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DOJ settles DJJ civil rights investigation into Broad River Road Complex for juveniles

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Published: Apr. 15, 2022 at 9:13 AM EDT|Updated: Apr. 15, 2022 at 8:52 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The Depart of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney Office for the District of South Carolina announced a settlement agreement in a civil rights investigation involving the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice.

The settlement sets up a series of timelines for the DJJ to bring on consultants to help change policies, procedures, training, use of force actions, isolation decisions and reduce violence in the system.

The DOJ published a series of documents with its Thursday press release, including its investigation findings. It was the second set of findings published as part of the investigation which began in October 2017.

The findings laid out a series of scenarios involving staff “abuse” against children and failures to thoroughly investigate.

One part of the findings reads in part:

...incident reports written by staff reveal that staff hog-tied a boy using handcuffs and left him on the floor for hours, forced a boy to the ground after staff engaged him in “horseplay,” and punched a boy in the face without justification for that level of force. Similarly, corroborated grievances from young people allege that staff punched them and choked them. Among the completed investigations we reviewed, BRRC investigators confirmed abuses such as choking a boy and slamming him against the wall while he was in restraints, forcing a boy to the ground and putting body weight on him in retaliation for his disrespectful comments, hitting a teenage girl in the face, placing a boy in a chokehold in response to the boy reaching for a teacher’s book, dragging a boy by handcuffs to move him, twisting and breaking a boy’s arm, and biting a girl’s face...

The documents contained in the press release also include the DOJ’s lawsuit against the DJJ.

It alleges the DJJ deprived “...children confined in the Broad River Road Complex (“BRRC”) of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

In the press release, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said:

“This comprehensive settlement agreement will protect children held in the Broad River Road Complex from harm and the damaging impact of long-term isolation. We will continue working to safeguard the civil rights of children held in detention facilities across the county.

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The agreement resolves the claims that DJJ fails to protect children at BRRC from harm and uses prolonged isolation as a punishment.

The agreement says the DJJ will increase safety at BRRC. These changes include staffing patterns, positive behavior management for juveniles to reduce violence and additional video surveillance. The DJJ will also be required to limit the use of force and restraints and improve their investigations.

As part of the settlement, the DJJ will be required to hire a “Subject Matter Expert” (with the DOJ’s approval) to provide technical assistance and assess compliance with the the agreement.

The “expert” will be afforded a $225,000 DJJ-funded budget to bring on other staff.

Additionally, the DJJ is given a series of deadlines to bring on other consultants and change policies, ranging from three to 24 months.

Additionally, use of isolation will be restricted to times only a child is an immediate danger to themselves or others. The DOJ said an independent expert is being appointed to monitor the agreement and make recommendations to ensure is it enforced.

The DJJ will be subject to compliance checks by the DOJ for the five year agreement.

If the DJJ breaches the agreement, the DOJ lawsuit may be reinstated.

Acting Director Eden Hendrick said the settlement will serve as a starting point for the department’s turnaround.

“I’m happy that we are able to use this as a springboard to reform everything that DJJ does but to be honest, all this that was in the negotiation, DJJ needed to do anyways. We really need to move forward and become a rehabilitative system, more than a criminal and correctional system and DJJ has been talking about that for several years and maybe this will finally be the catalyst we need to move more in that direction,” she said.

She said the five-year window is a long time, and is optimistic positive change can be achieved in that period. However, staffing will likely drive that process.

“When I first testified I told everyone oh we’ll get staff up and running in six months. I was wrong, wrong, wrong about that. I think five years is a good goal, but nothing is going to happen overnight,” Hendrick said.

Hendrick said she is working with the legislature on getting more flexibility to use roll-over funds to help the department and pay for the consultants required by the agreement.

She has the support of two of the former DJJ administration’s fiercest critics Sen. Katrina Shealy (R-Lexington) and Sen. Dick Harpootlian (D-Richland).

Harpootlian said he believes there still is time in the budget debate to get the DJJ funds to meet its agreement requirements.

“It’s not a huge amount of money. It’s less than a million dollars. I’m sure we can find that money,” he said.

Harpootlian said there was good news and bad news in the DOJ release. He said it confirmed his frustrations with the previous administration, but also highlight Hendrick’s quick action.

“Hendrick has stepped in quickly, saw the document understood this needed to be resolved, and it needed to be resolved primarily because those conditions need to be corrected for the children that are in DJJ.”

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