COLUMBIA — The embattled chief of South Carolina’s Department of Juvenile Justice received a rare "no confidence" vote June 9 by a Senate panel after he again refused to resign amid four hours of blistering, bipartisan criticism.
Director Freddie Pough tried to defend himself to senators after current and former DJJ employees testified about being forced to work shifts of 24 hours or longer and fearing for their safety — issues that led to last week's walkout.
It's the first time senators have even considered a "no confidence" move since 2014 when former state Department of Social Services chief Lillian Koller resigned on the eve of an expected vote by the full Senate after months of then-Gov. Nikki Haley refusing to fire her.
Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia, told Pough he was in over his head in running DJJ.
"You don't need to respond to this, but why don't you just quit?" the Columbia Democrat asked Pough, three weeks after asking him to resign.
"You continue to talk this big game about you're going to make it better in 18 months or whatever. Your staff has lost faith in you. I've lost faith in you. I don't know why the governor hasn't lost faith in you," Harpootlian said in the Senate panel's second hearing on DJJ. "There's no evidence here that you've accomplished anything, except a 57 percent increase in violence."
Pough said he had no plans to quit.
"I take taking care of these children seriously. At the end of the day, I understand that I'm in the chair. I understand all this starts and stops with me," he said. "I'm not out of touch. I'm boots-on-the-ground as well. I will reaffirm that I am committed to fixing this."
Only Pough's boss, Gov. Henry McMaster, can fire him, since he leads an agency in the governor's Cabinet.
“The governor is sympathetic to the issues being raised by DJJ staff members today. Changes are being made," said McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes. "In the short term, a private security firm will provide 40 guards to address DJJ staffing shortages."
He did not directly address the "no confidence" vote or mention Pough by name.
More than two dozen workers gathered June 4 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.
“The point is to find out what happened Friday. Why did they walk out?” the panel's chairwoman, Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, told The Post and Courier ahead of the meeting.
It was the second hearing of the subcommittee reviewing a scathing report in April by the Legislative Audit Council. Its findings included that DJJ doesn't have enough security officers to keep the juveniles or staff safe, and the ones who are there have less experience, resulting in incidents more than doubling since 2017.
"There's no such thing as morale around there," Ricky Dyckes, an 11-year veteran of the agency, told lawmakers June 9. "Staff is definitely not safe, and the juveniles are not safe."
Shealy, who spent a decade volunteering at DJJ before taking office, said juveniles need to be learning technical skills and getting an education toward improving their lives once released, which happened during the tenure of the late William Byers from 2003 to 2011. The situation has gone downhill since, but particularly in the last few years, said Shealy, who has pieces of art and furniture made by DJJ students in her legislative office.
“He hasn't made it better," she said of Pough, appointed by McMaster as the permanent director in 2018.
"If anything, it's a whole lot worse than it was four years ago. Now all we’re doing is making a better criminal. We’re giving those kids the opportunity to be somebody who’s going to visit (Department of Corrections Director) Bryan Stirling in a year or two, if they live, when they get out because they’re going to be better gang members,” Shealy said.
"We're not giving them a trade. We're not giving them a skill. We're not giving them a better education," she continued.
Teachers can't teach when they fear for their lives, she said.
"There's no safety. There's no leadership. There's a lack of discipline," said construction teacher Wes Laws.
DJJ employs more than 1,500 people and handles more than 15,000 referrals annually on a $134 million budget.
Pough said DJJ can't hire people because the pay is so little and the agency needs more money. But senators point to the report's findings that money for raises went to management instead of officers, and the agency carried over $11 million unspent last fiscal year.
Pough, whose annual salary is $148,612, is among eight administrative employees at DJJ making more than $100,000.
Both the Senate and House include $4.6 million in their budget proposals to increase officer pay starting July 1, which would be in addition to a 2 percent or 3 percent across-the-board raise being considered for all state employees. Legislators will approve a final budget later this month.
The money will put DJJ officers' salaries in line with their counterparts at the state prisons agency for adult inmates. Officers at DJJ currently receive up to $3,000 less than officers with Corrections. It will also ensure officers will be "paid every penny they have earned working overtime" instead of having them take take off instead. And new hires will get a $7,500 signing bonus, Symmes said.
David Roberts, a captain at DJJ's Broad River Road complex, said increased pay would help, but problems run deeper.
"The biggest issue we have at DJJ is not addressing the aggression," he said. "There's no amount of money you can buy anybody to get busted in the head day after day."