Crime and Justice

State plans to replace Woodside juvenile center with a private operation in Wells River

Architectural rendering of a six-bed juvenile treatment center proposed in Wells River on Oct. 29, 2020.

The Scott administration’s effort to replace the state-run juvenile detention center in Essex is advancing — officials are negotiating with a private contractor to run the operation, and for the first time its location has been revealed. 

The 280-acre site is home to a former bed-and-breakfast inn located in the Wells River section of Newbury, and is owned by Becket Family Services of Orford, New Hampshire.

State officials have been talking for months about contracting with Becket to provide the services to youths under age 18 that have been offered at the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center. However, officials have refused to say where the Becket facility would be located. That location was revealed for the first time on Thursday, at a combined meeting of the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee and Joint Child Protective Oversight Committee.

House and Senate members raised questions about the proposal, ranging from how it would be paid for to how people in Wells River would react to the news. 

Rather than take any action Thursday, the lawmakers agreed to meet again Nov. 12 to consider making a recommendation to the Legislative Joint Fiscal Committee on the proposal.

The state Agency of Human Services and the Department for Children and Families recommend renovating the Becket property in Wells River into a six-bed, “architecturally secure” residential treatment facility for juveniles.

The state would lease the building and the property from Becket, and DCF would negotiate another contract with the company to operate the center. 

Woodside costs about $6 million per year to operate. DCF estimates it will cost $3.1 million to renovate the Becket facility, and $3.8 million a year for Becket to run it.

“Woodside was really built as a correctional center. It was really a cold, hard, stark building and it really was not conducive to kids really advancing and getting their needs met,” Sean Brown, DCF commissioner, told lawmakers as he presented the proposal.

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“One of the things we’re trying to retain with Becket with this program,” he said, “is to try to maintain as much of the character and ambiance of that building that was a former bed-and-breakfast so that it is more like a home-like environment for youth.” 

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

The Scott administration has been pressing to find a replacement for Woodside for more than a year, citing, in part, the dwindling number of justice-involved youth receiving services at that 30-bed facility.

Those numbers had dropped to the low single digits in recent months, and currently the facility is shuttered, with no youths there at all, as DCF is no longer making placements there. 

Instead, the state has been placing justice-involved youth in community-based residential treatment programs in Vermont and, when needed, in New Hampshire’s Youth Development Center in Manchester.

The Wells River property was most recently home to the Vermont Assessment Center, which closed last month as the deal with the state progressed. 

According to a DCF report, the 280-acre property offers a “rural setting of forest and fields,” and is home to a building that was once a bed-and-breakfast inn.

“It has scenic views of the mountains and has a large pond with a network of wilderness trails and wildlife areas,” the 40-page report stated. “We feel the combination of the physical setting and the redesign of the building to accommodate a six-bed secure residence will provide a therapeutic environment where youth can grow, learn and thrive.”

Vermont Assessment Center had offered treatment services for adolescents, families and community stakeholders.

“This is really changing the youth that will be housed there,” Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield vice chair of the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee, said to Brown during Thursday’s meeting.

Brown replied that he had been in contact with the “leadership” in Wells River, informing them of the plans, and he plans to stay in touch. He said the site has no close neighbors and “is kind of set off by itself.”

“This property is located on a pretty rural location in Wells River, Newbury,” he said. “It’s on its own private road at the end of a dead end.”

State officials favoring the move away from Woodside point to a federal lawsuit brought in 2019. That lawsuit alleged the Woodside staff made excessive use of restraints on the juveniles held there. Another incident in June involving staff members — an incident termed “unacceptable” by state officials — has been under investigation 

The Vermont State Employees’ Association has strongly opposed contracting out the Woodside services to a private entity. 

Steve Howard, executive director of the state employees union, defended the people who worked at Woodside over the years and criticized “uncalled for” statements at Thursday’s meeting that he said blamed them for the problems at that facility.

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In recent years, Howard said, Woodside had four different leaders in six months. “It was not the workers who made those choices,” Howard said. 

Howard also questioned paying millions of dollars to an out-of-state company to provide services in Vermont. He said Becket has no experience running such a facility. 

“This proposal is privatization; it’s privatization pure and simple,” Howard said.

Deputy Defender General Marshall Pahl said he supports the Wells River plan, telling lawmakers it would be hard to imagine a more dramatic difference than between the Woodside facility and the one proposed. 

He referred to Woodside as a jail-like facility, while the new site in Wells River offers a more home-like setting for children.

“Just in terms of the environment alone, it will be a real change from what we will be coming from,” Pahl said.  

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Alan J. Keays

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