Crime and Justice

Two youth escape from temporary Woodside facility

Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in 2017. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

This story was updated at 1:50 p.m.

Two youth escaped from the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center’s temporary location in St. Albans, according to state officials.

Speaking Tuesday before the House Human Services Committee, Ken Schatz, commissioner of the state Department for Children and Families, which oversees Woodside, said two young people escaped from the facility in recent days.

“There actually were two youth who escaped,” he said at the Tuesday afternoon meeting. “One of them is back in custody, the other is not.” 

Schatz said law enforcement had been notified.

Woodside’s operations were moved last week from a 30-bed facility in Essex where it had been for more than 30 years to a converted office space in St. Albans to make room at the Essex site for psychiatric patients with COVID-19 symptoms.

The two escaped from the facility in recent days, according to Steve Howard, the executive director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association, which represents workers at the facility. 

Howard said that the temporary facility lacks security infrastructure, including locks on windows and alarms on doors. 

“It looks like it was a doctors’ office or something,” Howard said of the St. Albans facility. “There’s no security, there’s no locks, the doors are glass. It’s not at all what the courts thought these kids needed.”

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Schatz could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday. However, the department issued a statement Wednesday afternoon in response to questions.

The statement provided background on the recent move to the St. Albans site and the search for a secure location, but barely touched on the escape of the youth from that facility.

“Within the state residential system of care for youth, staff-secure programs occasionally do have youth that leave the program without permission and law enforcement is called,” the statement read.

“We work closely with our community providers, including law enforcement to keep these youth safe,” the statement added. “Last week, two DCF youth left the program without permission and standard protocol of calling law enforcement was utilized.”

DCF said that three youth are currently at the St. Albans facility and five staff are on per shift. DCF did not comment on the status of the two youth, including whether they had returned to the facility, in the statement.

Schatz said during the Wednesday meeting that the current temporary site for the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in St. Albans isn’t working out and the search is on for a new location.

The St. Albans facility is not a secure detention facility, but instead is termed a staff-secure site, according to Schatz. 

“Frankly, we’re looking for another facility because we did think that we would be able to lock the doors and put alarms on the windows,” Schatz said. “But the landlord indicated we were not able to, so we’re quickly looking for a secure facility to stand up for this purpose.”

Howard has raised concerns about the St. Albans site since it was announced last week that Woodside would be moving its operations there, expressing concerns that it was not a secure location and the selection of the site failed to take into consideration input from those who work there.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the chair of the Senate Judiciary committee said that DCF needs to address the poor security at the St. Albans facility. 

“You either need to move to a different facility or get the windows and doors alarms,” Sears said. “It’s sort of like leaving your car in the parking lot with the keys in it and then being surprised somebody stole it.” 

But he said he doesn’t blame DCF for the escapes and said officials did “best thing they could” by moving to the St. Albans facility during the COVID-19 crisis. 

“These are uncharted times,” Sears said. 

“They’re trying to anticipate a huge problem and that is you might have emergency rooms and mental health centers with people with COVID-19 and what do you do with them?”

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