CHESTER — 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 countys child abuse victims. After the encounter in Underwoods 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 McGriffs extreme impoliteness, and total disrespect towards me and my staff, as reasons for ending the arrangement.
McGriff responded by saying the sheriffs 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 its no surprise he does not want to provide services to victims.
She called him a violent man and said its no surprise he does not want to provide services to victims.
Underwood said hes 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 childrens 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.
Its one of 17 licensed childrens 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 Childrens 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 Lancasters 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 sheriffs 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 sheriffs 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, youre 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. Hes telling me, I will not meet with you...I dont have to meet with you...dont 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, Im 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 me...so 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 Underwoods assistant. She never mentioned the grant.
Underwood allowed a reporter from The Herald to listen to the voicemail message.
In it, McGriff says: I dont 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 dont know what his problem is. If hes got a problem meeting with me, just tell me and I wont call him anymore....all he needs to do is say hes not available ever and I wont 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 everybodys imagination, said Sheriffs Office Capt. Burley McDaniel, who works as a liaison between the sheriff and PCASA. He said he was in the sheriffs office during the meeting. Another deputy was there as well. The encounter was not recorded.
McGriff said, I dont know what your problem is before she threw items and papers off the sheriffs 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, thats enough, McDaniel said. She was in no danger.
Addressing McGriffs 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 has...got that position or the say-so in what happens to our children, then I think weve 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 childrens advocacy centers in the state for their assistance.
He said forensic interviewers work in the sheriffs 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 childrens advocacy center.
Hamm, the state Childrens 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.
Its 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. Were working to make sure were taking personalities out of this, and (keeping) the kids first, she said.
Jonathan McFadden • 803-329-4082