Jim Kenyon: Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center Should Fall by the Wayside

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 11/3/2018 11:36:24 PM
Modified: 11/3/2018 11:36:24 PM

Hidden in low-lying woods at the end of an unmarked road, the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Colchester has been Vermont’s dark secret.

Since its opening in the mid-1980s, the 30-bed facility has served as the state’s youth prison. But with its federal funding drying up, Woodside appears on the verge of shutting down.

None too soon.

Woodside was a rehabilitation center in name only. When I visited for the first time in 2015, a 12-foot-high wire fence around the perimeter was topped with spools of razor ribbon. At night, kids were locked into their rooms.

In 2006, a member of the Woodside staff attempted to physically restrain a 14-year-old boy with severe intellectual disabilities. The boy ended up with a broken wrist. Woodside waited three days before taking him to a doctor.

A report issued around the same time by the federally funded organization Disability Rights Vermont told of a teenage girl who was placed in leg irons and handcuffs for an hour until she consented to a strip search.

State law allows the Vermont Department for Children and Families to lock up kids at Woodside for lengthy periods without a judge’s approval and without the public ever finding out.

Some have assaulted relatives or teachers. Others have committed sex offenses or run afoul of drug laws.

Their offenses, however, are not always serious. In 2015, I wrote a two-part series about Woodside. At the time, Marshall Pahl, an attorney with the Vermont Defender General’s Office who represents juveniles, told me about a teenage girl who was having difficulties in her foster home and landed in Woodside after shoplifting a pair of sandals.

“Sometimes kids are put in there as a matter of bureaucratic convenience and not because they need to be in an incarcerated facility,” Pahl said when we talked on Friday.

In a development first reported by VtDigger last week, Vermont officials have abandoned their effort to persuade the federal government that Woodside is a psychiatric residential treatment facility — and not a detention center.

During Peter Shumlin’s tenure as governor, the state began to claim that since many of the kids held at Woodside came from low-income families or had mental health problems, they should qualify for federal Medicaid funds.

The strategy worked for a while. In 2014, Woodside collected more than $2 million from the feds.

Vermont’s funding scam — whoops, I mean plan — grabbed the attention of the National Juvenile Justice Network in Washington.

Almost overnight, the reform-minded organization reported, Woodside had gone from being primarily a detention center to a “residential treatment facility that provides in-patient psychiatric, mental health and substance abuse services in a secure setting for adolescents who have been adjudicated or charged with a delinquency or criminal act.”

Eventually, the feds caught on. “They’re willing to pay for a treatment facility for substance use, but not willing to pay for a correctional facility,” Vermont Secretary of Human Services Al Gobeille told VtDigger.

Pahl, who now is the state’s deputy defender general, wasn’t surprised the feds informed Vermont the jig was up. While mental health and substance abuse counseling services have improved in recent years, Woodside is still known for using physical restraints and solitary confinement to keep kids in line.

But I’m surprised by the feds’ timing. A facility that keeps troubled youths locked up seems to square nicely with the Trump administration’s draconian approach to criminal justice.

When I heard that Woodside might be closing, I thought of Sam Ramsey.

Ramsey, whom I’ve written about frequently, knows the inside of Woodside better than just about anyone.

He was 16 when the DCF sent him there in 2011, after five years in residential treatment centers for troubled youths with psychiatric illnesses.

At Woodside, Ramsey got into an altercation with a female counselor — a former prison guard — who had ordered him to change out of his denim pants and into gym shorts for a pickup basketball game.

Ramsey spent nearly seven months alone in a room with a bed, stainless steel toilet, sink and small window. Schoolwork and meals were brought to him. He was let out an hour a day to shower and call his mother, Kerrie, who lives in Windsor.

DCF eventually shipped him to another youth detention center in Georgia. Shortly after he turned 18, Ramsey began serving a three-year prison sentence for the assault.

On Friday, I called Ramsey, who has been out of prison since early 2017. He was getting ready to drive to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, where he works in the food court. His mother had shown him the story about Woodside’s impending closing.

“It’s about time,” he said. “When I was there, it was worse than adult prison.”

I’m not sure which is worse — that Vermont is willing to treat kids who need help like criminals or that Vermont is only willing to stop mistreating such kids when the feds say they’ll no longer help pay for it.

In any case, is it too much to hope that the likely closing of Woodside might lead the state to do the right thing — get these troubled and vulnerable kids the help they need?

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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