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Acting director describes staffing shortage ‘crisis’ at S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice

Published: Oct. 27, 2021 at 9:43 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice’s acting director said her department currently has about as many job openings for juvenile corrections officers as it has officers on the job.

Eden Hendrick, who took the reins of the department in September, described the situation at the DJJ to state lawmakers Wednesday during a meeting of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Subcommittee in Columbia.

“What would you say at this point, are we still in a crisis situation at DJJ?” Republican Rep. John McCrary III of Greenwood asked.

“With our staffing levels, yes, sir,” Hendrick responded.

It is a problem Hendrick inherited from her predecessor, Freddie Pough, who resigned from the position in September following months of criticism and pressure from lawmakers over conditions in the department for both staff and children. A report from last April found the department was dangerously understaffed.

The heat reached a boiling point in June, when workers at the Broad River Road Complex in Columbia, the DJJ’s long-term facility, walked off the job over concerns about safety, low pay, and long hours.

In describing her department’s staffing shortages, Hendrick also noted hiring challenges are plaguing other employers and industries around the state and country.

But she said that does not make her department’s issues any less urgent.

“We are basically trying as hard as we can to give the kids the services they need behind the fence, but that cannot happen without staff,” she said.

During a meeting of the Senate Corrections and Penology Subcommittee last week, Hendrick said there were 232 openings for juvenile corrections officers, 74 them at the Broad River Road Complex.

“When you’re understaffed, you have wrong use of isolation, more assaults, more break-ins. Everything happens when you’re understaffed,” she said Wednesday, adding that other jobs, including nurses, social workers, and “basically anyone who providers direct care to juveniles,” are dealing with vacancies as well.

The acting director said she is currently working to restructure the department and has already made changes to leadership, including replacing one of the department’s wardens, along with other recent resignations and retirements.

She said the DJJ’s previous in-house recruiters have also recently left their roles, part of a turnover involving one-third to one-half of the DJJ’s human resources division, so they are looking for new recruiters and planning to work with outside recruiters to try to fill jobs.

Her goal is to expedite the recruiting, hiring, and onboarding processes to do that as quickly as possible.

“I know you’re working hard to get us out of that crisis,” McCrary said Wednesday during the meeting. “Do you have any kind of projected timeframe that you hope to get us to a point where we can start functioning on a normal level or at least a level that’s acceptable?”

“It could take six months to a year,” Hendrick said. “There’s no way I can really quantify it. It could take longer than a year. I can’t really — all I can do is try to fix it.”

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