Former detainees sue Vt. DCF, allege mistreatment at Woodside

Published: Dec. 13, 2021 at 5:07 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Seven former Woodside detainees are suing the state of Vermont. Woodside is the former secure rehabilitation center in Essex for troubled youth. Now, several of them say they were abused at the hands of the state.

The federal lawsuit filed Monday alleges mistreatment and abuse of children in state custody at three facilities, including Woodside before it closed last year.

“The evidence is overwhelming and we’re prepared to present it to a jury,” attorney Brooks McArthur said.

McArthur filed a lawsuit against the Vermont Department for Children and Families following yearslong abuse allegations at the Woodside Rehabilitation Center, the Middlesex Adolescent Center and another facility in Tennessee where Vermont sent children.

Woodside opened its doors as a treatment and rehab facility following a gruesome murder and attempted murder in 1981 where the attackers were two teenage boys.

“They essentially ran what would be described as a really awful adult prison but it was where you placed kids,” McArthur said.

According to McArthur, children sent to the facility endured physical, mental and emotional abuse from staff between 2016 and 2020.

“It was the state’s duty to protect them. And they went to this facility and they were tortured and isolated,” McArthur said.

Those sent to Woodside were kids in state custody, under the age of 18, charged or convicted of a crime who needed secure placement.

“We’ve got to stop living in this la-la-land that pretends that the kids at Woodside were all innocent young kids who didn’t need a lot of help,” said Steve Howard, the executive director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association.

Howard says in some cases, those kids at Woodside were violent and created unsafe situations for the staff.

“Aa a result, acted out in a way that often required our members to use force to stabilize the situation,” Howard said.

This is not the first lawsuit filed against the state over treatment at Woodside. Back in 2019, a federal judge ordered the facility to reduce the use of solitary confinement and discipline kids less harshly.

We tried to ask DCF about these allegations but the department doesn’t comment on active lawsuits or litigation.

“What we’re suggesting is that the system needs to change. People can’t be treated like this,” McArthur said.

“You know it’s easy for them from the comfort of their luxury law offices in the coziness of a courtroom to say what should happen with a child who’s trying to injure themselves, or injure another child, or injure a worker,” Howard said.

Howard says lawmakers should take a step back and listen to recommendations from staff on the front lines about changes to services going forward.

It’s important to note that Woodside is now gone. The facility was razed and is going to become a step-down facility for adults in mental health treatment.

There is a proposal to build a small secure facility for minors in Newbury. The local development review board shot it down. The state is expected to appeal that decision.

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