For nearly 40 years, Vermont has gotten away with locking up troubled kids behind metal fences topped with spools of razor ribbon on a dead-end road in Chittenden County.
The state has justified the 30-bed Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Colchester by claiming it wasn’t just a matter of public safety — it was also for the kids’ own good.
At Woodside, which is run by the state’s Department for Children and Families, or DCF for short, the focus is on mental health and substance disorder treatment for juveniles judged “delinquent,” state officials say. Woodside, which is for youths ages 10 to 18, also provides schooling, they point out.
A few public service-minded lawyers, however, have argued for a while now that Woodside is a rehabilitation center in name only. After visiting in 2015 and interviewing former staff members, who asked not to be identified, I totally agreed — and still do.
Despite what many of Vermont’s elected officials would like the public to believe, Woodside operates like little more than a youth prison. It has a history of using solitary confinement and physical restraints, including handcuffs and leg irons, on kids battling mental health issues.
Ten years ago, Woodside’s 30 beds were filled most days. In more recent times, daily occupancy has ranged from between six and 16 youths. But in October, it was down to three.
On Wednesday, for the first time since it opened in the 1980s, the concrete fortress was empty — its one resident moved to a group home earlier that morning.
DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz told me the number of youths who require Woodside’s “level of supervision” is on the decline.
In 2016, DCF had 124 “delinquent” youths in its custody. In October, it had dropped to 59. Statewide, prosecutors and judges are dealing with fewer delinquent cases.
“We are seeing less delinquent behavior and violent behavior by youths,” Schatz told me. “That’s welcome news.”
But Schatz cautioned that DCF and the courts could find it necessary to bring Woodside back into service at any time.
Meanwhile, advocates for troubled youths are taking the empty beds as a sign of progress.
“It’s a really big deal,” Deputy Defender General Marshall Pahl, who has represented juveniles at Woodside for a decade, told Vermont Public Radio. “It’s been a combination of policy changes and law changes and then just individual litigation and advocacy on behalf of kids who are there to try to get them into more appropriate placements.”
The legal pressure applied by the Defender General’s Office and the federally funded organization Disability Rights Vermont to force Woodside to change its ways seems to have paid off.
In August, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against the state, requiring changes to Woodside’s policies on physical restraint and use of isolation.
U.S. District Judge Geoffrey Crawford said he had reviewed a “horrific” video that showed Woodside staff members restraining a teenage girl.
“The girl is completely naked. The girl is streaked with excrement,” Crawford wrote. “She is agitated and has moments of angry accusation followed by wild laughter. She is obviously in the midst of an acute mental crisis.”
The video “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,” the judge added.
I don’t doubt the judge’s ruling has made DCF think harder about what role — if any — Woodside should play in the state’s juvenile justice system.
Still, DCF is “not ready to make any recommendations” to the Legislature on Woodside’s future, Schatz said.
Disability Rights Vermont is working under the assumption the “facility will stay open,” said AJ Ruben, the organization’s supervising attorney.
If Woodside is to remain open, “new (restraint) practices and policies need to be in place,” Ruben said.
During this year’s legislative session, DCF officials met with lawmakers to talk about the state’s options. They ranged from not having any “juvie jail,” as troubled teens refer to Woodside, to building a new $23 million secure facility, which presumably would emphasize rehabilitation over punishment.
Does that mean lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott’s administration, prodded by juvenile advocacy groups, have figured out that locking up kids — Woodside-style — was a failed public policy?
That’s probably wishful thinking. The decision to move more troubled teens into group-home settings instead of warehousing them at Woodside has a lot to do with economics.
For years, the state passed Woodside off as a residential psychiatric treatment center. During Peter Shumlin’s six-year tenure as governor that began in 2011, the state claimed that since many of the youths held at Woodside came from low-income families or had mental health problems, they should qualify for federal Medicaid funds.
This allowed Vermont to qualify for roughly $3 million a year in federal money — half of Woodside’s budget.
By 2018, the feds had come to the realization, however, that Woodside’s mental health and substance abuse counseling services fell short of what could be considered comprehensive psychiatric care.
With federal funding drying up, it now falls upon elected officials in Montpelier to figure out out how to pay to keep the lights on at Woodside.
Or better yet, now that the place has gone dark, just don’t turn the lights back on.
Jim Kenyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.