Updated at 4:10 p.m.
Since Vermont’s lone juvenile detention center shut down in fall 2020, four minors have been detained in the state’s adult jails because there was no other juvenile facility to hold them, according to the Department for Children and Families. But child advocates say adult detention facilities have proven harmful to children and should no longer be an option for them.
Two weeks ago, a 15-year-old Bennington girl charged as an adult with aggravated assault using a weapon was locked up at Vermont’s only women’s prison after she was considered a threat to herself and to others.
The Department for Children and Families said there was no space for her at the Sununu Youth Services Center, in New Hampshire, which Vermont has been using since its own Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex closed in October 2020.
The Bennington Superior criminal court has scheduled a hearing Thursday to check on when the girl can be moved from the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility to the Sununu center. She is represented by the Office of the Defender General.
In the 20 months Woodside has been closed, DCF Commissioner Sean Brown said, three other minors charged as adults have been detained in Vermont’s adult correctional facilities due to a lack of beds at juvenile detention centers.
“It’s rare for this to happen,” Brown said in an interview. “We do have contracts. Unfortunately, with the workforce shortages created by the pandemic, the capacity across the system, whether in state or out of state, is strained at the moment.”
The American Civil Liberties Union asserts that minors do not belong in adult correctional facilities — and that it’s up to the state government to find an alternative arrangement if no juvenile detention center is available.
“It doesn't take a rocket scientist to find a separate place and put a guard outside of the door. It just doesn't have to be in a prison,” said Jay Diaz, general counsel at the ACLU of Vermont. “In all cases for a person who's under 18, it should never be in a prison.”
He said Vermont has had about five years to prepare alternative facilities for juveniles — since state leaders and advocates began discussing a bill to raise the age that would qualify a person’s case for juvenile court, rather than being heard in criminal court.
The bill, called Act 201, became law in 2018 and began implementation last summer. Under its provisions, the Department for Children and Families needs to determine appropriate secure and non-secure facilities for juvenile defendants placed in their custody.
“The state has had years to prepare for this possibility and doesn't have a plan in place to do anything, except apparently put a child into an adult prison,” Diaz said, referring to the 15-year-old Bennington girl. “Young people in prison, it really just becomes more of a training school for criminality.”
“She should not be in an adult prison. She should not have contact with adult prisoners or prison guards, for that matter, in a prison that is notorious for sexual misconduct allegations,” he said, citing a state-sponsored report in 2020 that documented complaints of sexual misconduct at Chittenden Correctional.
The Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based national research and policy group, said studies have shown that jails and prisons are unsafe for children. The dangers they face include the highest rates of sexual abuse among people who are incarcerated, as well as higher incidences of suicide due to factors such as being housed in isolation.
From the public safety standpoint, the Vera Institute said research shows that minors placed in adult facilities had high rates of reoffending in the years following their release — and exhibited an increase in risk levels.
“Even in the juvenile legal system, there's no evidence that incarcerating young people in secure facilities is effective for addressing the underlying behavior,” said Lindsay Rosenthal, the Vera Institute’s Director of the Initiative to End Girls’ Incarceration. “I think the better practice is to invest in community-based solutions.”
She said community-based solutions — programs that juveniles undertake while they’re living at home, with relatives or with a foster family — have been found to be more effective.
Among these solutions is diversion from punitive measures, which Rosenthal said comes in a variety of forms. They include family therapy for juveniles and their parents, behavioral therapy to address the young person’s mental health issues and mentorship with an adult who has gone through the same life challenges.
There’s also a restorative justice type of diversion, in which juveniles admit responsibility for their actions and meet with a board of community volunteers to complete a contract designed to repair the harm done to the victim and the larger community.
Rosenthal said these solutions are more effective at driving down rates of reoffending — known as recidivism — “because they focus on healing and relationships and accountability and connecting youth to the long-term supports that they need.”
Diaz, of the ACLU, sees the closure of Woodside as an overall positive.
“It has meant kids who didn't need to be in Woodside aren't going there,” he said, “and that was the vast, vast majority of kids who were placed there.”
Replacement for Woodside
Before the state shuttered Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center — in the wake of lawsuits alleging staff’s “excessive” use of restraints and a dwindling number of juveniles being housed there — the Department for Children and Families started making plans to open a juvenile facility for boys that would be run by a private nonprofit called Becket.
But plans for the six-bed facility, at a former bed-and-breakfast in Newbury, are currently in limbo. The Newbury Development Review Board denied the project a conditional-use permit last fall. An appeal by the state and the facility’s intended operator, named Vermont Permanency Initiative, is currently being heard in Vermont Superior Court. (The project has already secured an Act 250 permit, Brown said.)
The Newbury facility is expected to house up to six boys between the ages of 11 and 17.
If the court rules in favor of the state and Vermont Permanency Initiative, Brown said they’re expecting to open the facility this winter — before the Sununu center is slated to close in 2023.
Should the state’s appeal fail, Brown said his department’s backup plan is to set up a locked component within a proposed juvenile residential treatment center in Brattleboro.
Department officials earlier told state legislators they intended to lease space from the Windham County Sheriff’s Office to establish a “staff-secure facility” for three to four juveniles. Equipped with time delay-locks, it would be one security level lower than juvenile detention centers.
In an interview Monday, Brown said the Brattleboro space could incorporate a secure, locked area. “That was our intent,” he said. “There will be a staff-secure side and then also a smaller secure program.”
The state, meanwhile, has not publicized its plan for a new facility in Vermont for girls who need to be detained.
When asked in the interview about DCF’s secure-facility plan for girls, Brown said his department will be working with the Vermont Department of Corrections to identify such a location, in accordance with the work they’re directed to do under a brand-new law on juvenile proceedings.
“That work is happening this summer, and our report is due in December,” he said.
Marshall Pahl, deputy defender general and head of his agency’s juvenile division, told VTDigger that Woodside changed its policy in 2019 to stop accepting girls. The Department for Children and Families did not respond to VTDigger’s question on Wednesday afternoon about what led to the policy change.
Meanwhile, if Vermont needs to place a juvenile in a locked facility, the state sends the child to the 144-bed Sununu center in Manchester, New Hampshire.
The youth center, which the New Hampshire legislature last year ordered to close in March 2023, has been the target of a criminal investigation since 2019 over complaints that staff physically and sexually abused teens in their care, according to local media reports. Ten former workers at the Sununu center in Manchester and its Youth Detention Services Unit in Concord have been indicted on formal charges since last year.
Nearly 450 former residents have reportedly also sued the state of New Hampshire with allegations involving more than 150 staffers, spanning the years 1963 to 2018.
Brown said his department is aware of the accusations against the Sununu center, but said DCF staffers visited and evaluated the facility before entering into a contract with it.
“They've made significant changes since many of those allegations and concerns came to light,” Brown said. He added that DCF is “very involved” in the care of Vermont juveniles placed at the Sununu center and that department personnel visit the center at least once a month.
“As we would with a Vermont program, we really want stays to be as short as possible,” he said.
Brown said his department’s goal is to bring the juveniles back into their communities, where they can resume their routines, such as going to school and spending time with family and friends.
As of Monday, Brown said Vermont has four juveniles placed at the Sununu center. DCF hopes a bed will open up there for the 15-year-old Bennington girl by Friday.
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