ESSEX — Staff at the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center were notified Tuesday that the Scott administration will ask the General Assembly to close the facility next year.
In a statement, Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith cited a years-long decline in the number of youth at the facility and an increased capacity for acute care in Vermont’s communities.
“This Administration – through the Agency of Human Services – working with the legislature and community partners has greatly increased community capacity where youth with mental health concerns can be treated in the least restrictive setting possible. This work has led to a significant decline in delinquent youth in custody,” said Smith. “The steady decline of delinquent youth in State custody has impacted the population at Woodside, and over the last several months, the census at Woodside has been five or fewer youth. On Nov. 21, Woodside did not have a youth in the facility for the first time since its inception.”
“While Woodside has served a critical role in our continuum of care for delinquent youth for over 30 years, it has become clear that youth needs are changing, and we need to meet their changing needs,” stated Commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, Ken Schatz. “Youth have better outcomes through community-based settings where they remain connected to family and supports. DCF will continue to work with our community partners and will continue to grow capacity to meet the complex needs of acute youth in our care.”
The closure announcement follows a lawsuit by Disability Rights Vermont alleging mistreatment of youth at the facility. In August, Judge Geoffrey Crawford issued a preliminary injunction requiring Woodside to immediately adopt a nationally recognized standard for restraining youth.
Prior to issuing his ruling, Crawford reviewed video of three boys restrained at Woodside. He described multiple adult men restraining a single youth, concluding, “The court is satisfied that the emotional harm alleged is irreparable both in the sense that it is not readily compensated by money damages, and that the harm caused by the misuse of force resolves slowly and not always fully. The parties agree that youth admitted to Woodside have frequently been subjected to prior abuse and that they are particularly vulnerable to mistreatment.
“The violence depicted on the video exhibit is intense and long in duration.”
At another point in his ruling, Crawford describes the use of restraint he reviewed as “prolonged, chaotic and featur[ing] considerable violence.”
Woodside was also ordered to present the court with a new policy to reduce the use of seclusion and address deficiencies “such as toilet flushing and access to bedding and fresh water not less then ten days before the next hearing.”
Crawford found that Woodside was keeping its young residents in isolation for days, weeks, even months at a time.
Those in isolation are in a room with a toilet they cannot flush themselves, and which, Crawford found, often went unflushed by staff.
“Youth went without exercise, bedding and showers for days,” Crawford wrote. “Plaintiff’s experts were very credible in describing the harm caused by prolonged isolation of young people from their peers and normal activities of life.”
Woodside claimed isolation was a safe and effective way to provide intensive counseling. The counseling was provided by a staff person located outside the door.
The third issue in the injunction is the treatment of youth in mental health crises, particularly those at risk of suicide.
One of the videos reviewed by Crawford showed a girl naked in a tiled shower room, smeared with excrement, being subdued by a group of men in hazmat suits. Woodside was trying to transfer her to the University of Vermont Medical Center, which did not want to accept her.
“The use of four hooded male officers, clothed in hazmat suits, to subdue a naked young woman and force her to the floor beneath a plexiglass shield cannot represent an appropriate, professional response to her attempts to strangle herself with cords and fabric strips torn from her clothing,” Crawford wrote. “Instead, the segment shows staff responding to her dangerous behavior in a manner that was both too much and too little. The force employed was too much. The apparent absence of a considered, medically-directed plan of treatment for a person in the midst of a mental crisis was too little.”
“The treatment of this girl is entirely inappropriate and demonstrates in the space of a few minutes Woodside’s limited ability to care for a child who is experiencing symptoms of serious mental illness,” Crawford wrote.
At the conclusion of his statement regarding the closure, Smith said, “We are incredibly appreciative of the Woodside staff who have shown true dedication and devotion to the care of youth at Woodside. And we will be working collaboratively with the VSEA to support staff through this transition.”