Seeking to build a Vergennes youth facility, state officials confront skepticism — and history

By PETER D’AURIA

VTDigger

Published: 06-10-2024 4:30 PM

For decades, the city of Vergennes was host to some of Vermont’s most troubled youth. 

Between 1874 and 1979, the Addison County city was the site of an institution most recently known as the Weeks School, a detention and reform facility for juveniles. According to the state’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, children at the facility — some of whom were accused of no crime — faced abuse, solitary confinement and even sterilization during Vermont’s eugenics movement. 

Now, as state officials seek to build a new facility for justice-involved youth in Vergennes, on land that was once part of the Weeks School, that troubled history is top of mind for some in Vergennes and beyond. 

“God, I would wish and hope that this will work,” Vergennes resident Lizbeth Ryan told state officials at a public forum at the Vergennes Opera House Wednesday evening. “But there are some dark times that occurred in this particular place in Vergennes.”

Officials with the state’s Department for Children and Families say the proposed facility, a 14-bed complex named the Green Mountain Youth Campus, is necessary to relieve a shortage of beds for youth who have been accused of crimes. Some children have been sent to facilities out of state, sometimes at exorbitant costs; others have been housed in adult prisons.

“This is a facility that we really need to complete our system of care,” DCF Commissioner Chris Winters told Vergennes residents at the forum. “And when we don’t have that high-end place to treat justice-involved youth, who have very complicated needs, it puts pressure on the rest of the system.”

The secure facility, which would be located on state-owned land near Comfort Hill Road, would feature two separate programs. One eight-bed program would be for short “crisis stabilization” stays before youth are placed elsewhere. The other six beds would be designated for longer-term treatment. 

Officials had initially hoped to open a similar type of facility in Newbury. But after stiff opposition — and legal action — from residents, who worried that the small town’s infrastructure and emergency services would be insufficient, Vermont reversed course in March.  

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Last month, state officials announced that they had selected Vergennes as a new site for the facility. Jennifer Fitch, the commissioner of the Department of Buildings and General Services, said the state-owned land was selected in part because of its size, natural setting and “access to workforce in the area.”

The Green Mountain Youth Campus is slated to open in 2026. The project has months of red tape still ahead of it, including meetings on zoning, subdivision permitting and Act 250 regulations. 

And Wednesday’s public forum appeared to signal that the Vergennes proposal was not without controversy of its own. At the event, skeptical residents raised concerns about the strain on local resources, increased traffic, the effect on local property values and the city’s troubled history of incarcerating youth. 

Mel Hawley, a lifelong Vergennes resident and former city manager, told state officials that the Weeks School had a lasting impact on the city’s reputation. 

“If you came from Vergennes, when you went to UVM, you were assumed to be a Weeks School kid,” Hawley said. 

He also raised concerns that the city would not get a fair share of revenue, either through property taxes or state payments in lieu of taxes, from a new facility. He pointed to a previous disagreement over payments to the city by the federally-run Northlands Job Corps Center, also in Vergennes. 

“This is a community that just has a history of getting burned on these things,” Hawley told state officials. “So if you wonder why there is some degree of mistrust — it’s not based on speculation. It’s based on the history.”

William Vasiliou, an attorney who has represented juvenile defendants, brought up more recent troubled history in Vermont: Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center, a juvenile detention center in Essex that closed in 2020 amid allegations of abuse. Last year, the state paid $4.5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by seven youths who had been detained there. 

Even now, Vasiliou said, he knows of cases of DCF workers not following state protocols, such as transferring children out of state without the consent of their parents. 

“I’m not sure what DCF has done to show that they can be trusted to run this facility,” he said. 

The proposed facility has also drawn concern from the state’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body tasked with examining discrimination and eugenics in Vermont’s past.

“The troubling history of abuse and neglect at juvenile detention facilities in Vermont underscores the urgency of our inquiry,” the commission said in a statement last month. “Despite numerous reform endeavors, the state has consistently faltered in addressing these systemic issues. The prospect of opening another facility in a location tainted by past abuses raises profound concerns.”

DCF officials have acknowledged Vermont’s dark history of housing youths in secure facilities.

“You’re rightly concerned,” Winters, the DCF commissioner, told residents at Wednesday’s forum. “You have every reason not to trust what we’re saying here today, based on the track record.”

But officials argued that the state has learned from the mistakes of the past. 

For one thing, the Green Mountain Youth Campus will be run by a not-yet finalized outside contractor — “a well-known, well-trusted provider,” DCF Family Services Division Deputy Director Aryka Radke said Wednesday — and overseen by the state. That’s a difference from Woodside, which was both operated and overseen by the state, a situation that DCF officials said was a conflict of interest.

Winters also pointed to the recently created Office of the Child and Youth Family Advocate, an independent office tasked with representing the concerns of vulnerable youths, particularly those in state custody. That office is a “watchdog,” Winters said. 

And DCF leaders noted that the process involves two stakeholder groups, the state’s Council for Equitable Youth Justice and another group created by statute specifically to advise the state on the development of the new facility. That, they said, will improve transparency and accountability about operations at the site. 

“We have an opportunity to do something restorative here on a site where some horrible things happened,” Winters said. “We can do it right this time.”