attend the advisory council meeting, instead issuing a prepared statement through a staffer addressing ongoing problems.
“The agency is continuing to address various concerns," Pough said in the statement. "Right now, it’s all hands on deck as we are working within our facilities and trying to address those concerns."
The council's silence in the midst of a dysfunctional climate at DJJ did not sit well with lawmakers, who took the rare step of voting no confidence in Pough's leadership on June 9.
Pough sat through a four-hour Senate corrections subcommittee hearing June 9, where he was criticized by lawmakers as current and former staff members complained about shifts of more than 24 hours, critical employee shortages and unsafe working conditions.
“I’m disappointed that they don’t get the seriousness of any of this," state Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Lexington Republican who's leading a Senate panel examining problems at the agency, told The Post and Courier on June 11. "Are they waiting for somebody to die? Are they waiting for somebody to get seriously injured? What is their problem?"
Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia Democrat who has twice asked Pough to step down and also serves on Shealy’s subcommittee, told The Post and Courier following the June 11 meeting that members of the 46-year-old advisory council should also be removed.
“The fact they didn’t discuss that at all indicates they’re totally oblivious to what their job is. They should have had questions for him, like we had questions for him,” Harpootlian said. “If these folks aren’t even talking about this, that indicates that they’re complicit in the failure of this agency.”
Established in 1975, the council is charged with “recommending improvements in juvenile services and offering technical assistance to state and local agencies in planning and implementing programs for the improvement of juvenile justice,” according to state statute. The panel, made of up of between 21 and 33 volunteers, are all picked by the governor.
Jay Elliott, a Columbia-based attorney and advisory council chairman, said at the meeting that his group remains committed to ensuring the safety of all within DJJ facilities.
“I assured the director of DJJ 18 months ago that if there are things the department needed that the council would be eager to assist,” he said.
Elliott and others on the council have spoken about the need for DJJ reform in the past.
"The department has struggled mightily to maintain a safe, healthy environment in its institutions for the youth confined there and the staff charged with their care," Elliott wrote in its January 2020 annual report.
"Director Freddie Pough has called on leaders in law enforcement and the judicial system to assist with keeping the numbers of youth confined to that minimum which serves the public safety and principles of accountability, avoiding needless commitment of low risk children. These entreaties have have mixed results," Elliott wrote.
One of the most tumultuous weeks in the department’s history started June 4 when more than two dozen workers gathered in the parking lot outside the gates of DJJ’s Broad River Road facility, holding hastily written signs protesting long shifts, a lack of breaks and general frustration with Pough, who’s led the agency since January 2017.
Only Pough’s boss, McMaster, can remove him since DJJ is a Cabinet-level agency, but the governor has given no indication he has plans to do so.
“The governor is sympathetic to the issues being raised by DJJ staff members today. Changes are being made,” McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said June 9. “In the short term, a private security firm will provide 40 guards to address DJJ staffing shortages.”
Symmes did not directly address the no-confidence vote.
Shealy said she hasn’t been in contact with McMaster’s administration in the days since her subcommittee’s no- confidence vote.
“If the people outside the legislative branch doesn’t think it’s serious, when something does happen, it is not on our shoulders. It is on their shoulders. They will be responsible,” she said.