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SC Juvenile Justice Agency: Will It Be Fixed This Time?

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TAXPAYERS, CHILDREN, AGENCY EMPLOYEES DESERVE BETTER THAN MORE “REFORM IN NAME ONLY”

The S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice (SCDJJ) – a misnomer even in the best of times – has for most of its existence been a castoff agency receiving little attention from those providing its funding.

The children confined at SCDJJ were mostly of a different race and class than the ruling political and moneyed elite of our state.  Accordingly, if you have money and political connections, it is highly unlikely your child would ever wind up at SCDJJ – unless you wanted him or her there.

Most don’t …

There have been a few crusaders in decades past who have sought to fix the agency – but such efforts were usually short-lived.  In the early 1980s a lawsuit against the agency was brought in federal court – landing on the desk of judge Joe Anderson.  According to one prominent Columbia, S.C. attorney, Anderson “made it his mission” to find out what was going on at the agency and fix it.

That case ended with the agency losing over $7 million in fees and costs – ultimately giving way to another round of “reforms in name only.”

Under the leadership of former family court judge Bill Byers, SCDJJ went through a second round of reforms.  Byers was well-respected by those in (and out of) government and by all accounts he kept as his focus on improving the lives and expanding the opportunities of the children placed in his care.

Again, though … it hasn’t taken long for things to go to hell since his departure.

How bad are things at the agency now?  Look no further than our recent exclusive reporting on the subject.

SCDJJ is a war zone – one placing children, employees and taxpayers at risk.

The current director, Sylvia Murray, is largely seen as an able person and a decent employee – but it has become abundantly clear she is out of her depth in the current leadership position she occupies.  Having said that, the problems at the agency seem to have arisen following Byers’ departure and the appointment of governor Nikki Haley‘s first SCDJJ director, Margaret Barber.

According to those with knowledge of the agency, much of the blame for its ongoing failures falls at Barber’s feet.  In fact we delved into some of these problems in one of our recent follow-up reports on SCDJJ.

Will these ongoing failures be fixed?  No … especially not if Haley continues her habit of attacking those who attempt to investigate the agency in the aftermath of its most galling failures.

That reminds us: We commend the S.C. House oversight committee for its diligence in following up on the recent problems at SCDJJ – and we hope its members will continue their investigation of this troubled agency. This level of accountability is new for our state, but we commend chairman Weston Newton and his committee for their hard work.

Meanwhile, we sincerely wish Haley and her staff would use these findings to make improvements to the agency – and not engage in additional name-calling and obfuscation.

As she has done in scandals past, Haley is more focused on doing political damage control than enacting long-overdue reforms.

That’s a shame …

A real leader would acknowledge that fixing this agency is worth enduring a few bad headlines.  In fact, we would submit to Haley that the public would probably view her in a far more favorable light if she were to admit her administration’s shortcomings – and articulate a plan to fix them.

Has she done that?  No … she’s simply trash-talked the lawmakers investigating SCDJJ, calling them “bullies.”

South Carolina’s leaders have a shameful legacy of incentivizing government failure – and ignoring common sense reforms.  In fact buildings on the S.C. State House grounds literally groan under the weight of thousands of audits, reports and other investigations which exposed fatal flaws in government – and outlined recommendations to fix them – but were ignored.

No more …

Nikki Haley needs to “woman up” and take ownership of this debacle.  More importantly, she needs to join with investigating lawmakers in taking ownership of a solution.

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