Crime and Justice

Disability Rights, state settle suit alleging ‘dangerous conditions’ at Woodside

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

The state has agreed to make changes to its treatment of youth in its custody as part of a settlement in a lawsuit alleging “excessive” use of restraints and “dangerous conditions” at Vermont’s only juvenile detention facility. 

The settlement resolves claims in the lawsuit brought last summer by Disability Rights Vermont against the state Department for Children and Families, which oversees the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex.

Through the lawsuit, the nonprofit organization, which advocates for people with disabilities and mental health issues, sought to end controversial restraint and seclusion practice at Woodside.

Federal Judge Geoffrey Crawford had already issued a preliminary injunction earlier in the case against DCF, ordering state officials in charge of Woodside to work with Disability Rights Vermont to make sweeping changes to its policies and practices there.

Now, officials with Disability Rights and the state have reached a settlement on the changes, leading to an agreement announced by the parties this week.

According to the parties, the changes include:

  • updating intake and screening practices at Woodside to ensure youth in need of mental health crisis service receiving appropriate care;
  • establishing protocols to deal with emergency safety situations;
  • and training, which has taken place, among the Woodside staff in a national model of de-escalation, restraint and seclusion techniques.

In addition, the settlement includes a review process of emergency situations and restraint practices for the next 18 months.

“We were very concerned about the treatment of the youth at Woodside when we started this litigation process,” Ed Paquin, Disability Rights executive director, said in a statement.

“We are more confident now that youth in Woodside programming will receive the appropriate mental health services and care going forward,” he added, “especially with the level of review that will be taking place over the next 18 months.”

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The settlement also calls for the state to pay $60,000 in attorney fees to Disability Rights Vermont for its cost in bringing the case.

The settlement comes at a time of great uncertainty for the future of Woodside, a 30-bed facility that opened more than three decades ago for youth between the ages of 10 and 18 adjudicated delinquent and often in need of mental health care. 

The Scott administration had proposed late last year closing the facility and contracting out the services that had been provided there, citing the dwindling number of youth served in the facility. For example, one day late last year there were no youth at the facility.

However, that plan has been slowed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The services that had been provided for youth at Woodside have recently been moved to the Middlesex Therapeutic Community Residence. That move took place so the Woodside facility could be used by the state Department of Mental Health as a treatment facility for Covid-19 positive adult psychiatric patients.

The state has said, though, that all the practices and policies that were created and updated for Woodside programming are being maintained at the Middlesex facility.

“We have done a lot of work on the programming and safety techniques at Woodside in collaboration with DRVT,” Ken Schatz, DCF commissioner, said in a statement.  “We are very proud of the work that has been done and of our dedicated staff who have embraced these changes.”

The lawsuit brought by Disability Rights Vermont alleged that youth there were held in “dangerous conditions,” subjected to “excessive” physical restraints, and in some cases, did not receive adequate mental health treatment.

In issuing a preliminary injunction against the state last summer, Judge Crawford wrote in his ruling about a “horrific” video he viewed as part of the case of a youth going through a crisis at the facility.

The incident captured in that video, the judge wrote, “demonstrates in the space of a few minutes Woodside’s limited ability to care for a child who is experiencing symptoms of serious mental illness.”

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Alan J. Keays

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