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Planned secure youth facility gets fierce pushback from Newbury, Vt., residents

  • The Newbury property under consideration at a Development Review Board hearing to consider the application by Vermont Permanency Initiative seeking approval to operate the “Woodside Replacement.” The meeting took place at Newbury Elementary School in Newbury, Vt., on Saturday, October 2, 2021. (Rob Strong photograph) Rob Strong photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/8/2022 11:06:54 PM
Modified: 12/8/2022 11:07:00 PM

NEWBURY, Vt. — It was billed as a “listening session,” and the listeners got an earful.

An angry group of Newbury residents turned out in force Tuesday evening to speak out against plans by the state to locate a secure youth treatment facility in town, saying it posed a safety risk to the community and the town lacked adequate resources and infrastructure to accommodate it.

“I was not one of the more rapid opposition folks to it,” said Scott Labun, a Newbury resident who also worked at the state’s former Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex, which the proposed Newbury facility is meant to replace. “I’m getting more and more rabid all the time the more the process has gone forward.”

Labun was among two dozen people who took the floor mic or spoke via Zoom during a “listening session” held in the gym of Newbury Elementary School to give town residents — in the words session organizer Lt. Gov. Molly Gray — “a chance to engage directly” with officials from the Vermont Department of Children and Families.

Those officials included Dr. Harry Chen who, as newly appointed DCF interim commissioner, has inherited the plan for a juvenile treatment and detention facility which is roiling Newbury residents.

Toward the end of the two-hour meeting, Chen acknowledged he had heard their appeals.

“Obviously, I’m going to take this all back. I will relay this to the leadership and discuss with the governor’s office,” Chen said. “I’m listening. I’m hearing. I’m writing this down as best I can.”

But Chen couldn’t offer any hope that minds in Montpelier would change.

“We still need a facility. We still need a contractor to provide service,” he said.

At one point Chen tried to push back against criticism by rhetorically asking, “people say, ‘Why don’t you put it somewhere else?’ Well, what makes you think it’s going to be different anywhere else?”

The room erupted.

“We don’t have a police department!” one person shouted back.

At issue is a proposed six-bed secure residential treatment facility for boys between the ages of 11 and 17 who are in the juvenile justice or child welfare system and potentially violent.

Intended as a replacement for the Woodside detention center, the Newbury facility would be located in a former bed and breakfast on a 280-acre property in a town conservation district west of Interstate 91 on Stevens Place, a Class 4 road. The property is now owned by Vermont Permanency Initiative, which in conjunction with sister company Becket Family of Services would operate the facility under a contract with DCF.

The state’s plan has a troubled history.

Initially proposed by the Scott administration in 2020, Newbury’s Development Review Board denied a permit for the proposed facility in 2021, citing its purpose was out of character with the rural setting and the town lacked infrastructure and emergency services to support it. But this fall, in a setback for the town, the Environmental Division of the Vermont Superior Court reversed the town DRB’s denial.

Newbury’s Selectboard quickly appealed to Environmental Court’s decision to the Vermont Supreme Court, where it is now under review.

Meanwhile, an attempt by some Vermont lawmakers earlier this year to pivot the youth treatment center to the former Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor was shot down by a Senate committee after town officials and political allies protested.

Gray, who grew up in South Newbury, where her family owns Four Corners Farm, noted at the outset that she opposed the plan for Newbury. “I don’t believe this is the right place for this facility. I’ve expressed that to the governor.”

She called Chen’s willingness to hear out residents’ reactions to the proposed facility “a very positive step.”

Chen — who served previously as Vermont Commissioner of Health — indicated he knew he was in for a rough welcome.

“I certainly have heard quite a bit from the residents of Newbury but when it comes down to it I need to hear it for myself,” he said.

Then, in rapid succession, Newbury residents one by one unloaded on Chen and the other DCF officials who accompanied him.

“I’m concerned about the lack of accountability of a private corporation,” Rick Hausman said.

Hausman had a suggestion on how to improve accountability: expand the board from three directors to nine directors, including three community members from Newbury and three ex-officio members from the state.

“If there is serious malfeasance, the land and facility would revert to the state,” he said. “That at least would ensure a degree of accountability.”

Although Newbury residents said they recognized the need to help Vermont’s most troubled youths, some were blunt about why the facility is a bad idea in their town.

“I can just imagine if somebody is trying to sell their property and when (a potential buyer asks), ‘what’s that over there?’ (and the seller) refers to it, even sarcastically, ‘It’s a state prison,’ it’s not going to have value there,” Don Waterbury said.

A big concern among residents is the lack of police services in town in the event of an emergency is required at the facility.

The town, population 2,160, contracts with the Orange County Sheriff’s office, based in Chelsea, which is 45 minutes away.

“I’ve had two acts of vandalism on my property this year,” said Susan Underwood, and when she reached out to report it to law enforcement “no one got back to me.” She predicted even greater obstacles in reaching the site of the youth facility, located on an unmaintained Class 4 road.

Larry Scott, chairman of Newbury’s DRB, reminded everyone that the seven-member board unanimously ruled that a “highly staffed secure bed facility is not an allowable use” in the conservation district and would be located 2 miles down a dirt road.

“Mud season happens every year in Vermont. and some years (the roads are) barely passable for a whole vehicle. Our zoning regulations and common sense says that this is not the proper location for this facility,” he said.

Chen was accompanied by Tyler Allen, adolescent services director at DCF, who sought to clarify the purpose of the youth detention facility and who would reside there.

“This is for therapeutic intervention of a limited duration for youth who are experiencing some form of crisis in their lives,” Allen said. “Its not all juvenile justice-involved youth. ... This program is designed to address persistent history of criminal challenges, yes. But also for those who have “coinciding mental health concerns” or “traumatic history ... we are not putting every youth that is ‘dangerous’ into this facility.”

Audience members challenged the level of professional care the youths would receive.

Tina Heywood expressed concern about the credentials of Becket Family of Services and VPI — which are different arms of the same nonprofit — in dealing with the “the level of violence these youth will bring with them.”

Moreover, Heywood cited loose hiring practices revealed in an audit at a Becket program and a DUI charge and guilty plea for transporting drugs involving one of the nonprofit’s executives, in questioning DCF’s protocols for vetting contractors.

Chen enumerated a list of “concessions” that DCF and VPI had agreed to after feedback from the Newbury community: road improvements for emergency vehicle access, relocating outdoor fencing to minimize environmental impact, paying property taxes on the “full value of the building” and agreeing “not to expand the program capacity,” among others.

That drew a retort from Jette Mandl-Abramson, who lives on Stevens Place Road.

“I want to be very clear we do not accept your concessions,” Mandl-Abramson said. “We live here in Newbury for very specific reasons, and the low police presence is one of them. ... We live in a conservation district and do not want our roads paved.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.


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