Lawsuit alleges ‘conscience-shocking’ use of force at Vermont’s now-shuttered juvenile detention center
By Alan J. Keays December 13, 2021, 12:09 pm
Updated at 6:13 p.m.
A lawsuit filed on behalf of several youth who had been placed in Vermont’s now-closed juvenile detention center alleges widespread neglect, abuse and retaliation by employees who worked in those facilities and those in charge of overseeing them.
The legal action was filed Monday morning by attorneys Brooks McArthur and David Williams, who are representing six youths who had been housed in juvenile detention in Vermont. Another plaintiff is the administrator of the estate of a youth who had been at the facility but has since died of a drug overdose.
McArthur said Monday the lawsuit is a way to seek justice for the youths who were subjected to dehumanizing conditions and abusive conduct while in the state’s custody.
“These kids were the most vulnerable in the system with a significant history of trauma and they suffered at the hands of state employees who were charged with protecting them, caring for them, who instead tortured them,” McArthur said.
The lawsuit names more than a dozen defendants, including many people who worked at the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex. Its nine counts include claims of excessive force, cruel and unusual punishment, and retaliation against youths who reported abuse.
The lawsuit also names Ken Schatz, who was commissioner of the Vermont Department for Children and Families during the time of the allegations and has since stepped down from the post. Jay Simons, who was the director of the facility, was also named in the lawsuit. Simons still works for the department.
“As is the case with all lawsuits filed against the state of Vermont, the Attorney General’s Office is statutorily obligated to defend the state,” the Vermont attorney general’s office said in a Monday afternoon statement.
Charity Clark, chief of staff for Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan, referred comment Monday on the matter to DCF officials. An email and phone call on Monday seeking comment from Sean Brown, current DCF commissioner, were not returned.
The Scott administration closed Woodside in October 2020. Among the reasons cited for shuttering the 30-bed facility was the dwindling number of young people receiving services there, ranging from a handful to at times none at all.
The state had earlier faced a federal lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Vermont over the use of restraints at the facility. Federal Judge Geoffrey Crawford granted an injunction against the state, ordering corrective action.
The judge, in his ruling, wrote about a “horrific” video he viewed about a young person experiencing a crisis at Woodside.
The state has planned to replace Woodside with a smaller, privately run facility in Newbury, though that proposal has run into hurdles as the local Development Review Board rejected a permit for the facility.
The Scott administration has said it planned to appeal that denial.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.
The youths are identified in the lawsuit only by their initials.
“As a result of defendants’ outrageous, illegal, unconstitutional and unlawful conduct, plaintiffs suffered serious physical and psychological injuries, both temporary and permanent, and are entitled to compensatory damages resulting from those injuries,” the attorneys wrote in the lawsuit. They alleged the defendants used “objectively unreasonable, excessive, and conscience-shocking physical force.”
The lawsuit alleged that, between 2016 and 2020, youths detained at Woodside — and after that closed, the Middlesex Adolescent Center — were subject to “obscene abuse at the hands of state officials” responsible for their care and supervision.
“On a regular basis,” the lawsuit alleged, “vulnerable children, some of whom had been physically, mentally and/or sexually abused by caregivers before they were taken into state custody and sent to Woodside, were physically assaulted and sometimes stripped of their clothing by Woodside staff members who demanded compliance with their orders.”
Despite the court-ordered injunction, according to the lawsuit, the abuse of youth at the facility continued.
The lawsuit cited an internal investigation into the assault of one youth in April 2020 that revealed Simons, who had been the director at Woodside and later at the Middlesex facility, was sabotaging the adoption of new crisis management practices to show that what they were doing before the federal court action was appropriate.
The filing also alleged that the Department for Children and Families sent two of the youth to an out-of-state facility and disregarded reports of abuse.
The lawsuit describes experiences of several youths held at the North Unit at Woodside, where youths in isolation were kept.
One girl, identified only by her initials, was left naked for long periods of time in her cell in the North Unit, according to the lawsuit, with her clothing pulled off her by several male staff members converging on her and holding her down.
“This is especially concerning, as (the girl) is reported to have been raped some months before she was forcibly stripped by several male staff and then left naked in her cell,” the lawsuit stated.
In another instance, according to the lawsuit, “an EMT who responded to a call from Woodside to check (the girl) for a possible concussion called DCF’s child abuse hotline and reported that (she) was naked, covered in feces, urine and menstrual blood, and was nearing hypothermia.”
The lawsuit also refers to an email sent in 2018 by an unnamed juvenile public defender who stated the actions that person witnessed at Woodside, if done by a parent, would have resulted in removal of a child from that home and criminal prosecution.
“As a former DCF investigator, it takes a lot to shock and dismay me,” the email stated, according to the lawsuit. “I am shocked and dismayed at Woodside on a regular basis. Moreover, the lack of accountability for staff who hurt residents and perpetrate a culture of silence in the face of resident mistreatment is deeply troubling.”
The lawsuit also alleged that another girl was physically restrained by two staff members and dragged by her feet to her cell, with one of the staff members still on top of her.
In addition, the lawsuit claims that, when juvenile public defenders registered complaints about the conditions at Woodside, staff retaliated against the youths on whose behalf the complaints had been made, including interfering with their access to their attorney and pressuring one youth to sign notes to his lawyers to drop a court filing.
Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association, the union that represented Woodside workers, said Monday he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment on the allegations.
“There are a lot of lawyers from the comfort of their offices who think they know what is best,” Howard said. “They are not in a situation where a kid is actually going to harm themselves or others. It’s easy for them to say what should happen in those situations.”
Howard said that the lawsuit should have named top state officials, including Gov. Phil Scott, for their oversight and management of Woodside and the chaos they created in shuffling through numerous directors there over short periods of time and then closing it without having a replacement already in place in Vermont.
“Unlike previous administrations, the governor took action to close the facility, which the VSEA opposed, and reform the policies and facilities to address the needs of this population,” Jason Maulucci, Scott’s spokesperson, wrote in an email when asked for a response.
A phone call and email on Monday afternoon to a number and address believed to belong to Schatz, the former DCF commissioner, were not returned. Simons, former Woodside director, also did not respond to a message sent Monday afternoon to his state email address.