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State to pay $4.5M to settle lawsuit over ‘conscience-shocking’ use of force at Woodside juvenile facility

By Alan J. Keays February 15, 2023, 10:54 am

Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in 2017. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

A federal lawsuit brought on behalf of seven youths placed in Vermont’s now-closed juvenile detention center, alleging widespread abuse and neglect by employees and supervisors, has been settled with the state for $4.5 million, according to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

The lawsuit was filed in December 2021, naming more than a dozen defendants, including people who worked at the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex. The lawsuit also named Ken Schatz, who was commissioner of the Vermont Department for Children and Families during the time of the alleged misconduct and has since stepped down from the post. 

The lawsuit’s nine counts included claims of excessive force, cruel and unusual punishment, and retaliation against youths who reported abuse.

Six youth plaintiffs, identified only by their initials, were represented by attorneys Brooks McArthur and David Williams. Another plaintiff is the administrator of the estate of a young person who had been at the facility but later died of a drug overdose.

McArthur said the settlement includes no admission of wrongdoing on behalf of the state, which was represented by the Vermont Attorney General’s Office. McArthur declined to share a copy of the agreement. The Attorney General’s Office said it would release a copy after the court formally closes the case.

In a separate statement on Wednesday, the office said it was “pleased that it was able to reach an agreement with plaintiffs’ counsel on behalf of the State. We hope that this settlement will provide some sense of closure to everyone involved.”

A spokesperson representing the Department for Children and Families deferred comment on the settlement to the attorney general. 

Attempts to reach Schatz and Jay Simons, a former Woodside director, on Wednesday were not successful. Simons now works as the Department for Children and Families’ district director in Newport, according to information from the Agency of Human Services.

Jason Maulucci, a spokesperson for Gov. Phil Scott, said in an email that the governor believed the settlement was “reasonable” and that he “appreciates” the work of all the parties. 

“We hope that the settlement helps the plaintiffs move forward and build productive futures,” Maulucci wrote.

McArthur praised state officials for reaching the agreement, including Susanne Young, who was serving as attorney general late last year when the settlement was negotiated; Charity Clark, who took office early this year; and Scott. 

Final releases were signed this week, McArthur said, and the money — minus costs such as attorneys’ fees — will be evenly split among each of the plaintiffs.

“It’s good for them because it puts them in a position where they have a more favorable future,” he said. “Releases have been signed and it will be paid in the next couple of weeks.”  

The plaintiffs’ attorneys alleged in the lawsuit that the defendants used “objectively unreasonable, excessive, and conscience-shocking physical force.”

“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 court filings.

The lawsuit alleged that between 2016 and 2020, youths detained at Woodside — and after it closed, at the Middlesex Adolescent Center — were subject to “obscene abuse at the hands of state officials” responsible for overseeing their care and supervision.

The lawsuit referenced an email sent in 2018 to Schatz by an unnamed public defender. The attorney wrote that the actions they witnessed at Woodside, if carried out by a parent, would have resulted in the child’s removal from the parent’s home and criminal prosecution.

“As a former DCF investigator, it takes a lot to shock and dismay me,” the attorney wrote, 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 cited a case in which an emergency medical technician who responded to Woodside to check on a young person for a possible concussion called DCF’s child abuse hotline and reported that the girl was naked, covered in feces, urine and menstrual blood, and was nearing hypothermia.

Woodside was closed 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 few to none at all.
The state had earlier faced a federal lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Vermont over the use of restraints at the facility. U.S. District Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford granted an injunction against the state, ordering corrective action. In his ruling, the judge referred to a video he viewed of a youth in crisis at the facility as “horrific.”

In an April 2020 settlement with Disability Rights Vermont, the state agreed to make changes in its treatment of youth in custody. Woodside was closed six months later.

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