Lawmakers, judge ask: If Woodside closes, where will delinquent youth stay?


No answers yet, but DCF seeking proposals for 5-15 beds

By Guy Page

December 17, 2019 – As the State of Vermont plans to close Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center, no plan currently exists to securely house Vermont’s juvenile delinquents. 

Lawmakers and state officials understand the problem of  “now what?”. They’re seeking solutions. That’s the upshot of testimony at today’s Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee at the Vermont State House. 

The problem arose after the State announced plans to close the 30-bed Woodside facility in Essex Junction, opened in 1984 in response to the horrific 1981 murder of 12-year-old Melissa Walbridge of Essex Junction by two local teenaged boys. At present, 20 juvenile delinquents are kept in secure out-of-state facilities – including Massachusetts facilities three hours away from central or northern Vermont. The state can legally house up to four 15-17 year-old youths in a secure section of the Marble Valley state prison in Rutland, but has zero instate secure options for youth under 15. The bed shortage will only get worse when a new law allowing 18-19 year old children to be treated as juveniles takes effect. 

House Corrections and Institutions Chair Alice Emmons (D-Springfield) cut to the chase: “Where are they going to be housed? By default, will they be in a correctional facility?”

“That’s the question the Legislature and administration need to answer as we finish the 2020-21 budget,” Senate Judiciary Chair Richard Sears (D-Bennington) answered. “If they’re not going to be in Woodside, they’re going to have to be in some kind….of residential facilty.” The Legislature must determine its response “if the Governor announces in his [January 2020] budget address that he is taking $6 million from the budget and allocating it somewhere else.”

Judge Brian Grearson agreed that apart from Marble Valley, no viable instate secure housing exists for delinquent children. He urged lawmakers to options to choose from. 

Vermont Department of Children and Families Commissioner Ken Schatz offered one possible solution: “The Vermont Department of Children and Families is soliciting proposals for 5-15 secure beds for difficult, violent children who cannot be housed and treated in existing mental health group homes.”  

Steve Howard of the Vermont State Employees Association, the state employees’ union, predicted that closing Woodside would have similar results to the closing of the Vermont State Hospital: patients struggling to adjust to life in the general public and seeking treatment in emergency rooms. He decried media coverage portraying poor treatment of youth at Woodside. These children have immense challenges and Woodside staff do a good job caring for them, he said. “It’s hard to see videos of staff members rushing in to save the lives of staff members under attack from residents. You won’t read about that in VT Digger,” Howard said. 

The administration’s plan to close Woodside shouldn’t be treated as a foregone conclusion, Howard said. The only question is whether Vermont youth will be treated in a state-run facility or in an outsourced location, likely out of state. “The administration’s proposal is about one thing – money. It’s only about the money.”

Vermont has a long and varied history of caring for delinquent children. 

The Vermont Reform School in Vergennes was built in 1874, according to UVM research. Construction of separate facilities for “discipline, correction, and rehabilitation” of youthful offenders in Vermont began after the Civil War; prior to 1865 children who broke the law were tried, convicted, and punished as adults. In 1900, the Reform School was renamed Vermont Industrial School, and in 1937 it was named “Weeks School” in honor of Governor John E. Weeks, a former trustee.

Sen. Sears, who worked with troubled youth for 35 years, provided an overview of Vermont’s care of delinquent children over the last half-century. He said he helped start an alternative facility in Bennington in 1971. When Weeks was closed in 1979, the state’s tough kids briefly were sent to a work camp in Benson, but that experiment didn’t work out. Washington County Mental Health briefly operated a securie, 4-8 bed facility at the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury. Sears called the facility, which was accessed through the dungeon-like tunnels in the state hospital basement, “one of the worst facilities I have ever been in.” Woodside opened in 1984. 

What should not happen, Sears said, is allowing children needing mental health treatment to be sponged off to secure but unequipped facilities. “It’s a sad state of affairs when we use the corrections department and the juvenile justice system to treat people with mental health issues, and it should stop,” he said.