Jim Kenyon: Overdue Records from Vermont DCF

Wednesday, April 29, 2015
Last October, Sam Ramsey asked the Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF) for his medical records and other important information that the state agency had compiled while he was a juvenile in its custody.

Six months after making the written request, Ramsey has yet to receive the records that he’s entitled to. These are records that could help him better understand his mental illness and explain what role DCF might have played in his life going off the tracks at a young age.

“We have been working diligently on Sam’s records, however it is a voluminous amount,” DCF’s public records officer wrote when I inquired on Ramsey’s behalf. “We will hopefully be done soon.”

That was Feb. 3. Did DCF’s copying machine suffer a permanent paper jam? I can’t imagine why it’s taking so long to comply with a fairly straightforward request.

Well, actually I can.

DCF knows that Ramsey, now 20, is not in a position to make noise. He can’t drive to DCF headquarters in Waterbury, Vt., and demand to speak with someone in charge.

That’s because Ramsey is behind bars at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, Vt., serving up to three years for three misdemeanors that date back to when he was 16. He’ll remain out of sight, out of mind until at least next January. Just the way DCF likes it.

With offices across the state and more than 1,000 employees, DCF, by Vermont standards, is a massive bureaucracy. Confidentiality laws designed to protect juveniles allow DCF to operate without much public scrutiny or oversight. Only when something horrific occurs, such as the deaths of two toddlers in DCF care last year, does the public get a glimpse inside the agency.

DCF rarely has to answer to the public or thousands of young Vermonters, such as Ramsey, who have spent their childhood under its thumb. For Ramsey, a turning point came in 2006 when a judge ruled that at age 11, he was “beyond the control of his parent or guardian” and was a “child in need of (state) care and supervision.”

Ramsey spent most of his teen years in DCF custody. Some details — but certainly not all — can be found in his sealed juvenile court records, which I reviewed with his permission. The court records show that DCF frequently shuttled Ramsey between residential treatment facilities for troubled youths with psychiatric illnesses. He was prescribed a daily “chemical cocktail” of anti-psychotic, anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs. He was injected with Thorazine, a powerful tranquilizer, often associated with the classic Jack Nicholson movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

I wonder: Is there information in Ramsey’s case file that DCF prefers not get out? And why? Is there information in the files indicating that the agency’s performance was flawed?

I’ve emailed and left phone messages for DCF’s public records officer. I didn’t hear back. The lawyer with Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s office who handles DCF matters didn’t return calls either.

Last November, in a follow-up to the 2001 “Other Side of the Valley” series, I wrote about Ramsey’s years-long battle with mental illness, which started during his elementary school days in Windsor.

A key part of this story took place in 2011. Ramsey, then 16, was shipped to DCF’s Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center, the state’s only locked facility for youths, in Essex. During their weekly visits, Kerrie Ramsey, Sam’s mother, who has a background in health care as a respiratory therapist, learned that Woodside was messing with her son’s medications. She questioned why he was taken off the anti-psychotic Abilify and other medications used for anger management. “Nobody listened to me,” she said.

About a month later, Ramsey, still 16, assaulted a female counselor at Woodside. Ramsey and his mother wonder if his medical records might provide clues into whether the absence of medications could have led to that assault, for which he is now serving prison time.

After the incident, Ramsey said, he was moved into Woodside’s “back hall,” separate from where other kids slept. Ramsey and his mother maintain that he was kept in solitary confinement for roughly six months. He was allowed out of his room for an hour a day to exercise, shower and call his mother.

That’s it.

I talked with former Woodside employees who confirmed his account, but in a story I wrote two months ago, DCF denied the allegations about the use of solitary confinement as punishment.

On Monday, I called Robert Appel, an attorney in Hinesburg, Vt., and described Ramsey’s case. When I mentioned Ramsey’s story about solitary confinement, he didn’t seem surprised.

“Once you are in custody, they can pretty much do anything they want to you,” said Appel, one of the state’s leading civil rights advocates. He served as Vermont’s defender general, overseeing the state’s public defenders, and executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission for 11 years before entering private practice in 2013.

To get his DCF records, Ramsey might have to go to court, said Appel.

A few months ago, Kerrie Ramsey met with Lebanon lawyer George Spaneas. Until he can review Ramsey’s DCF file, Spaneas won’t know if there’s a case to pursue against the state for, among other things, cruel and unusual punishment. The statute of limitations for filing a civil suit runs out when Ramsey turns 21 in December. Which is another reason that DCF might not be in a hurry to turn over his records.

“It looks like we’re going to have to file a lawsuit,” said Spaneas.

Unfortunately, that might be what it takes to get DCF to fire up its copying machine.

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