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The Department for Children and Families said in an Oct. 11 court filing that it had discontinued the use of the “North Unit” at the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Colchester that had been used to keep residents in isolation for extended periods of time.

“DCF (the department) will remodel the North Unit into office and therapy space so that youth may receive mental health counseling outside their immediate housing area, which should create a more therapeutic environment for provision of mental health services,” wrote Assistant Vermont Attorney General David McLean, on behalf of DCF.

A clinician is being sought to lead Woodside for DCF, McLean said.

McLean noted that the Oct. 11 filing was in response to a lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Vermont, or DVRT, in June in federal court against DCF. Woodside, Vermont’s only state-run juvenile detention center, is run by DCF.

The federal court issued a preliminary injunction order on Aug. 9 that Woodside officials propose reforms in three areas: “the use of physical restraint, the use of long-term seclusion isolation and the treatment of residents who are experiencing a mental health crisis.”

The Oct. 11 filing also noted DCF had retained the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administration who had helped DCF set up a training on Sept. 3 at Woodside to address issues around the use of restraints.

DCF has also developed policies to determine when a resident should be transferred to a higher level psychiatric care facility, either when the resident arrives or if the resident’s mental health deteriorates.

The response from DVRT, written by attorney A.J. Ruben, noted that DCF officials were proposing changes that addressed the concerns raised by DVRT but faced an unusual challenge.

Since a hearing in the case in July, there have often been no more than three residents. On Oct. 16, two days before Ruben filed his response, there were three residents, one who had been there about 10 months and two who had been there about two months.

“While it is laudable that (DCF) have formally stopped using the North Unit and nearly eliminated the use of force, the extremely low census likely contributed to those outcomes,” Ruben wrote.

In his conclusion, Ruben noted those three residents were the only ones living at a 30-bed facility with an annual budget of $6 million.

He again called the changes made by DCF “positive signs” but said with the “ongoing lack of clear clinical oversight and authority, lack of a clearly implemented overarching mental health treatment model and lack of clear limits to isolation, seclusion and ability for Woodside to safely maintain children in the policies submitted to the court thus far” would lead to the repeat of many of the same concerns raised over the summer.

The federal government weighed in on future policies at Woodside, suggesting some of its policies that are part of the recently-enacted First Step Act may be helpful for the federal court to consider while considering the changes proposed by DCF.

The U.S Attorney’s Office, in a filing by Assistant U.S. Attorney Lauren Almquist Lively, asked the federal court to take note of policies.

“The United States has a long history of enforcing children’s constitutional rights under (the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act) …, including the rights of youth subjected to excessive isolation and thus has an interest in ensuring that (DCF) develop an isolation policy that is consistent with the constitutional rights of children at Woodside,” Lively wrote in the filing.

The First Step Act prohibits the use of isolation for any reason except “a temporary response to a covered juvenile’s behavior (which) poses serious and immediate risk of physical harm.”

The act calls for less restrictive measures to be used first and isolation to last no more than three hours. If the resident is still considered a threat after three hours, the resident must be transferred to another facility with other services available. Staff are not allowed to use consecutive periods of isolation that would “evade the spirit and purpose” of the act.

McLean filed another memo, incorporating some of the changes proposed by DVRT on Monday. McLean noted some small changes to the DCF proposal to ensure there would be no long-term isolation and that a policy on restraint would be put into place.

DCF has also proposed three options for replacing Woodside as required by the Legislature.

Officials from DCF and DVRT were scheduled on Tuesday to update the federal court on their progress toward reaching an agreement.

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