Since November, the Scott administration has been pushing to close the state’s only youth detention facility. But the fate of the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center is up to the Legislature, where lawmakers are just beginning to consider their options.
Ken Schatz, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, told members of the House Human Services Committee this week that the state is now only caring for between three and five high-need youth at a time. Woodside is a 30-bed facility with a roughly $6 million budget. State officials say they can save more than $3 million by closing it and contracting those services out.
But lawmakers questioned the department’s about-face: just last year, Schatz recommended that the state build a new treatment facility with a $23 million price tag. Plus, the decision makers have yet to hear from Woodside employees, who say it’s the state’s responsibility to provide quality care.
Some teachers, counselors and other Woodside staff, along with the Vermont State Employees’ Association, have their own suggestion: keep the facility open, but scale back its budget and staff. The group has drafted two proposals for converting Woodside to a 10-bed or 16-bed facility.
“It’s barebones,” said one teacher, Matt Messier. But he and others believe it’s the right way to maintain care for the youth that end up at the facility.
On this week’s podcast, VTDigger’s Alan Keays talks to Woodside employees about how they see the facility’s future, while Schatz makes the administration’s case to lawmakers.
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This week: The Scott administration is formalizing its proposal to close the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center, the state’s only youth detention facility. But it’s not up to them whether Woodside will close. The legislators who will make the final call are just beginning to consider the plan.
Keays: It’s down this road off the main road, and you go a little ways down and — it’s kind of isolated out there. Like, there are no other buildings that appear to be nearby. And it does have a prison-type feel to it. The doors are locked, you have to get buzzed in, every door you walk through you have to get buzzed through. So it’s a pretty secure setting that I’ve only experienced before in a prison.
Earlier this month, the state put out a request for proposals to shift the services provided at Woodside to an outside contractor. Our reporter Alan Keays traveled to the facility on Monday to talk to workers there about what that would mean for them.
Keays: Yes, if you want to go around and tell me your names and what you do here, that’d be great. How long have you been here?
Tony Bryce: My name is Tony Bryce. I’m a youth counselor, I’ve been here four years…
Keays: They teach classes during the day to youth who are there. There’s also youth counselors, there’s treatment providers, and there’s staff, you know, there’s a chef who provides the food, there’s people who operate the facility…
Like those people who are watching on a camera and buzzing you through each door as you enter?
What did you ask them? What did you want to know from them?
Keays: Well, just basically what they thought about the closing of Woodside, what they thought about the contracting of the services out.
Keays: So I guess for me, I mean they’re talking about closing Woodside, can we just start with what your thoughts are regarding that?
Alex Hodgetts: Yeah, I would say we were told in November the department and the agency plan to close Woodside down, in November. It kind of left us all little shook — especially with the notion that there hadn’t been, there was no solid plan at that point.
Keays: One of the persons I talked to you talked about how it came as a shock to him that the proposal came out to close the facility because he said, you know, it was just over a year ago that Commissioner Ken Schatz, was testifying before the Legislature and calling on them to move forward on a plan to build a new facility at the Woodside site that would better meet the needs of Vermont’s youth, it wouldn’t be the kind of prison-like setting that’s currently there, but that the state still would have a role in working with these youth.
Hodgetts: The state response to our question of what happens to the kids was kind of like, ‘well, we haven’t figured that out yet.’ So for those of us who have dedicated our lives to making sure that these kids that are, you know, forgotten about in many cases, this is the best the state has to give — it’s kind of shocking that they would have a plan to close this down with no follow-up plan to care for the kids that we provide service for.
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Keays: And the people I talked to talked about the passion they had for the work that they did. They talked about the connections that they’ve had with youth over the years.
Bryce: We actually build kids up here. And there’s a lot of experience here. You have former coaches, former teachers, people that have worked in corrections that came here because they’d rather work with youth. We spend hours sitting and listening to these kids. We work with these kids. These kids call us up and want to talk to us by name, because they know we C-A-R-E about them. And we do.
