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Scott moves to close Woodside and send juveniles to private center

  • The entrance at Woodside Juvenile Detention Center in Essex, Vt., on November 10, 2014. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Above: A resident’s room at Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex, Vt., along with the book he borrowed from the school’s library. The average stay at Woodside is about five months.Valley News photographs — Sarah Priestap Sarah Priestap

Published: 9/8/2020 10:35:40 PM
Modified: 9/8/2020 11:03:26 PM

ESSEX — Gov. Phil Scott’s administration has moved to close the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex, informing state employees at Vermont’s only juvenile detention facility this week that the program will be shut down in October.

The development comes nearly a year after the administration announced it intended to close Woodside, and weeks after the governor proposed a budget for this fiscal year without any money to run the center.

Within a year, the administration hopes a new five-bed facility for youth in Vermont, operated by a private organization, will formally replace Woodside.

The state is working with Becket, a New Hampshire-based company that says it “offers an array of intensive residential treatment services for at-risk youth,” to set up the program at a facility it owns in Vermont.

Sean Brown, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, said the state is close to signing a letter of intent with Becket and is starting to design the program and the new facility.

Brown declined to say where the new facility will be because the state is still negotiating with Becket, but expects to have the program running in nine to 12 months.

Woodside can house up to 30 youths, but in recent years has typically held far fewer. As of now, no one is being held at the facility, which costs $6 million per year to operate.

DCF estimates the Becket-run program will cost between $3.6 million and $4.1 million per year.

Woodside has also been embroiled in legal battles over staff use of restraints.

Brown told lawmakers recently he doesn’t think state employees should run the facility, pointing to a federal lawsuit brought against Woodside in 2019, alleging excessive use of physical restraints, and to an “unfortunate” incident in June of this year, when the staff “reverted back to techniques that led to the original lawsuit.”

“We believe that staff are not able to provide the type of treatment program that those children deserve,” Brown said. “We believe it’s better to go to an experienced outside community partner who has depth and experience in providing treatment programs for youth.”

On Wednesday, the House Human Services Committee voted unanimously in favor of closing Woodside.

Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, chairwoman of the committee, said she’s comfortable with closing Woodside because of its “ongoing legal issues related to treatment.” She says the building is “not fit for anyone to be there” and serves very few youth.

“The building was set up for upwards of, initially, 30 youth, and it doesn’t make sense,” Pugh said.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said “it’s hard to justify keeping it open” with no one being held at the facility. His committee agreed Friday to recommend that the Senate Appropriations Committee pass a budget bill that temporarily closes Woodside.

However, Sears noted that he still wants to see an “actual plan” from the administration with more information about Woodside’s replacement and “how Becket is going to operate.”

The partial state budget bill lawmakers passed in June says that before Woodside can be closed down, the Legislature has to approve a replacement plan.

The Vermont State Employees’ Association has vigorously opposed closing Woodside. Steve Howard, executive director of the state employees union, accused DCF of violating the law by making plans to shut down Woodside.

He points to the budget bill and its requirement for a replacement plan.

“They have not done that,” Howard said. “They’ve made references to what they think they might do and what they’re looking into, but they have not presented a plan.”

Brown said the administration is not violating the law, and is working to establish the new privately run facility.

In the short term, Vermont’s Department for Children and Families says it is placing justice-involved youth in privately run residential treatment programs in Vermont and, if needed, in New Hampshire’s Youth Development Center.

“We’ve been very clear this was the trajectory the department and the agency were on,” Brown said.

He also noted the Legislature has authority to stop the administration’s actions between now and October, before Woodside closes. Brown said his department aims to find other jobs for Woodside employees, either within the department or the wider Agency of Human Services.

The union also criticizes Becket’s record as a treatment provider, and points to reports that a young person broke out of a company facility in New Hampshire and stole a vehicle, and that employees at a facility in Bennington faced allegations of sexually assaulting students.

Brown said the young people held at Woodside and by Becket are “really tough.” He also said Woodside has had “plenty of escapes.”

He added that only one employee was alleged to have committed sexual assault while Becket owned the Bennington facility. And when the state investigated Becket’s handling of the situation, which included firing the employee, Brown said it was “satisfied with the steps they took.”

Brown called Becket a “well-established partner.” The state already has contracts with Becket, and has placed 15 young people at Becket programs in Vermont, and 15 at its programs in New Hampshire.

“We wouldn’t be moving forward with them on this longer-term secure residential if we didn’t believe that they could do the work and provide the proper care for those kids,” Brown said.

The DCF commissioner said that the union’s argument that Becket would provide worse care than state employees is “not true.”

“They’re really not focusing on the substantive issues of why it’s important that we close Woodside because bad things are happening to kids in that facility and staff aren’t able to make the changes necessary to keep it open,” Brown said.

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