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'We have a long-long way to go': DJJ head describes reform efforts, progress

SC Dept. of Juvenile Justice Acting Director Eden Hendrick said the agency faces many problems, and will not be able to complete reforms in a short period of time.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — On Tuesday, the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice's acting director stood before the state's Senate Subcommittee to provide an update on how the agency has been doing.

Eden Hendrick has been the acting director for the past 28 days, ever since former DJJ Director Freddie Pough resigned back in September. 

"It didn't become like this in the past four years, it got a little worse in the last four years," Hendrick said. "DJJ needs to completely reform almost every aspect of what it's doing."

Pough was under fire for months after months of controversy and complaints regarding low wages, working conditions, and other problems. 

RELATED: 'We're happy that he's gone': DJJ employee, lawmaker react to director's resignation

Hendrick said when she assumed the role as acting director, the biggest issue the agency faced was staffing.

"That's the number one problem, staffing for the low level position," Hendrick said. "Everyone was brainstorming on what we can do to solve this issue, and that's the main issue everyone was dealing with. I'd like to stay optimistic and say one to six months, but you know, it could take a year, or more than that."

Hendrick said the agency faces many problems, and they will not be able to complete reforms in a short period of time. 

During the meeting, Senator Michael Johnson complimented Hendrick for all her work so far. He said he has seen more changes and improvements to the agency in the past 28 days than the past 3-4 years.

RELATED: DJJ director given vote of no confidence by SC lawmakers

"The problems with DJJ are not going to be fixed overnight," Hendrick said. "There is no way, no how that it's ever going to happen. I appreciate you saying I've done a lot in 28 days. I've done a lot in 28 days because I've had tremendous partnerships with other agencies, and I hope they will continue, but we have a long-long way to go."

Hendrick told News 19 she will continue to work hard to help DJJ move in the right direction. 

"I can’t predict the future. All I know is I’m going to try my hardest, work with my partners and other agencies to continue moving DJJ in the right direction and continue moving towards the rehabilitative model that’s already started to be put in place," Hendrick said. 

Senator Katrina Shealy said she has seen improvements to the agency, but staffing still remains short by 50%. She said with the lack of staff at DJJ, extracurricular programs for students were cut out like welding, woodwork, upholstery, and chapel. 

RELATED: SCDJJ employees walk out in protest of 'unsafe' working conditions

Sen. Shealy said COVID-19 was a reason for the pause, but never resumed. According to Hendrick, with 251 juveniles, there are no active COVID-19 cases in their facilities. 

"Those are things that should have never stopped, Sen. Shealy said. "We never should’ve stopped letting kids have these extracurricular activities because it burns their energy up, it keeps them out of trouble, it lets them do things to get their mind off why they’re there."

Sen. Shealy said without these activities, kids are getting in trouble more from fighting and getting with their gangs. 

RELATED: 'The children are in charge': Follow-up audit of Dept. of Juvenile Justice has lawmakers concerned

The agency has sign-on and retention bonuses for staff members. Hendrick said they are looking for people who like being with juveniles, like the rehabilitative mindset of DJJ, and take benefit from helping juveniles become better people.

Hendrick said DJJ is also working to completely stop child isolation. 

"It is our goal to completely stop using isolation in the manner that we were," Hendrick said. "That's one big thing that we need to look at. The way we use it, the way we think about it, the way we document it, all of the above needs to be changed and looked at and scrutinized." 

Hendrick also said they are working more closely with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Agency (SLED) to investigate each event regarding murders to assaults. 

RELATED: Dept. of Juvenile Justice under fire for lack of security

"I’m thankful that we have a new interim director, and I look forward to her doing great things," Sen Shealy said to News 19. "I think we’re going to have to give it time. It was in a bad place. I see that we are making progress just by talking about it, but it’s going to take time for that to happen, and so I’m just going to give her the opportunity to make those changes."