Juvenile Guards Wanted: Must Endure Long Shifts, Violence

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Looking for work in South Carolina? Juvenile Justice corrections officers get $35,000 a year to start, but the shifts are grueling and violence is an ever-present danger.

The acting head of South Carolina’s Office of Juvenile Justice says she faces a staffing crisis, with few applicants for hundreds of vacancies.

Eden Hendrick, who was appointed after Freddie Pough resigned under fire a month ago, told legislators on Tuesday that she has more vacancies than working correction officers, The Post and Courier reported.

“The applicant pool is the main problem," she said. "There’s just no one that is applying right now,” The State reported.

Hendrick told a state Senate corrections subcommittee that every recruiter in the office has left, so she plans to hire a recruiting company to find people interested in the 232 corrections officer vacancies. For now, she's hired a part-time expert who used to recruit for the state Department of Corrections, The State reported.

Hendrick also said she is stopping two programs started by Pough, who moved administrators to a building outside the main juvenile jail complex in Columbia and pushed to house juveniles with long sentences in regional facilities rather than the Broad River Road Complex.

Regionalization is on indefinite hold because there isn't enough staff or money, she said.

“It would cost millions and millions and millions more dollars and require staff to probably triple, which is just not possible,” she said. “Focusing so much on regionalization has caused us to lose sight of the kids in front of us we’re actually taking care of.”

State Sen. Michael Johnson, R-York, seemed impressed: “I think you’ve done more in 28 days than I’ve heard in testimony for the previous three or four years,” he told Hendrick.

Pough, who had held the job for four years, submitted his resignation letter three months after a walkout by about 24 correctional officers and teachers prompted a no-confidence vote by state senators, and five months after a scathing audit.

The office “does not maintain sufficient security to ensure safety for staff and juveniles," auditors wrote in what began as a progress report on 74 recommendations made in 2017.

Violence was increasing among youths and between juveniles and staff, and transportation shortages kept some inmates from getting timely and adequate medical care.

Numerous reports about fights and potential gang activity “were categorized as ‘information only’ rather than assigned for investigation or forwarded to responsible management,” the 196-page audit said.

In a letter calling for a state investigation, legislators also wrote of "disturbing findings, ranging from potentially covering up instances of sexual assault and abuse to falsifying records and misuse of funds.”

One walkout participant said that about a year after being hired for about $30,000 a year, she was working back-to-back shifts — often without food, water or bathroom breaks. Brittany Larkin said she was assigned to supervise children with only minimal training.

Salaries now start at $35,000, according to the office's recruitment website.

“The problems at DJJ are not going to be fixed overnight," Hendrick said. "There’s no way, no how that’s going to happen.”

York also asked how long it was likely to staff back up, WIS-TV reported.

“I’d like to be optimistic and say one to six months, but it could take a year, it could take more than that,” Hendrick said.