Jim Kenyon: A Key Moment for Woodside ‘Juvie Jail’

  • 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: 1/12/2019 11:36:56 PM
Modified: 1/12/2019 11:36:55 PM

The teenage boy shuffled into the Rutland courthouse in handcuffs and shackles — his wrists and ankles fastened together by a chain looped around his waist.

He already had spent nearly two hours in the irons during the drive to Rutland from the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center — Vermont’s youth prison — in Colchester.

Kerrie Johnson, an attorney with the Vermont Defender General’s Office who was representing the juvenile, requested the restraints be removed for his court hearing.

She wasn’t asking for anything out of the ordinary. Courtroom decorum allows even people in custody to maintain a shred of dignity.

Just one problem: Woodside staff members couldn’t unlock the boy’s shackles. They had forgotten the key.

I learned about the October 2017 incident through a public records request to the Vermont Department for Children and Families. (DCF, as it’s known, oversees Woodside.) I asked for all “regulatory investigative reports” pertaining to Woodside in 2017 and 2018.

The reports outline complaints against Woodside — often filed by lawyers working on behalf of troubled kids — and the outcomes of any state investigations. (To protect juveniles, their names and what landed them in Woodside are redacted.)

The investigative reports indicate there’s a lot more wrong with Woodside than just a couple of staffers forgetting a key. The facility’s use of solitary confinement, for one. I’ll be writing more about that and what the future holds for Woodside over the next few months.

Since most of what goes on at Woodside is literally a state secret, the reports provide a rare glimpse into Vermont’s only locked facility for kids who have been judged “delinquent.” State law allows DCF to hold these kids, ages 10 to 17, at Woodside for lengthy periods without a judge’s approval and without the public ever finding out.

The 30-bed facility also houses youths who are awaiting their day in juvenile court, along with kids who have been convicted of crimes in adult court, but are too young to be incarcerated in the state’s adult prisons.

Many of the 130 or so kids a year who come through Woodside’s doors have histories of violence. But they also can be locked up for something as minor as shoplifting. Their stays range from a few days to a year or more. Inside Woodside, kids go to school and, if needed, receive treatment for their mental illnesses and substance abuse problems.

For years, DCF has passed Woodside off as a residential psychiatric treatment facility. This allowed the state to qualify for about $3 million a year in federal Medicaid money — half of Woodside’s budget.

But the feds finally figured out that Woodside, which opened in the mid-1980s, is not much more than a “juvie jail.” (The 12-foot-high wire fence around the perimeter topped with spools of razor ribbon might have been the first clue.)

Last fall, the state acknowledged the Medicaid jig was up. So without federal help, what’s next?

Gov. Phil Scott and legislators, who returned to Montpelier last week, have tough decisions ahead. Do they pump more state taxpayer money into Woodside to keep it as it is? Do they downsize to a smaller facility? Do they pay for more kids to be funneled to out-of-state facilities?

“It’s a huge problem, and it’s not going away,” state Sen. Dick Sears, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, told me at the Statehouse on Friday.

Lawmakers should start at square one, said Rep. Alice Emmons, a Springfield Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Corrections and Institution. “What we need to do this session is figure out what our (juvenile detainment) policy is going to be,” she said. “How do we want to take care of juveniles in a therapeutic setting?”

With the exception of the Defender General’s Office and Disability Rights Vermont, a federally funded organization, kids at Woodside haven’t had many champions over the years.

After the forgotten key incident, Johnson, the attorney with the Defender General’s Office, filed a grievance with DCF. Keeping the teen in shackles during his court hearing was “humiliating and prejudicial,” she argued.

Johnson also pointed out that if there had been an emergency — a fire at the courthouse or a car crash en route — the Woodside staff would have been unable to free him.

After looking into the matter, DCF’s Residential Licensing and Special Investigations Unit determined it was “clearly accidental” and Woodside management had “responded appropriately and ensured that staff is now properly trained.”

In an email, DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz told me that his administration is committed to improving conditions at Woodside. Last week, DCF assigned a “quality assurance and special investigator” to Woodside who will be responsible for assessing the facility to “ensure safe and appropriate treatment of youth.”

DCF also is hiring an outside consultant to make sure Woodside is using “evidence-informed approaches to de-escalation, restraint and seclusion practices,” Schatz said.

Sounds good on paper. What actually comes out of it will be key.

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

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