VSEA calls on state to open secure facility for teens to replace Woodside

Published: Jan. 5, 2022 at 6:16 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The Vermont State Employees’ Association is calling on the state to open a secure facility immediately to house troubled teens who were previously locked up at the now-closed Woodside juvenile rehabilitation center.

“It’s just not what a family service worker does. Their job is to rebuild families, to help make sure children are safe,” said Steve Howard, the executive director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association.

VSEA is the union representing state employees, including family service workers in the Department for Children and Families.

Howard says since Woodside closed in 2020, those workers have been called in to aid Vermont’s justice-involved youth in times of crisis.

“Kids are being warehoused in police stations chained to chairs while family service workers sit with them for hours at a time,” Howard said.

Before Woodside closed in 2020, those kids would have been held at the secure facility. But the state agreed with advocates that the jail-like nature of Woodside was not the right environment for troubled youth, many of whom need mental health treatment.

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.

“They also need folks who can make sure that-- if a situation does become violent-- that it can be brought under control. That’s not what family service workers do,” Howard said.

At a Senate hearing Wednesday, DCF Commissioner Sean Brown described steps that are being taken to try to fix the gaps in care, such as providing emergency funds to residential programs to house justice-involved teens.

Brown says the current strain on the system is more pandemic- and staffing-related, and not directly correlated to Woodside closing.

“I think it was the right decision to close Woodside when we did. We put resources in place to meet that need. What we didn’t anticipate was the pandemic and the impact it would have long term and the impact it’s still having,” Brown said.

Brown says there are only 42 delinquent youths in the custody of the department, around 4% of the children under DCF care. He says a vast majority of the need involves children who wouldn’t qualify for a secure facility anyway.

“Even if we had that facility open today, it would really not make an impact in many of the areas we’re seeing concerns,” Brown said.

The state is hoping to open a facility to replace Woodside in Newbury. Town planners rejected the state’s permit for that facility, which the state is appealing.

Brown says the state is working behind the scenes on an interim solution that could house justice-involved youth in the meantime.

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