Why do they believe that moving these services to some other provider wouldn’t be in the best interest of the youth who are housed there?
Keays: They talked about having the lack of state oversight of such a program or facility. They also talked about the fact that the state has a responsibility to care for its youth and to provide these services to the youth, that putting it out to bid is kind of shirking that responsibility that the state has no matter what the cost is, even if it is more expensive to do it that way.
Hodgetts: You know, my first day here I worked with a kid who, he was getting restrained multiple times a day for months, and he was, you know, had all sorts of problems. Extensive trauma, abuse history, really hired a bunch of people specifically to come in and support the kids more. That was a little bit more expensive. But right now, my understanding is that he is — you know, he turned 18, he’s out of the system, and as far as I know, isn’t doing crimes or assaulting people. And that, really, he stopped doing that here. He started to learn to trust people here.
Bryce: People in Montpelier have got to make up their mind. On one side of their mouth, they say they want to save money. On the other side, what’s good for the kids is what matters. And the route they’re going, I don’t agree with in terms of that being the best route for the kids. And I’ve shared that with Mr. Schatz.
We’ve been hearing since last December that the Scott administration wants to close this facility. Why?
Keays: Well, that followed about a week after news came out that there had been no youth at the facility for a period of time. They want to close it because they’re saying that they’re just not seeing the numbers of youth in need of services that Woodside provides. The workers there told me that they were only zero youth there for a matter of hours, like less than a day, but the numbers certainly have been declining. The facility has 30 beds. And for a period of time, maybe a year ago, it had maybe you know 10 to 15. But that number had started to fall to five or less.
And they’re saying that just having a 30-bed facility is just overkill — they’re just spending money they don’t need to spend?
Keays: Yeah. And they’re also saying that the facility is not built for the needs of the youth in Vermont. It’s a 30-secure bed facility. And the number of secure beds that they need in Vermont, they say is much less than that. So there have been proposals in the past to have, or at least talked about having a facility that’s either some secure beds and some therapeutic beds and splitting them up or doing them in different combinations. But this is 30 secure beds.
On Wednesday, the House Human Services Committee heard from Ken Schatz, the commissioner of the state department that runs Woodside.
Schatz: I’m the commissioner of the Department for Children and Families…
It’s written into law that the Department for Children and Families, or DCF, runs Woodside — which means that in order to close the facility, they need the Legislature to change that law, and approve a budget that accounts for it.
Schatz: The recommendation that we’ve made to close Woodside is certainly a significant part of the budget proposal.
Schatz told the committee this decline in the number of people housed at Woodside is consistent with the national trend.
Schatz: So I want to emphasize again how good news this is. I don’t want to lose sight of the fact, again, that this is a reflection of I think a lot of positive things happening in our communities, positive things happening in our families, positive things happening with our youth. The reality is that part of what we are seeing is a significant reduction in youth crime.
He said the department has expanded capacity at other facilities around the state. And while these don’t provide the same level of security as Woodside, some young people that don’t need those restrictions have been able to move elsewhere.
Schatz: One of the things to recognize is that our system of care is built on both short-term and longer-term placement. So the answer would be, I don’t believe we necessarily need the large 30-bed facility that is Woodside to provide that particular purpose. So that the point would be, we do have several of these programs in communities that provide stabilization.
That leaves a need that’s much less than it was just a few years ago.
Keays: The commissioner mentioned that there’d be at least a need for between three and five of those beds in Vermont. And where those beds come from seem to be still an open question as a result of waiting for those big responses to come back to see what the proposals are. So there will be a need for secure setting for youth somewhere in Vermont.
Let’s talk about the reception that this proposal is getting in the Legislature. I know it’s early in that process, but what do we know about how lawmakers are looking at this proposal to close Woodside and contract out these services?
Keays: There certainly are lawmakers who support the proposal because the budget numbers they say just don’t make sense at $6 million to care for an average of less than five youth. But there are others who still have questions about the kind of quick-changing position by the administration to move forward with closing it — because it was only, like I said, a year ago, that they were recommending a new facility to provide a lot of the services in a more therapeutic setting than the prison setting that exists at Woodside.
