Crime and Justice

State seeks more time to make ‘cultural change’ at Woodside

Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex. Photo by Mark Johnson/VTDigger

The state is asking for more time to implement the terms of a settlement reached more than three months ago over “dangerous conditions” at Vermont’s only juvenile detention. Officials cite the Covid-19 pandemic, talk of closure, and staff turnover as reasons for the delay.

“In terms of creating cultural change at the facility, which is the ultimate end both parties wish to see,” Assistant Attorney General David McLean wrote in a recent court filing, “the pandemic has hampered these efforts, much of the progress that had been made was lost.”

Disability Rights Vermont has argued in an earlier filing this month that the state violated a settlement agreement to its lawsuit over care of youth at the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex, including the use of restraints and seclusion practices.

McLean, in his filing, stated that to comply “fully” with the settlement terms the state is requesting “time to stabilize the program and implement the cultural change necessary to create a therapeutic environment at Woodside.”

A.J. Ruben, supervising attorney for the nonprofit organization that advocates for people with disabilities and mental health issues, said Tuesday there was nothing in the state’s latest filing to challenge the contention that the state has violated the agreement.

“They are not in compliance with the settlement agreement and that’s a problem,” Ruben said.

“Because the settlement was all about assuring the safety of the kids who were there,” he said, “we have ongoing concerns about that.”

Charity Clark, chief of staff for Attorney General TJ Donovan, declined comment on the office’s recent filing. “This is an ongoing matter, and, as such, the State relies on the papers filed in the case,” she wrote in email.

An agreement between the parties in April outlined steps the state would take, or continue to take, to improve conditions at Woodside, including training staff in using a national model regarding the use of de-escalation, restraints, and seclusion techniques.

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However, Disability Rights Vermont argued in a filing earlier this month that the state has violated that settlement, citing, in part, incidents that have occurred at the facilities since the settlement was reached, including one last month.

“Review of video from a June 29 incident involving two youth confirms that the same, or even more dangerous, pain-inflicting maneuvers that existed prior to this litigation were used again,” the filing from Disability Rights Vermont stated, “despite this Court’s Preliminary Injunction Order and Order approving the Settlement Agreement.”

Prior to the settlement agreement, federal Chief Judge Geoffrey Crawford had granted a preliminary injunction against DCF, calling a different video of a youth going through a crisis at the facility “horrific.” 

McLean, in the state’s response to the allegation it has broken the settlement, stated the Covid-19 pandemic had resulted in the juvenile detention center leaving the Essex facility to make way for the site to be used to care for psychiatric patients with Covid-19 symptoms.

That resulted in the detention center first moving to a St. Albans office, known as Suite 12, for a short period before it was determined that the facility was not secure enough following the escape of two youths. 

The detention center then moved to the Middlesex Therapeutic Community Residence, which had sent its residents to another facility as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

That site also proved not secure enough, leading to the juvenile detention center returning to its Essex home in May when the need for it to be used as psychiatric patients with Covid-19 symptoms didn’t materialize.

In addition to the recent frequent moves, McLean wrote, the Scott administration announced late last year plans to shutter the facility and contract out the services that had been provided there, citing the low number of youth in custody.

That announcement has led some staff to leave due to the uncertainty of the future of the facility, he added, and there has also been turnover in the leadership of the facility. 

Woodside’s interim director, Brenda Dawson, who started in that position in March had been placed on administrative leave, though officials wouldn’t say why, calling it a “personnel matter.”

As a result, Beth Sausville, who has been the family services district director in Bennington, is filling in as the Woodside director. Christine Johnson, DCF deputy commissioner, is also assisting.

DCF has also undertaken “refresher training” on the restraint model to ensure all staff understand the protocol, McLean wrote. Following that in-person training, McLean added, there will be bi-weekly video calls with the trainers and Woodside staff as a monthly onsite training.

“Actions are being taken to ensure that DCF complies fully with the terms of the Settlement Agreement,” the filing stated, adding later, “Defendants acknowledge that there are areas of serious concern that must be addressed immediately.”

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Alan J. Keays

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