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South Carolina Juvenile Justice Agency Faces Lawsuit After Teen’s Death

“DJJ needs to take a long look in the mirror …”

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Two weeks ago, our Andy Fancher filed a detailed report on the tragic death of 16-year-old Easley Jeffcoat of Sandy Run, South Carolina.

Jeffcoat died in the custody of the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice (SCDJJ) on December 6, 2023 after he was found in a bathroom with a plastic bag over his head. He had been missing for approximately an hour at the time he was found. Jeffcoat was rushed to a nearby hospital but doctors were unable to revive him.

The troubled teen was at the agency as part of an effort to identify and accommodate to his complex mental and physical health needs.

On Thursday morning (December 28, 2023), attorney Matthew Yelverton announced his intention to file a lawsuit in federal court early next year on behalf of Jeffcoat’s family – arguing Easley Jeffcoat’s civil rights were violated due to the “gross negligence” of the state of South Carolina.

Yelverton also vowed to undertake a top-to-bottom investigation of SCDJJ, an agency which has seen its share of scandal in recent years, in the hopes of revealing “the cracks in an institution that our children are falling through.”

“At some point we’re all going to come to the realization that DJJ needs to take a long look in the mirror and consider what their purpose is,” Yelverton said at a press conference held outside of his Columbia, S.C. law office – which happens to be located directly across the street from the agency’s Broad River Road Complex (BRRC).

According to Yelverton, SCDJJ must do more than reform its operations – it must decide its focus moving forward.

“Why do they exist? What is their mission?” Yelverton asked. “And are they acting within their mission? Or are they just acting in a self-perpetuating process that is not actually consistent with their mission?”



Yelverton said the Jeffcoat family’s lawsuit would be based on 42 U.S. Code of Laws § 1983 – a statute which holds that individuals acting on behalf of a state or territory who allegedly cause the “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” can be held liable to the injured party in a court of law.

“We’re thankful we have this statute that allows us to explore this outside of the state court,” Yelverton told reporters.

According to the veteran attorney, SCDJJ took responsibility for Jeffcoat’s well-being – and then proceeded to fail him “from the top down.”

“At some point, DJJ held themselves out as the best option for Easley’s care,” he said, adding that “Easley was not detained within DJJ, Easley was seeking treatment at DJJ – and DJJ assured his mother that they were competent and capable and caring enough to take care of her child.”

On several occasions during Thursday’s news conference, Yelverton noted agency officials were “fully aware of every aspect” of Jeffcoat’s physical and mental health issues.

Yelverton said he hoped his lawsuit would uncover the alleged flaws in SCDJJ’s hiring, training and supervisory processes that, according to the family’s forthcoming legal action, led to Jeffcoat’s death – which remains the focus of an ongoing S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) investigation.

“I will investigate this from the top down and I will not stop until I find each and every failure,” Yelverton said.

(Click to View)

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He also vowed to conduct depositions of “everyone who was in the room and work my way to the top.”

A spokeswoman for SCDJJ said her agency does not comment on pending litigation. She referred us to a statement released earlier this month after the Palmetto State chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued slammed the agency in the aftermath of Jeffcoat’s death.

In that statement, agency leaders pointed to chronic budget issues faced by SCDJJ following the Covid-19 pandemic – and in the aftermath of a 2016 law signed by former governor Nikki Haley. That law dramatically escalated its intake obligations without any corresponding increase in funding. Dubbed “raise the age,” the new law required SCDJJ to handle cases of 17-year-old offenders charged with crimes carrying sentences of ten years or less.

In response to “raise the age,” SCDJJ sought $33 million for staff to operate new detention and evaluation facilities – as well as $22.5 million to construct those facilities and retrofit three other buildings. It did not receive any of this funding.

According to agency director Eden Hendrick, these funding shortfalls were “exacerbated by the increase in juvenile crime after the pandemic.”

According to SLED data, juvenile weapons charges soared from 699 in 2021 to 1,008 last year – a 44.2 percent spike. This uptick – combined with the shuttering of a juvenile detention center in Greenville, S.C. – had a “dramatic impact” on agency operations, according to Hendrick’s statement.

Specifically, it created a surging population at SCDJJ’s centralized pre-trial detention facility in the Midlands region of the state – where the average daily population over the first ten months of 2023 soared to 117 detainees (or 62.5 percent above its rated capacity of 72 detainees).

(Click to View)

SCDJJ director Eden Hendrick flanked by governor Henry McMaster and state senator Gerald Malloy. (Facebook)

“The facility has limited educational, medical, recreational, and clinical space only designed to accommodate youth for a short period of time,” Hendrick noted in her statement. “The agency has been very vocal to all stakeholders about this issue and has received funding to renovate the current facility and begin the process of looking at designing a new facility. However, the slated renovations to (the pre-trial detention facility) are delayed due to the high census.”

Hendrick said her agency “desires for youth to be housed in safe and appropriate facilities with access to meaningful rehabilitative services.”

“The agency is in the process of making much needed extensive renovations to our Midlands-area facilities to better house the older youth with violent, serious charges we are currently serving,” she noted. “SCDJJ has and will continue to request funds from the General Assembly to accomplish the agency’s statutorily determined mission. The agency also agrees that it is best to serve all youth who are not a threat to public safety through community-based services and that youth with mental health issues should not have to resort to the juvenile justice system for treatment.”

“Similar to adult detention facilities across the country, individuals with severe mental health issues linger in inappropriate settings due to lack of better options,” Hendrick added. “This is even more tragic for our youth.”

As I noted earlier this year, SCDJJ was an unmitigated disaster for years under its prior director, Freddie Pough. Pough was hand-picked by governor Henry McMaster in 2017 to turn this troubled agency around. Instead, he accelerated its collapse – leaving juvenile inmates effectively in charge of its main facility.

Pough resigned as SCDJJ director in September 2021 – ten days after I lambasted SCDJJ for its culture of secrecy related to the rising violence “behind the fence.” Hendrick has made progress since taking over the agency on a permanent basis, however there is clearly more work left to be done – especially among members of the S.C. General Assembly.

Count on this media outlet to keep our audience updated on this case – and the broader issues facing SCDJJ.

One final note: As is our custom in reporting on stories involving suicides, if anyone reading this post is dealing with issues that have them questioning whether to take their own life (or harm themselves), please – call a friend.  You can also reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-TALK. Or just text/ call 988 (more info here).



(Travis Bell Photography)

Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina and before that he was a bass guitarist and dive bar bouncer. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven (soon to be eight) children.



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J Doe December 29, 2023 at 9:15 am

Great, another ambulance chaser standing on the shoulders of a dead person saying, “Look at me!”

Wayne Hegamyer Top fan December 29, 2023 at 11:32 am

Totally agree. Sadly, if someone has a strong desire to die by their own hand, it is really difficult to stop.


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