A rare look inside Woodside

COLCHESTER, Vt. (WCAX) High-risk, dangerous: That's how state officials describe some of the kids at the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center. It was originally built for punishment. The state says that's not the case now. But the federal government sees it differently. So, we decided to see for ourselves. Our Darren Perron gives you a rare look inside Woodside.

Jay Simons admits the locked doors; head counts; cement walls; rigid, fixed furniture in what look like cells; and razor wire make it tough for this to feel like a residential treatment facility. But Woodside's director tried desperately to change that.

Reporter Darren Perron: So, it looks like a prison.
Jay Simons: It looks like a prison.
Darren Perron: How is it not a prison?
Jay Simons: It's not a prison because of the therapeutic components we put in place.

The feds don't see it that way. They've pulled about $3 million in funding from Woodside in Colchester, nearly half of the overall budget.

Darren Perron: Why did the feds pull the money?
Karen Shea/Vt. Department for Children and Families deputy commissioner: Because of their perception that Woodside was a detention facility.

The federal government doesn't fund state prisons. And they now classify the kids at Woodside as inmates. The facility sees about 130 admissions each year.

"They are not inmates," Shea said. "They are youth whose needs require that level of security and treatment."

We were not allowed to talk to the youth offenders at Woodside or show their faces. They are in the custody of DCF, not Corrections. And DCF says it's back is to the wall.

Many of the kids, ages 10-18, need treatment for behavior problems or addiction. But many also need to be locked up. They're dangerous, adjudicated of assault, arson, even murder. This is the state's only secure facility for delinquent children and teens.

"There is a need for a secure setting for youth who are a danger to themselves or others," Shea said.

But the aging facility, somewhat hidden off a dead end near Route 15, struggles to accommodate both detention and rehabilitation. It wasn't built for that.

Woodside got its start from a very dark place in the state's history, dubbed the end of innocence, after a horrific crime that shook Vermont to its core. In 1981, two 12-year-old girls were ambushed on their way home from school. They were raped, tortured and stabbed. One of the victims died. The other survived to identify the attackers: Louie Hamlin, 16, and Jamie Savage, 15. Hamlin remains in jail. But Savage served just three years under Vermont statute at the time. The youth offender law changed and the state built its first and only juvenile jail.

"We are a treatment facility," Simon said.

Simons says Woodside transformed over the years. Right now, students attend nearly eight hours of school a day, in some cases, one-on-one with teachers. There are group and individual therapy sessions, mindfulness practices, including yoga, and recreation like volleyball, often led by volunteers from local colleges.

It's difficult to measure success at Woodside. Recidivism isn't tracked like adult offenders. But the state points to positive surveys from kids, fewer readmissions and a decline in restraints and seclusion. There were about 50 incidents in 2015 compared to about eight this year.

"They try everything else first," Shea said.

"I like to think of the kids we serve as normal kids who have survived extraordinary circumstances," Simons said.

Simons says many of the kids here got a raw deal in life: abusive homes, victims themselves.

Darren Perron: Is there still a need for Woodside?
Karen Shea: I think that's a question our state grapples with. We'd really need to have a solid plan for how those kids would be kept safe and make communities safe, as well.

DCF is confident Vermont lawmakers will make up the lost federal funding again next year to keep Woodside going. It's also looking at what to do with the building, which might be the biggest barrier to that federal money. Should they tear it down and build anew or fix it to meet the criteria of a psychiatric care center? The price tags on either option might ultimately decide what, if anything, gets done.