Chester sheriff, victims advocate feud after tense meeting

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comOctober 23, 2013 

— The director of a rape crisis center that serves Chester County worries that a recent encounter between her and Chester Sheriff Alex Underwood might jeopardize services to the county’s child abuse victims. After the encounter in Underwood’s office two weeks ago, he severed ties with the organization.

Charlene McGriff, executive director of the Palmetto Citizens Against Sexual Assault (PCASA) and a career victims advocate, said she feared being injured during the encounter. In an exchange of letters, Underwood cited McGriff’s “extreme impoliteness, and total disrespect towards me and my staff,” as reasons for ending the arrangement.

McGriff responded by saying the sheriff’s “loss of personal control . . . was especially frightening” as he “flung ... arms in all direction” and had “hate and rage” in his eyes. She called him a “violent man” and said it’s no surprise he does not want to provide services to victims.

She called him a “violent man” and said it’s no surprise he does not want to provide services to victims.

Underwood said he’s considering restoring the decade-long relationship with PCASA so long as McGriff has nothing to do with operations in Chester County. But he has also reached out to other children’s advocacy centers in the state. Victims, he said, “are not going to be lacking any services.”

PCASA serves sexual assault and domestic violence victims in Lancaster, Fairfield and Chester counties.

It’s one of 17 licensed children’s advocacy centers in the state that provide a “child-friendly” atmosphere for juvenile abuse victims to speak with law enforcement officers instead of placing them in police stations, hospitals or “cold DSS settings” for interviews, said Kim Hamm, executive director for the state Children’s Advocacy Center in Columbia.

The interviewers, who are child development professionals, wear regular clothes and sit in “child-sized” furniture so the child is more comfortable opening up about their alleged abuse, Hamm said.

The centers also provide juvenile victims with access to counseling and medical care, and staff members attend court hearings with victims while working with law enforcement to make sure cases are properly investigated and offenders are prosecuted.

Tensions between McGriff and Underwood started brewing shortly after he took office, said McGriff, a Lancaster County Council member.

McGriff, also a vice president with Lancaster’s NAACP chapter, said she tried calling the newly elected sheriff to discuss a three-year, $800,000 grant that would have paid half the salary for a designated sheriff’s investigator to serve on a sexual assault response team, provide direct services to victims and enhance police training for dealing with juvenile sexual assault victims.

He never returned her calls, she said, until she left a message she admits was “stern.” (Listen to the message here)

Two hours after leaving the message, the sheriff’s office called McGriff and asked her to meet with the sheriff at 11 a.m. Oct. 10 in his office. When she arrived, McGriff said she extended her hand and said, “Sheriff, you’re a hard man to get in contact with.” Then, “he blasted me.”

“He pointed at me across the desk,” she said. “He had two armed deputies in the room, sitting beside me. He’s telling me, ‘I will not meet with you...I don’t have to meet with you...don’t you ever call my office again...I am not Sheriff Faile and I am not (Fairfield County Sheriff) Herman Young.’”

McGriff said she put her hands over her face because “I thought he was going to hit me,” she said. “At that point, I’m terrified.”

Underwood told her to get out, she said.

“I was terrified...I mean, petrified, and I left,” she said. “If he did this to me, I can only imagine what he would do to other women. I thought he was going to hit me. He got so close to swinging his arms at close with his 6-foot-4 body, gun and deputies.”

Underwood tells the story differently. McGriff called only twice, he said, and left a rude message with Underwood’s assistant. She never mentioned the grant.

Underwood allowed a reporter from The Herald to listen to the voicemail message.

In it, McGriff says: “I don’t know what it is, whether the sheriff is unwilling to meet with folks, but I really need to meet with him. I can meet with Sheriff Young, with Barry and all the others. I don’t know what his problem is. If he’s got a problem meeting with me, just tell me and I won’t call him anymore....all he needs to do is say he’s not available ever and I won’t bother him.”

McGriff was “loud and boisterous” in the meeting, Underwood said. “She had a serious attitude.”

She told the sheriff he is a “figment of everybody’s imagination,” said Sheriff’s Office Capt. Burley McDaniel, who works as a liaison between the sheriff and PCASA. He said he was in the sheriff’s office during the meeting. Another deputy was there as well. The encounter was not recorded.

McGriff said, “I don’t know what your problem is” before she threw items and papers off the sheriff’s desk, Underwood said. He told her to sit down and chastised her for her voicemail. McGriff told him his deputies needed to leave. Underwood then told her to get out of his office, according to the sheriff.

McDaniel said he had already been working with a PCASA employee and the agreement had been signed in June. Under that agreement, children who are victims of abuse are sent to Lancaster for interviews and follow-up.

Deputies believe McGriff wanted to deal directly with the sheriff herself. In her letter to Underwood, McGriff writes that the sheriff has a “duty” to meet with her. There is no mention of the grant in the letter.

If the deputies in the office felt “anything was going to get out of hand, we would have stepped in and said, ‘Sheriff, that’s enough,’” McDaniel said. “She was in no danger.”

Addressing McGriff’s letter, Underwood said he is unable to do anything about his stature or “heavy voice.” All his deputies are armed because “the police carry guns.” He denied claims that he would have hit her: “I think she must have been in a meeting with someone else,” he said. “I did tell her to get out.”

“To me, if Ms. McGriff treats the guys who work for me and myself in that manner, then I wonder what type of service (she) gives to these children,” Underwood said. “That was totally unacceptable, and I will not accept it. As long as Ms. McGriff that position or the say-so in what happens to our children, then I think we’ve got a problem.”

Sheriffs by law must provide services to victims of sexual assault. Underwood said the same day he and McGriff had their argument, he began reaching out to other children’s advocacy centers in the state for their assistance.

He said forensic interviewers work in the sheriff’s office and have toys and dedicated rooms for speaking with juvenile victims. Safe Passage, a Rock Hill shelter for battered women and children, also provides services to Chester County, and the shelter is in the process of applying for licensing as a children’s advocacy center.

Hamm, the state Children’s Advocacy Center executive director, said she has spoken with Underwood and is trying to help “mend” fences with PCASA so those services will continue for Chester County victims.

It’s preferrable, she said, for those services to be offered in the judicial circuit where the crime occurred. Chester, Lancaster and Fairfield counties are part of the Sixth Judicial Circuit.

“The child is going to go to court in Chester,” she said. “We’re working to make sure we’re taking personalities out of this, and (keeping) the kids first,” she said.

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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