Rep. Theresa Wood: So I guess I’m a little confused. You know, about a year ago, the administration was here recommending that we build a new facility to improve the status of our ability to provide care and treatment for delinquent youth. And, you know, really just about 12 months later, you’re saying we don’t need that.
That’s Representative Theresa Wood. In response, Schatz reiterated that the department is just responding to the decreased demand for Woodside’s services.
Schatz: The reality was we did do this report, and what we looked at were several choices. And the reality is, I will be straightforward about it, that I have changed my recommendation because the numbers have changed.
Schatz said they looked at other options, like building a smaller facility similar to Woodside. But ultimately, this plan to close Woodside and find those secure beds elsewhere made the most sense.
Schatz: So again, we do recognize that we need three to five secure beds, that to meet the need for that relatively small population of young people who need that significant level of supervision. So that’s the genesis for this recommendation.
But while DCF waits for proposals on that, state employees have their own recommendation: Keep Woodside open, just scale it back.
Bryce: We shaved down the staff. And we don’t feel good about shaving down the staffing because of how we operate here, and if you shave down the staffing, you’re not going to be able to do the kind of treatment we were just talking about — as far as one-on-one, seclusion…Things may have to change if you don’t have enough staff.
Keays: They talked about having kind of a scaled down version of Woodside. Rather than a 30-bed facility, they talked about a 16-bed facility with eight therapeutic beds, more treatment-focused, and eight secure beds at the facility. And that would be about a $4 million annual budget. Currently, the budget for Woodside is over $6 million.
Bryce: It’s not ideal staffing. I mean, it’s like the bare bones. And again, I would think with that kind of staffing, you have to make adjustments as to how we do things, which is not ideal either.
Keays: And they also talked about a another proposal for 10, kind of stabilization, short-term secure bed facility. And that would be for youth, no long-term stays, but stays of under 30 days.
Can both of these be done with the current facility?
So they’re saying these might be ways to keep this facility open, have people keep their jobs, but still reach some of those savings that the state wants to see.
Keays: And they also talk about having state control and state oversight over the youth who are served at Woodside.
I feel like when the news first came down last year that the administration wanted to close Woodside, that it got a lot of attention. And I just kind of think it’s interesting because it’s like a facility that your average Vermonter does not interact with on a day-to-day basis, right?
Keays: It’s certainly not see-it-from-the-road, it’s really well-hidden.
So I wonder: Why is this something that people should care about, the fate of this one treatment facility?
Keays: Well, I guess it’s because it’s the one place in Vermont where youth can go to get the services that are provided there. They have to accept them. There’s no other alternative. It’s kind of like — certain programs, Vermont community-based programs that a person or youth could be removed from or taken out of, for various reasons…But this is a facility that is the one that has to accept them.
But also, Woodside has not been without controversy in recent years for its treatment of youth. Groups such as the Defender General’s Office here in Vermont, and Disability Rights Vermont, have brought lawsuits against Woodside and the state regarding the treatment of youth at the facility, and the use of restraints and seclusion and isolation procedures. In August, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against Woodside that ordered changes to some of their practices there, including the use of restraints.
How’s that had an effect on this conversation around the fate of the facility?
Keays: I don’t know how much of an effect it has had. But it certainly has resulted in some questions about what type of care is provided at Woodside. But the state has defended its actions in Woodside against the lawsuits and have said that they’ve tried to do their best regarding the use of restraints and isolation and seclusion. So the state has defended its actions all the way leading up to the point of announcing the closing.
So what are you watching for next, as all this plays out?
Keays: Well, I guess I’ll be watching for what the responses are that come in for the bids. That’s due next month, I believe. I’m waiting to see who bids on it, what the proposals are, how would they provide those secure settings? And where would that secure setting be? And also, what are the costs that are included in those bids? That’s kind of the next step, I think in the process.
Thanks for taking the time.
Keays: Thank you.
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