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Vermont lawmakers OK plan for privately run juvenile treatment center in Wells River

Published: 11/20/2020 10:27:19 PM
Modified: 11/20/2020 10:27:06 PM

WELLS RIVER — The Vermont Legislature has approved the Scott administration’s plan to replace the state-run juvenile detention center in Essex with a privately run facility in the Wells River village of Newbury, Vt.

Under the plan, which was unanimously approved by the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee on Friday, Becket Family of Services, a New Hampshire-based company, will operate a six-bed juvenile treatment center.

The Becket-run program will replace the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center, the state’s former juvenile detention facility, which the Scott administration and lawmakers closed last month.

Now the plan has been approved, the state will lease the building and the property from Becket, and the Department for Children and Families will negotiate a contract with the company to operate the center.

DCF will cover the estimated $3.1 million cost of renovations to the former bed-and-breakfast inn. It will cost $3.8 million annually to operate the facility. Woodside cost $6 million annually to run.

The Scott administration had spent more than a year searching for an alternative to Woodside.

In recent months a dwindling number of justice-involved youths had received services at that 30-bed facility — the numbers often ranged from a handful to none at all.

The administration hopes the new program will be open on Oct. 1, 2021. For now, DCF plans to place justice-involved youths in community-based residential treatment programs in Vermont and, when needed, in New Hampshire’s Youth Development Center in Manchester.

Sen. Dick Sears, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that given the number of youths in the Vermont system who need placement at a secure facility, the administration’s plan is “the best solution for the state at this point.”

“I don’t think there’s evidence that we have more than five or six kids at any one time that are going to need this level of security,” Sears said.

The decision to contract with a private organization to provide treatment for the youths is question comes after the state faced a lawsuit over its use of restraints at Woodside.

DCF officials cited that lawsuit when making the case that working with Becket was the best option for the state.

“We believe that staff are not able to provide the type of treatment program that those children deserve,” DCF Commissioner Sean Brown told lawmakers in September.

“We believe it’s better to go to an experienced outside community partner who has depth and experience in providing treatment programs for youth,” he added.

Last week, lawmakers discussed a proposal backed by the Vermont State Employees’ Association, the state employees union, to require Becket to hire state workers to staff their facilities. They ultimately voted down the proposal.

But Sears said Friday that he still thinks that Becket should give a preference to hiring former employees at Woodside.

“Many of them have a long history with that type of behavior; it’s not always easy to deal with those kids,” Sears said.

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