Crime and Justice

11 Woodside workers under investigation for misconduct as facility faces closure

The Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex on Wednesday, Sept 16, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

More than a third of the staff at Vermont’s only juvenile detention center are under investigation for misconduct, a figure a key lawmaker called “amazing.” The disclosure comes as the move to close the center, which currently holds no juveniles, advances.

Sean Brown, commissioner of the state Department for Children and Families, told lawmakers last month that five employees were on “relief from duty” stemming from an incident occurring in late June involving a youth at the Woodside Juvenile Detention Center in Essex.

At a recent Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, Brown said the number of staff under investigation had jumped to 11.Brown told the panel that Woodside is approved for up to 50 positions to run the facility, with 20 of those spots vacant and 30 filled.

“Of the 30 filled positions, 11 of those staff are under investigation for misconduct,” the commissioner said.

“Of the 30 filled positions, 11, that’s like 35 percent are on paid administrative leave,” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington and committee chair. “That’s an amazing number.” 

“It is a high number and it’s a concerning number,” replied Brown, whose department oversees the Woodside facility.

Luciana DiRuocco, a DCF spokesperson, referred questions this week about the current status of the probe and of the workers under investigation to the state Department of Human Resources. Officials with that department could not be reached for comment.

News of the suspensions and investigations come as the state is working to shutter the 30-bed secure facility, and contract out the services provided there with a private company. 

The state is currently negotiating with Becket, a New Hampshire-based company, to operate a five-bed secure facility for youth in Vermont.

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The state has seen a decrease in recent months in the number of youth at the facility. Currently there are no youth there. 

Steve Howard, executive director of the  Vermont State Employees’ Association, the union representing state workers, questioned the motivations behind Brown’s recent testimony where he disclosed the 11 Woodside workers are under investigation.

“It’s maligning the reputation and the good name of the work of these employees at Woodside in order to achieve a privatization goal,” he said. 

The union is opposing the move to contract out the services. 

Howard said he heard Brown report the same information about the number of Woodside workers under investigation recently before another legislative committee. 

“The timing is suspect,” Howard said. “I don’t think, in these kinds of situations, this kind of stuff happens by accident.”

Howard called “throwing” that information out by the commissioner during testimony before lawmakers a “scorched earth, throw whatever grenades it takes” tactic by those, including Brown, pushing for privatization. 

“It doesn’t seem in line with even how the governor operates,” Howard said. 

Specific details of what has led to the suspensions and investigations at Woodside have not been made public, though Brown has used the word “unacceptable” to describe the conduct.

However, information from an ongoing court proceeding involving Woodside has provided some insight. 

Disability Rights Vermont, a nonprofit organization that advocates for people with disabilities and mental health issues, had taken the state to court in the summer of 2019 over the “dangerous” conditions at Woodside, particularly around the use of physical restraint and seclusion.

Federal Judge Geoffrey Crawford later issued a temporary injunction against the state, ordering that the new practices be implemented there. In that decision the judge cited a “horrific” video of a youth going through a mental health crisis at the facility. 

Disability Rights and the state then reached a settlement agreement this spring outlining specific steps that the state had to take to improve its practices at Woodside.

But, the organization claims the state has violated that agreement, and pointed to instances when new policies around the use of restraints were not followed. Among those instances, according to a Disability Rights court filing, is one that took place June 29 at Woodside. 

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“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,” that filing stated, “despite this Court’s Preliminary Injunction Order and Order approving the Settlement Agreement.”

Attorneys for Disability Rights and the state of Vermont took part this week in a federal court hearing in the case that took place over video.

A.J. Ruben, Disability Rights supervising attorney, told the judge that even though the state is hoping to close the Woodside facility by Oct. 1, it is not yet guaranteed that will happen. 

The initiative has received support from some lawmakers, though no final action has yet been taken. 

Also, even if negotiations with Becket prove successful, Brown has estimated it would take nine to 12 months to “stand up” that program. State officials, including Brown, have not yet revealed where the Becket facility would be located in Vermont. 

The state, according to Brown, has developed a plan to address the time between the closing of Woodside and the potential opening of the Becket facility in the state. That plan calls for placing justice-involved youth in community-based treatment programs in Vermont and, if warranted, in New Hampshire’s Youth Development Center.

Ruben told Judge Crawford during the court hearing this week that his organization is not yet ready to dismiss its case against the state.

“The short story is, it’s not over until the Legislature closes Woodside and the Legislature has not done that,” he said. “There is an effort on the part of the union to not close it.” 

Ruben added until that happens there is a chance that youth could still be placed at Woodside, and without the state adhering to the terms of the settlement those youth would be at risk of harm.

He asked Crawford to schedule another hearing in the case in mid-October.

“If the Legislature does statutorily close it, we will notify the court that it’s done and the case will be formally dismissed,” Ruben said. “But, if they haven’t closed it formally there is still a distinct danger that children would be placed back there.” 

Assistant Vermont Attorney General David McLean, representing DCF during the hearing, told the judge the plan remains to close the facility by Oct. 1. 

“The state is very committed to not placing any youth there from this point forward and intends to close it permanently,” McLean said, “The only issue at this point is developing the plan for the long term and the future and communicating that with the Legislature.” 

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Alan J. Keays

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