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State employees union calls for ‘state of emergency’ to handle juvenile detention

The union described a scene of “desperation” among staff caring for sometimes-violent youth in the justice system. But the defender general said the “reckless” proposal would only “inflame” the conversation.

By Lola Duffort October 27, 2023, 7:56 pm

The union representing Vermont state employees has called on Gov. Phil Scott to declare a state of emergency and deploy the National Guard to deal with the state’s shortage of adequate placements for justice-involved youth. 

The idea of bringing in the Guard was quickly dismissed as “not realistic or appropriate” by Scott’s office. And some officials who work on behalf of the children in state custody went further, arguing that such thinking is what got Vermont in trouble in the first place. 

But the union’s call for help nevertheless underscores the untenable situation both the children and adults in Vermont’s juvenile justice system find themselves in. Since shuttering the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in late 2020, Vermont has had no secure facility for justice-involved youth. At the time of its closure, the 30-bed Essex facility had been near empty and operating under the terms of a settlement agreement with Disability Rights Vermont, a nonprofit that had sued the state alleging “dangerous conditions” and an excessive use of restraints.

Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation
The Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex in September 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

And while the basic facts about what took place at Woodside have long been public knowledge, an investigation published Wednesday by Seven Days shed new light into the troubled facility’s brutal culture of punishment and control. In opening remarks to lawmakers at a Thursday hearing about the state’s post-Woodside plans, Chris Winters, who recently took over at the Department for Children and Families, said he wanted to address the “elephant in the room.”

“Woodside’s shadow still looms large over DCF,” he told the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee. “In everything we do — in trying to rebuild the system of care in a way that doesn’t repeat the mistakes that were made.”

Stakeholders widely agree that the status quo is not meeting the needs of children or the adults who supervise them. Some kids have ended up in adult prisons; others at out-of-state facilities with their own problematic history. While the state has put forward a plan for four smaller facilities to offer therapeutic services, they do not yet exist. One planned in Middlesex — a former psychiatric facility that the state is retrofitting to create four secure residential beds — won’t be ready until January at the earliest, according to state officials. Another in Newbury is tied up in litigation; the case awaits a decision from before the Vermont Supreme Court.

The present situation represents “a public safety crisis,” Steve Howard, the executive director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association, told lawmakers. Youths brought into the system are “essentially homeless,” he said, as front-line staff improvise alternatives.

Steve Howard
Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees Association, speaks at a press conference in 2020. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

“Desperation has set in. In the past few months, our members have reported to their union multiple incidents of near misses, where bad decisions, poor communication and a system that is overwhelmed narrowly missed a catastrophic outcome,” he said.

The National Guard could be called upon to help construct the necessary facility, he said — as it did during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic — but also to provide security for staff.

Trissie Casanova, who has worked for the Department for Children and Families worker for 20 years, testified that she has “never seen us in the crisis that we are in within our system of care.” Some youth are “organizing themselves” and “engaging in violent acts and the use of firearms,” she said. When law enforcement isn’t available to help provide security for particularly risky youth, she said, DCF either has to supervise that minor three-on-one or release them back into the community.

Matthew Bernstein, who was appointed in February to be Vermont’s first-ever child, youth and family advocate, diplomatically pushed back. While it was “quite clear that folks on the frontline care an immense amount and are putting their safety on the line to keep the kids safe,” he told lawmakers, the testimony he’d heard was “really concerning,” and he cautioned that “good policy” could not come from a place of panic. 

“We are headed down a path that makes this problem much, much worse; that does not make it better; that in fact makes kids worse, makes workers less safe and that costs us more and more money,” he said. 

Still, Bernstein said, much more work needs to be done. He argued that the state’s current plan, while an improvement, was thin on details and appeared to have been crafted without data about the services that children need. He also urged lawmakers to more robustly invest in preventative measures that keep children at home and out of institutional settings.

Defender General Matt Valerio in July 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

In an interview with VTDigger on Friday, Defender General Matt Valerio was even more critical of the union’s demand. While he’s not worried the National Guard might actually be deployed, floating such a proposal only serves to “inflame people regarding issues involving justice-involved youth,” he said.

“It’s reckless, to be honest,” he said.

And he contended that the danger on the ground is being overstated. In the years before Woodside’s closure, there were often only a handful of youth at the facility. Sometimes, there were none. Many of those who were at Woodside needed mental health treatment, he said, not confinement in a locked facility.

“This smacks of the stuff like the boot camps of the ’80s and the ‘Scared Straight’ programs — all of which, like, doubled the recidivism rate of youth who took them,” Valerio said. “This isn’t responsible and it’s not data-driven. It’s reactionary and ridiculous.”

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