The Vermont Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday on whether the state Department for Children and Families should be allowed to open a new juvenile facility in Newbury.
The six-person facility is one of several Vermont has proposed to replace Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex, a juvenile detention facility that closed in 2020 after allegations of excessive force and overuse of restraints. The lack of juvenile beds statewide has led Vermont to send minors to adult detention facilities or to out-of-state juvenile facilities.
But the Newbury proposal has faced significant local opposition. In March, residents voted 601-56 to send a message to state lawmakers that they were against the facility opening at that site.
Some residents have said the location, a former bed-and-breakfast on a Class 4 dirt road, is too remote for the children to receive proper services, or expressed concern for the safety of nearby homes in a town with no police department.
The property is owned by the Vermont Permanency Initiative, which currently runs a high-needs school in Bennington and would contract with the Department for Children and Families to administer the Newbury facility.
The Newbury Development Review Board denied a permit for the facility in 2021, but a state environmental court judge reversed the denial in 2022. Newbury appealed that decision, bringing the case to the Vermont Supreme Court.
Tuesday’s arguments hinged on whether the facility should be defined as a “juvenile detention center” for children in the juvenile justice system or a “group home” for children with disabilities, which would limit the town zoning board’s right to prevent its development.
Assistant Attorney General Ryan Kane argued on behalf of the state that the facility would have a “normal” and “therapeutic” residential setting for children who have been involved in the juvenile justice system, but not been formally sentenced — making it fair to call the facility a group home.
Newbury’s attorney, James Barlow, said the facility would have significant security features, such as security cameras and barred windows, and children living there would be allowed to leave it only for medical care, indicating it should be defined as a detention center.
The Supreme Court justices asked questions of both attorneys, sometimes interrupting their arguments. They pondered the “broad” language of legislative statute on the definition of a group home, and whether a facility could serve a therapeutic purpose while having security measures in place.
The Supreme Court posts opinions and decisions on a rolling basis on its website.