Almost a year after a family services worker reported being sexually assaulted by a youth she was supervising in a hotel room, Vermont still has no secure place to hold severely troubled youth who previously would have been in the now-closed Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center.
Since Woodside closed, the state has been attempting to open a suitable replacement but has been thwarted at every turn, either meeting local resistance or finding that places they looked at were not appropriate, according to Commissioner Sean Brown of the Department for Children and Families.
But leaders of the Vermont State Employees’ Association say that’s just not good enough, and demanded earlier this month that DCF open such a new lockup immediately. Under the interim plan DCF is using, kids whom they can’t immediately place in a licensed facility are taken to one of the apartments it rents for the purpose — or are held for hours in local police stations. When that happens, DCF’s family service workers are often called to sit with the youth for hours along with the police.
This, said Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association, means DCF workers are being asked to perform duties beyond their responsibility or training and face potential violence from the kids in their care, according to VTDigger, a nonprofit news organization based in Montpelier.
“It’s just not what a family service worker does. Their job is to rebuild families, to help make sure children are safe,” Howard said in an interview with WCAX.
The region’s justice-involved youth, many of whom needed mental health treatment, were housed at the secure facility before Woodside closed in 2020. The state and advocates agreed that the jail-like setting was not the right environment for these youth.
As the state works toward opening a replacement facility, VSEA is demanding the state hire retired law enforcement officers and former Woodside employees to help the DCF family service workers.
Commissioner Brown acknowledged at a state Senate hearing that DCF has an agreement with law enforcement that it will send agency workers to help officers look after children who might become violent in police stations or emergency rooms as they wait for proper placement.
Last year, Brown told legislators that justice-involved youth requiring a secure detention facility would be sent to the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, New Hampshire.
In Vermont, as in many other states, such challenges are nothing new. As states try to turn away from an institutionalization model and instead establish community-based treatment, local opposition makes it difficult.
In a presentation to the Senate Judiciary Committee, DCF officials noted that most youth in state custody are not locked up. As of September, 429 youth were in foster care, 352 were in “kinship care” with other family members and 128 were in residential care. Forty-one delinquent youth were in state custody, according to DCF’s presentation. This group comprises less than 4% of all youth in the state’s care.