In early June 2019, a teenage girl placed at Woodside, suffering from mental illness, was locked in solitary confinement, entirely naked. She was forced to the floor by staff while being recorded. This 17-year-old is now suing the state. Incidents like this involving the treatment of seriously mentally ill youth–the unnecessary, incorrect, and unconstitutional use of force and seclusion; and the six million dollars Vermont spends on Woodside yearly, are why many people, including Governor Phil Scott are in favor of closing Woodside, Vermont’s only juvenile rehabilitation and detention center.  The situation at Woodside raises the question: should at risk children be treated in a jail-like setting or in a therapeutic or community-based setting.

 Gov. Phil Scott’s administration is pushing to close Woodside in 2020. This would require approval from the Legislature. Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services says Vermont “has greatly increased community capacity where youth with mental health concerns can be treated in the least restrictive setting possible,” The work that has been done has “led to a significant decline in delinquent youth in custody” Smith said. 

Because the number of kids placed at Woodside has decreased so significantly, Vermont’s need for a secure treatment center has decreased. If Woodside were to close, out-of-state placements would be used for all youth in state custody. Vermont already sends some youth to out-of-state programs. 

Dawn Seibert is a defense attorney who works for Vermont Defender General. Seibert has been involved with Woodside for about two years. 

“I represent kids that are seeking to get out of Woodside,” she said, “both in administrative hearings at the jail and then also in family court.” 

“I’m that kid’s voice,” she says. “Say a kid is really really mentally ill and needs inpatient treatment or residential treatment, but he wants to go home: I’m that child’s voice in the system.” 

Most of the kids who end up at Woodside have pasts of severe abuse or neglect. Most of these kids are also legal orphans. Their parents no longer have rights, and they are in state custody. Vermont has limited options for these situations. Seibert attributes this to a lack of residential care for kids with serious mental illness. “Plan B is Woodside,” she says. “It’s supposed to be a secure treatment center,” but “on the continuum of treatment versus jail it functions on the jail half of the spectrum.” 

Housing mentally ill kids in a jail unequipped to deal with their needs has led to problems, including the state lawsuit. Woodside has been part of a federal court case for about a year. There have been numerous regulatory complaints, and both the Vermont Defender general, and Disabilities Rights Vermont have sued. 

Before the federal court case, Seibert had filed suit in state court on behalf of one of the residents, a seventeen-year-old, who had been “brutally restrained and injured.”  The restraint system used on this boy is the one that Jay Simmons director of Woodside created himself. Simmons called this “the dangerous behavior control techniques.” This technique includes kneeling on kids’ backs, which can cause them to asphyxiate and bending their arms in a 90-degree angle. This method of restraint in not nationally recognized according to Chief Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford. The case involving this youth, one of many, was dropped when he turned eighteen and was released from Woodside. The regulatory complaints and lawsuits suggest housing children in a jail setting is not the answer.

The issues at Woodside came into light about a year ago when an attorney working at Woodside at the time filed regulatory complaints “detailing instances of very violent restraints”. The complaint involved Woodside using pain compliance to subdue kids; they restrained without reason, as well as using segregation and isolation unnecessarily. These complaints were investigated by Woodside’s licensing agency, and found to be accurate. Seibert said that because Woodside had violated its licensing regulations the facility was given 40 days to come into compliance. Instead, Woodside denied that there was a problem with their practices. 

Seibert was unimpressed with Woodside’s response. “Your licensing agency was telling you that you were in violation,” she said, “and instead of taking responsibility and fixing the problems, they fought the violation, and they just denied that there was a problem.” This is what caused Vermont Defender General and Disabilities Rights Vermont to sue Woodside. 

Complicating matters is the cost to the state. Woodside has a six million dollar budget and a staff of sixty. In recent months it has housed an average of less than five youths at a time. On November 20th, 2019, that number dropped to zero for the first time since Woodside opened in 1986. This makes it hard for Seibert and others to justify the cost.

However, not everyone agrees with Woodside’s closing. Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association, is fighting for Woodside to remain open. “Kids are going to get piled up in emergency rooms when this whole system fails,” he says. 

Does Vermont need a secure treatment center of its own for youth? Or are the community-based options and out-of-state placements enough? 

Whether you are with the Scott administration or not, serious questions remain for the kids most affected by the decisions. A prison setting is not appropriate, but given the lack of treatment options, should Vermont construct a new secure treatment center? Can Woodside become that place if changes are made?  For Seibert, it’s clear the future should involve something other than a jail setting: 

My ultimate hope is that they close Woodside,” she said.“None of the kids need a jail.” 

 

Questions:

Is it important to enforce law on mentally ill youth? 

What would the best option for the community be?

What should be done with the kids who would be placed at Woodside if it were to close?